Some libraries are better than others
Source: PSE Dec/Jan 16
Helen Milner, chief executive of Good Things Foundation, formerly the Tinder Foundation, expands on the organisation’s recent claims that protecting libraries at all costs could be holding the sector back, and that those which fail to serve communities need to close – with funding being channelled to those mindful of community needs instead.
At the end of October, I said something which shocked a few people. Although I had said it before, the article I published did cause something of a stir. I said that some libraries were better than others. And I said that if we wanted to protect the really good ones, then some of the empty or failing libraries should improve or even close.
It was heartening to see how many people came out in defence of libraries. Libraries clearly have many friends and I would definitely count myself amongst them. I love libraries – when they are fulfilling their potential.
The piece was in response to a debate in the House of Lords about libraries and bookshops. In it, publisher Baroness Rebuck cited libraries as key community ‘hubs’ where, alongside books, people can rely on other essential life services. I think lots of libraries do perform this function, but not all, and I think we can support the ones that don’t tend to be better.
At Good Things Foundation, we work on a day-to-day basis with lots of great community organisations – including great libraries – doing amazing things for local people. They’re called the Online Centres Network. And while what they do for us is in the nature of digital inclusion, they are also involved in literacy, adult education, community cohesion, health programmes, and much, much more.
Many ‘community hubs’ are suffering under austerity and, despite innovating around income generation, they are still struggling to make ends meet. And they are all having to do more for less to make things work for the communities they serve. They are not all getting a Lords debate, or extensive media coverage. That doesn’t seem very fair to me.
I do not want great libraries, or great community centres, to close their doors. And I am very aware of how hard many library staff, local authority staff, and community organisation staff are working – how much they are being asked to do with much smaller budgets.
But I do want us to talk about quality and relevance. I want us to look strategically at the bigger picture of what communities need and how they are being served.
What I’d like to see next is a national strategic development plan for libraries. I would like to see libraries given a mandate to put social inclusion at the heart of their services. And then I would like to see us celebrate and demonstrate the impact libraries have, so we can prove they’re so valuable that no one in their right mind would dare to shut another one.
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