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Libraries have untapped potential to influence social policy and improve wellbeing

Source: Public Sector Executive Aug/Sept 2014

Dr Jenny Peachey, policy officer at the Carnegie UK Trust, explains how public libraries are reinventing themselves.

The vital link between libraries and learning has been well-established for more than a century. Libraries have a remarkable and proud legacy of widening equality of opportunity by providing access to knowledge, information and skills.

But as library services face increasing pressures on their budgets in the 21st century it is critical that we recognise and appreciate the essential contribution that libraries can make towards wider social policy goals, enhancing the wellbeing of individuals and communities.

At the Carnegie UK Trust we have a particular interest in the role of public libraries today. Our founder, Andrew Carnegie, is perhaps best-known for investing in public libraries in the UK, and the trust itself has a long history of supporting the library system.

We believe that there needs to be greater awareness amongst politicians and policy makers of the diverse and varied work being done by public libraries up and down the country and the untapped potential that public libraries have as cost-effective partners in improving quality of life amongst communities.

For example, consider how public libraries help individuals who are struggling financially: some libraries support small business start-ups, whilst others lend smart meters, run job clubs, or support digital inclusion through providing access to IT and support in using it.

‘Beat the recession roadshows’ are being held in libraries in Northern Ireland in association with Advice NI, Careers Service NI, CAB, NI Direct, Social Security Agency and Volunteer NI. Meanwhile, social relationships and individual wellbeing are enhanced by initiatives that range from Book Prescription Wales (a partnership between NHS and public libraries to help patients with mild to moderate mental health issues), to Cambridgeshire Libraries’ 2009 project to encourage people living with dementia to express themselves verbally with support from a poet.

Libraries can also aid learning among ‘hard-to-reach’ groups. For example, Cardiff Central Library runs a breakfast club for hostel residents to encourage them to come into the library and change perceptions of the library among some of most deprived. It includes a ‘Read Aloud’ session in which they are encouraged to read from the day’s paper to encourage literacy.

In a different vein, libraries can contribute to the cultural life of a community. Kirklees Libraries, Huddersfield, runs a cinema club in the library, with library members automatically becoming members of the cinema club. The library is run by Fresh Horizons, a social enterprise which employs over 70 people delivering a range of services across Kirklees.

Another example of libraries’ contribution to cultural activities is Northern Ireland’s appointment of a writer in residence for Creativity Month 2014. The writer, Brian McGilloway, visited libraries throughout Northern Ireland and ran workshops and clinics, with a view to encouraging others to develop their writing skills. All the events were free and designed to encourage and stimulate creativity.

It is clear from these examples that attempts to measure public libraries’ worth in terms of books borrowed and lent – as central and as valuable a service as this is – do not do justice to the wide range of activities that libraries are engaged in.

To help advance this debate, the Carnegie UK Trust has published a new advocacy resource called Speaking Volumes. It provides examples and case studies of public library activities that have an impact in four key policy areas – economic, social educational and cultural – and demonstrates how these directly contribute towards individual and community wellbeing.

We hope that Speaking Volumes will help those advocating for the continued relevance and value of public libraries by providing them with a reference point for the wide range of contributions libraries can make to society.

We also hope that the resource will support policy makers themselves to reassess the value of libraries and both appreciate and embrace their broader worth and potential.

The Speaking Volumes library information leaflet and the examples that sit behind the leaflet are available to download at the below link.

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