Arts Council England is developing a strategy for the next ten years. The Library Campaign has submitted our views as follows:
The Library Campaign, founded in 1984 and now a charity, is the sole national representative of library users, Friends groups and campaigners. We work with Unison and Campaign for the Book through the Speak Up For Libraries coalition.
Our own website (www.librarycampaign.com) serves a large number of members and non-members, eg by maintaining the only national list of library groups. We also publish the only national magazine on public libraries.
TLC believes strongly that the arts – across the full spectrum from literature to fine arts, the performance arts to digital media – are essential to wellbeing. In an age of austerity and increasing social division, they are more vital than ever.
We also believe that both enjoyment and active participation can be available to everyone regardless of age, income, disability or background.
Everyone should be able to find a life-enhancing arts medium that suits their needs and aspirations.
The keys are wide choice and easy, everyday access.
We are therefore very happy with the outcomes identified in the report ‘Shaping the next ten years’.
In particular, we fully support:
– widening the focus beyond a narrow definition of ‘the arts’;
– valuing diversity (in its widest sense) as a criterion for policy and funding;
– making a strong case for culture’s benefits in social, health and economic terms;
– investing in ‘the culture and creativity that are part of people’s everyday lives’;
– working closely with communities and tackling the barriers to participation in people of every background;
– helping people to ‘find and access a wide range of cultural activities’.
– better provision for children, young people and families.
We trust that ACE will now appreciate even more that public libraries are not just a peripheral addition to arts provision (possibly as extra venues), with added roles in business, economic and social health that sit uneasily with a purely ‘arts’ agenda.
On the contrary, they are key to ACE’s exciting new perception.
They are a massive resource, already at work in the areas identified, at local grassroots level, nationwide. Investment in the support they badly need will be a major contributor to ACE’s ten-year aspirations. Probably the largest single contributor.
We acknowledge – and welcome – the already increasing depth of ACE’s understanding of the role of public libraries.
Nicholas Serota made this clear in his blogpost on 9 October 2017 (ww.artscouncil.org.uk/blog/increasing-access-arts-and-culture-libraries): ‘The arts and cultural sector can perhaps learn from the way that libraries interact with their local communities.
‘Again and again, the public tells us that they see libraries as trusted spaces, that they are welcoming to everyone and offer a safe, creative environment where knowledge is respected – people don’t feel intimidated to enter them.
‘As a result, libraries can reach many different audiences…
‘I believe that our deeper relationship with libraries will increase the availability and quality of cultural activity in public libraries for communities around the country.’
Building on this, we would argue for a fundamental re-orientation of ACE’s attitude to public libraries.
Yes, they are a convenient and uniquely accessible venue for ACE-funded arts activities. But they are far more than this. They are the bedrock of the nation’s entire culture strategy. They underpin every other endeavour.
1. They foster the basic tools required for access to, and appreciation of, the arts – literacy, emotional literacy, digital literacy, information literacy – as well as more subtle enablers such as self-esteem and self-confidence, health, social cohesion, a sense of belonging, a sense of place, acquisition of skills, the knowledge required for the exercise of citizenship, the feeling one can have influence in one’s locality, even the ability to make a decent living or launch a business or arts project.
2. Despite recent devastating cuts, they remain far more widely provided than any other cultural resource. Many local authorities have no municipal theatre, museum or art gallery. They all have libraries. In many areas libraries are, quite simply, the sole local cultural resource.
Local libraries therefore function as an irreplaceable ‘first step’ to every other aspect of the arts.
It might be simply finding out what’s on locally (a major issue for many people). It might be taking part in an activity based on reading or crafts.
It might be borrowing play-sets or music for a local group. It might be being guided to access expensive online arts reference resources, or digitised arts and museum collections including the British Library’s.
The possibilities are endless. And access is free of charge, which is far less likely to be true of other culture facilities. This is of central importance.
Properly funded and staffed libraries, within a national network, enable simple one-step access from the smallest library to a wealth of resources, both digital and physical. No other neighbourhood facility can possibly provide all this.Children, students, people on low incomes, older people, people with poor English and many other disadvantaged groups can, at the very least, sample a wide choice of books to help them discover what interests them. They can read or study in peace, meet others and join in group activities if they wish to, and experience a civilised space that belongs to them and does not demand any payment from them. Libraries are the most accessible cultural venue for all population groups – BAME people in particular – and are seen by the public to be so. The popularity of libraries among families also enables the appreciation of a full cultural offer at a formative stage for young children. This is more important than ever, with the narrowing of the school curriculum.On this basic provision has been built – up to now – a rich layer of added activity that is ‘cultural’ in the very widest sense. Obviously libraries give free access to reading (and films). A wide choice of free material enables people to experiment, go beyond the mass market offer, find things they might not have expected to like, ideas that challenge.
