This October saw the launch of Libraries Week – a new annual initiative to encourage people to discover the diverse range of activities on offer in libraries across the UK.
A quick glance through #LibrariesMatter reveals numerous stories, displays, events, and debate about the role of libraries within local areas. Libraries Week facts and figures highlight that 3 out of 4 people view libraries as essential or very important to communities.
As part of a series of reports into the impact of public libraries on communities and people's lives, Renaisi was commissioned by Arts Council England to provide case studies that examined the role of libraries co-located with other services in community hubs. Our report - Libraries as community hubs: Case studies and learnings was published this summer.
There has been a considerable amount of research recently focussing on the ways in which libraries can adapt and support wider policy priorities and we were conscious that these did not need to be rehearsed again through the lens of co-location and community hubs.
We were also clear that our examples were not necessarily best practice, or the ideal solution for every library authority. Instead, we felt that it was important to provide a snapshot of what is happening in different library authorities at this point in time where decisions to co-locate libraries had been made.
The research involved visiting eight libraries in six different local authority areas, all of which were co-located alongside other services. They ranged from small service points in community centres, to a large town centre cultural community hub in a new iconic building. We also spoke to nearly a 100 people - building users, library users, library staff, staff in other services and managers - exploring the opportunities in co-location for libraries, as well as the practical challenges and trade-offs that might arise.
During the research we repeatedly heard about the value of libraries at the heart of communities providing trusted and welcoming spaces alongside other services. A recent quote from the novelist Matt Haig resonates: “Libraries aren't just about books. They are almost the only public space we have left which don't like our wallets more than us.”
However, there have been words of caution recently about ‘over-optimism’ in the way that libraries are represented, overlooking the reality of cuts and falling numbers of users. Undoubtedly, this is a danger for research in the library sector especially if the emphasis is on showcasing numerous positive examples. Reflecting on our community hubs report, there are a number of areas that could be explored further to help address this:
- Commissioning more research that provides practical insights into the realities of making changes on the ground – where the audience is those who will be making those decisions, and living through them – encouraging realistic optimism, rather than over-optimism.
- Our small sample size did not show any impact of co-location in terms of changes in visitor numbers or book borrowing – primarily because many co-locations involved smaller spaces than what had come before which made a meaningful comparison hard. However, this will be possible once new arrangements have been in place for a number of years and it is important to continue to interrogate these figures and understand usage patterns.
- There is a need to engage with lapsed library users and those who never access their local library – we need to improve our understanding of why the warm feeling many have about their library does not always translate into stepping inside it.
The Libraries Taskforce has published a list of its future research priorities, and we look forward to seeing this develop over the coming years.
Access our full report here: Libraries as community hubs: Case studies and learnings
Libraries support a range of agendas from health to the economy: they help to increase reading and literacy, improve digital access, and contribute to greater prosperity by supporting entrepreneurs and people seeking work. Libraries support lifelong learning, provide cultural and creative experiences and support research and innovation.