The Role of Libraries in Well-Being in our Towns

July 2013

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Julian Dobson considers the important roles that libraries play in well-being in our towns.

It isn’t often you hear good news about libraries. But at the beginning of this year Huw Lewis, the minister for housing, regeneration and heritage, was fulsome in his praise of libraries in Wales. At a time when local authorities are facing increasing pressure to close or cut library services to save money, his support was heartening.


It was significant that he was speaking at the launch of a report demonstrating that far from being a specialist and increasingly obsolete service in a digital world, libraries play a vital role at the heart of local communities. The ‘First Incomplete Field Guide to Wellbeing in Libraries’, published by Wellbeing Wales, shows how libraries are supporting public health objectives, encouraging the development of young people and the independence of older people. Among the innovations highlighted is Book Prescription Wales, which links NHS treatment for people with mild or moderate psychological problems with ‘prescribed’ self-help books.


There is no room for complacency, though. Library services face the same financial squeeze across the UK, and in Wales the risks are higher because so many communities are relatively remote. Furthermore, library services will need to constantly innovate and adapt to meet new needs, and they are likely to have to do so on reduced budgets. CILIP, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, has already raised its concerns about a move towards ‘community-managed’ libraries staffed by volunteers.


One way forward for towns in Wales facing public service cuts and economic hardship on all sides would be to develop a local ‘information commons’. The name, used without apparent irony to describe Sheffield University’s ‘integrated learning environment’ which happens not to be open to the public, could be reclaimed and re-used for approaches that genuinely build common value. Closer links between local authorities and higher education could help libraries to offer a much richer mix of material, with electronic information licensed by academic institutions to public libraries and freely available through shared catalogues.


At central libraries in every town centre members of the public should be able to access library stock from academic and specialist institutions in line with local needs, prioritised so that those requiring physical copies of material for study or research aren’t disadvantaged.


Meanwhile at neighbourhood level or in rural communities a more informal mix of local libraries and community-supported ‘reading rooms’ (like Leeszaal Rotterdam West) and learning spaces might operate, drawing on ideas such as the Uni Project in New York, which turns public spaces into temporary libraries. These local experiments should be linked to the wider library network and with schools and colleges through fast broadband connections rather than operating in isolation.


The key, as Locality points out in recent research for Arts Council England, is to ask the strategic questions about the purpose and function of libraries, not just what physical premises and staffing levels can be maintained with a diminishing level of funding. What kind of material or facilities should be made available freely to the public and why?


What might a real information commons, preserving the principles of open public access and social benefit, look like? Just as the market town of Wooler in Northumberland has brought together the library and tourist information service in a community hub, local information commons around Wales could link a range of complementary services and facilities centred on existing library networks.


Many libraries already partner with education services, running classes and facilitating research; this could be expanded to host skill-sharing schemes such as Trade Schools, where people teach each other skills such as music or languages, or timebanking, where people exchange their time on the basis that one hour of, say, help with accountancy is worth one hour of help with cleaning or gardening.


More strategically, an information commons could bring together the library and post office network, instead of trying to turn post offices into catch-all general retailers, a trend that simply pitches them into cut-throat competition with the supermarket chains. Post offices are already exploring ways of providing local government services at branch counters and this public service function should underpin the development of the network.


A partnership between libraries and the Post Office could use library premises for postal facilities and council services including payments and information, in a setting that allows visitors to relax and browse while waiting for service at a counter, and which is flexible enough to adapt to new digital services without a major outlay on new or refurbished buildings. Community-based financial services, such as credit unions, could also operate from libraries, which could provide confidential spaces for financial education or debt counselling without the embarrassment of attending an advice centre.


A partnership between library and postal services acknowledges, too, that the local post office has a social as well as a commercial role and that its primary function is to provide a service to the public. As a Westminster parliamentary inquiry concluded in 2009, post offices serve as ‘an instrument of social cohesion’, offering spaces that are shared by the whole community.


As well as providing a viable future for post offices, a local information commons could use libraries as centres for reinventing local media.  While local newspapers are struggling, a plethora of ‘hyperlocal’ websites and community news networks has emerged in recent years. Many of these are individual bloggers and citizen journalists, passionate but often untrained and unresourced, doing their best to provide local information.


Few have found it possible to generate meaningful revenue from their activities, and frequently these local blogs vanish after a few years as the volunteers behind them become exhausted or move on. But as a study in 2010 showed, when they work well they provide a dimension to local information that did not exist before, and can enable people to feel more involved in their local community and take action to change things – or simply get together to enjoy shared interests with new friends and previously unknown neighbours.


Will Perrin, founder of the King’s Cross Environment blog, has argued for more co-operative relationships between these emerging information services and the BBC, with its fraying ethos of public service broadcasting and comprehensive coverage.


This could help create a collaborative and mutually supportive news network; relationships could also be developed with local radio, television and newspapers. As Perrin points out, we have moved from the days when every town had a local newspaper arguing trenchantly for local causes to a lucky-dip arrangement where numerous forms of media operate but none do so effectively.


Libraries won’t stop the decline and fragmentation of local media, but they could certainly help new media outlets to grow. Making libraries available to citizen journalists and hyperlocal media as a physical space where they can meet, conduct interviews, and share information could help to join up the advantages of online and physical communities and make emerging local media more accessible.


In an era where it is increasingly difficult to extract revenue from news, libraries could become a base for free and open sharing of news and intelligence. Video and recording studios in larger libraries could be made available to the public at low cost, enabling local people to tell their own stories or share creative content.


This combination of open access and adaptable physical space could give high street libraries a key role in democratising and localising a rapidly changing media landscape, using the power of digital technologies for the benefit of the locality.


By putting libraries at the heart of a new information commons, we could keep post offices running, help resurrect local media and keep our town centres alive. Shouldn’t this be on every town’s agenda?


This article has 2 comments

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Alan Southal26 July 2013


Julian, Your thought and ideas on this are very interesting, and something existing libraries should consider when planning for the future. The key is how we can connect all the dots, and ensure library managers engage with these ideas. How can we take this forward?

Dave Adamson30 July 2013


Thanks Julian for a reminder of the importance of libraries for all communities. It is no coincidence that in Wales local subscriptions were raised to build libraries and miner's institutes in recognition of the way that socially acquired knowledge was empowering for the individual and community. As a child my local library was a full counterbalance to the irrelevant grammar school education I received. Also important to note the innovation in library provision evident throughout the UK.


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