This is underpinned by, for instance, pre-literacy sessions for small children and book clubs catering for all ages and abilities (from children and teens to people with mental health or other disabilities), and all kinds of reading (from poetry to manga, politics to sci-fi). Reading for pleasure has been proven time and again to confer major benefits in terms of educational attainment, empathy, mental health, etc. Talking about reading is a simple step into human connection and self-expression. It comes very high on the list of popular means for cultural participation. ACE has, up to now, dedicated far too little of its overall budget to literature, support for authors and events linked to literature. It is also widely perceived to have done too little to support libraries’ work in this area. This needs to be urgently reconsidered.Reading-based activities are just the beginning. The ACE-funded report ‘Libraries welcome everyone’ spells out the enormous range of activities available in libraries nationwide. These arise quite naturally out of libraries’ basic remit to educate and entertain, and to be available to all. They are successful in attracting a diverse range of people and bringing them together. The report also notes that ‘so much of this work is seen to be “everyday” (ie, not something special) that it often passes unrecognised’. This is a point that needs emphasising.Also worth emphasising is the ‘first step’ culture opportunities these activities offer. T S Eliot defined culture widely, and summarised it as ‘simply that which makes life worth living’. All library activities enable people to meet and communicate. ACE’s research shows a keen appetite in the sector, and among the public, to encourage diversity and inter-action between different cultural groups. Most also have an obvious creative element – drawing, writing, movement, craft work, etc. These can be built on, by developing and publishing or exhibiting the results. ACE’s research shows clearly that many people see ‘art’ mainly as classical music, ballet and opera – things that are ‘not for them’. The kind of simple, very local, informal activities offered by libraries are a first step for many people intimidated by the idea of ‘art’ or the thought of going into premises such as theatres or museums. It has to be noted, of course, that many people currently see libraries as ‘not for them’. But libraries are in a far better position than any other venues to counter such prejudices: a national campaign can publicise attractions that can then be found at local level by anyone, anywhere. (This unique attribute has been badly damaged by the proliferation of volunteer libraries, which cannot be guaranteed to make any nationally consistent offer, but it has not been completely destroyed.)Above the ‘everyday’ level, many library services still manage to run author visits, local book prizes (usually working with schools), and entire literature festivals. The library also can – and does – serve as a meeting space and as a default venue for arts and crafts activities, art exhibitions (by professional artists and local clubs) and performances of all kinds (ditto). Facilities for video and music creation, 3D printing and digital arts are a growing area. A number of libraries have developed an outstanding role as venues for music performances. Festivals small and large – often multi-ethnic and multi-media – are run by library services or individual libraries, sometimes with professional performers, sometimes with considerable input from volunteers and from local cultural groups. Local-level activities do much to counter the current imbalance in provision between London and the regions. This is something ACE could nurture and build on. They also make it much easier to incorporate local people’s ideas and contributions into what is offered. This is very much wanted by the public.All these activities foster opportunities for people to do their own creative work and perform or show it, at the library or more widely. This could be as simple as reading aloud in a group, or placing something you have created in a library exhibition or craft fair. It could be writing or performing, depending on what the library offers. As well as providing personal fulfilment and self-confidence, these outlets also contribute to the diversity of the local arts scene and can stimulate insights among other participants.Libraries are thus established as the nation’s single key arts resource – simply by doing what we all know they do. This needs to be properly acknowledged. This is not a power grab for the library sector. It is a concept that can offer a great many opportunities to the cultural sector in general.We do not need to spell out the extent of the recent destruction within the public library service. Hundreds of libraries have closed, or been handed to volunteers to run as best they can. The national network function has been badly damaged. Where they survive, more and more libraries are having to cut back on any activity beyond an irreducible core. Importantly, the loss of expert staff has severely diminished libraries’ power to help people find the information they need, or to run or host arts activities of any kind.ACE therefore needs to address the current emergency in public libraries – their everyday funding and functioning. This has not, so far, been the case.We would argue that ACE needs to adjust its vision and see libraries as central, and essential, to its whole approach to the arts. To discount (and oversee further reduction in) public libraries’ considerable role in the arts is to deny access to millions of people who will have no alternative resource. It is also to deny many exciting outlets, development opportunities and new audiences to arts bodies.We recognise that libraries’ statutory status may make it a little awkward to find ways to fund basic functions.
Nevertheless, the current unprecedented situation means it is no longer possible to avoid grasping this nettle.We suggest:
1. A major national publicity campaign to make the public aware of what libraries offer. Hugely successful projects have been run by the National Literacy trust (twice) and by The Reading Agency (Love libraries) – only to be abandoned.2. A major national publicity campaign to make decision-makers – national and local – similarly aware how libraries contribute to their agendas, not just ‘arts’ as such but the whole range of ‘that which makes life worth living’. We know attempts are regularly made in this area, but a much stronger approach is needed.3. An acknowledged role for, and support for, library users and campaigners as ACE’s partners. These are a massive resource of knowledge and ideas, should have a central role in developing policy and are a voice for libraries at local and national level that ACE sorely needs to back up its work.4. An acknowledged role for, and support for, frontline library staff as ACE’s partners. As above.5. Full, articulate support for the value of trained library staff, and specialist posts in arts, music, children’s work etc.
6. Grants to support special collections in art, music, drama.
7. ACE-funded posts for arts development officers in public libraries. This is merely a stratagem to enable librarians to continue doing what they have always been able to do as part of their job, but needs must.
8. ACE-funded posts for schools arts liaison in libraries. As above. We note that the need is greater than ever, with schools increasingly dropping arts provision under pressure to concentrate on ‘good’ exam results, while reading for pleasure is badly undermined by an over-analytical approach to reading and comprehension.
9. ACE-funded posts for arts outreach in libraries. As above.
10. Training in arts awareness, management and development for library staff.
11. Better access to arts contacts, and information on possible funding, via ACE. Libraries already function to some extent as chains of venues for touring performances and exhibitions. ACE could do much to strengthen this, for the benefit of both.
12. Acknowledgement by ACE that many libraries are very much in touch with their local arts scene, and actively develop budding writers and performers. Their experience and ‘finds’ should be valued and used.
13. A far larger proportion of ACE’s budget should be devoted to literature (currently a derisory 3.5%). In particular, far more funding for author visits, storytelling, books-related performances, poetry jams, local book prizes, literature festivals etc. Much of this would logically be channelled through libraries.
14. Far better use of existing knowledge and resources. In particular, MLA had a massive website with all kinds of information, from research results to reports of library projects – and evaluation of what worked, and why. This has been lost. We hope it is mothballed somewhere. It needs to be revived and made searchable.
15. Relevant further research. Top of the list is sensible evaluation of volunteer libraries. So far, research has concentrated on whether they are sustainable (Answer: we have no idea, they are all so different). Nothing has been done to find out how they match the functions of a properly staffed library – as libraries.
16. Proper use of CIPFA data. This is well known to be flawed in many ways, but can still be analysed to find out where – and how – library services flourish. A student on a recent short placement at the Taskforce has gained better value from the data than we have ever seen before. This could be followed by a (well-funded) peer review system to pass on knowledge, and distribute it widely.
17. Encouragement of easy methods to assess effectiveness of library-based activities across a wide spectrum of culture-and-wellbeing indicators, including development of the MLA Inspiring Learning for All evaluation framework. (We do, however, caution that asking questions of participants can add unwanted formality and intrusiveness in an environment that depends on being welcoming and informal.)
18. A checklist, possibly based on the Taskforce’s work in this area, to list what a full public library service should provide. This would be a useful tool for all services, and preserve awareness in volunteer libraries of what may be missing. Annotated with local information, it could serve the public as a guide to the full range of services they can access, especially if their starting point is a volunteer library. National standards would, obviously, be an even better tool.
19. A coherent national development plan, slotting together the work of disparate organisations such as ACE, CILIP, LC, TRA,Taskforce – like the Framework for the Future once used by the DCMS. Too often the different agencies seem each to want to have their own ‘vision’, ‘ambition’ or ‘offer’, leading to confusion and duplication.
20. More funding for library work in general – and a clearly articulated message that cuts to library services are endangering the whole basis of a civilised society.