The following is by John Vincent who is a tireless campaigner for promoting social justice through public libraries. In 1997 he was invited to become part of the team that produced the UK’s first review of public libraries and social exclusion from which The Network originated.
John now runs courses and lectures, writes, produces regular newsletters and ebulletins, and lobbies for greater awareness of the role that libraries, archives and museums play in contributing to social justice, and is also the author of LGBT People and the UK Cultural Sector and along with John Pateman, Public Libraries and Social Justice. John was deservedly awarded a Honorary Fellowship for his work by Cilip this year.
What about social justice?
Leon and I bumped into each other at the CILIP “Big Day”, where we were celebrating the achievements of the three finalists for the CILIP Libraries Change Lives Award, and he invited me to write a piece about social justice and community libraries.
This seems an entirely appropriate moment to consider this issue, as, at the “Big Day”, we were urged by William Sieghart to go out and copy the work of the three outstanding finalists (the winners, Northamptonshire Library and Information Service and the Northamptonshire Enterprise Partnership Enterprise Hubs; and the finalists Hertfordshire Library Service and KidsHub library sessions, and Leeds Library Service Studio 12 – Writing Leeds) – William also declared that:
“We need to do something urgently. We’re at a Beeching moment – the review that led to the closure of railway branch lines – which many regret, and that’s why this is urgent.”
However, the one issue which William Sieghart’s talk seemed to gloss over was the role of libraries in working towards social justice!
An aside before we begin: some public libraries are working to tackle social exclusion, and have been doing so (albeit under different names) long before the introduction of the formal policy in 1997 – think, for example, of the community librarianship and outreach heydays of the 1970s and 1980s. However, it is also worth reminding ourselves that the research which led to Open to all? , published by the then Resource in 2000, demonstrated that:
“… there are wide differentials between UK public library authorities [PLAs] in terms of activity relevant to social inclusion:
- The survey estimates that only one-sixth of PLAs approximate to a comprehensive model of good practice for social inclusion. Most PLAs (60%), although having developed some initiatives, have no comprehensive strategy and uneven and intermittent activity. A final group of one-quarter of PLAs are those with little apparent strategy and service development
- Targeting of disadvantaged neighbourhoods and social groups is used comprehensively by only approximately one-third of PLAs. Recent service developments in libraries, such as the development of ICT networks and literacy initiatives, tend to be targeted at socially excluded people in only a small minority of cases
- Most PLAs report fairly high levels of community involvement by their staff but this tends to be at a general level, rather than focussed on disadvantage or exclusion
- Most PLAs have no consistent resource focus on exclusion, and this is sometimes very marginal indeed. A minority of PLAs are very active in developing partnership projects but this is not a dominant factor in most PLA social exclusion strategies
- Many of the UK’s most marginal and excluded people are not considered to be a priority in PLA strategy, service delivery and staffing. This applies especially to a number of social groups who commonly face stigma and discrimination: e.g. Refugees; Homeless People; Travellers.” [p ix]
There was a concerted effort by some public library services after 2000 to put inclusion at their core. However, I think that social justice involves taking this a stage further still, for example by recognising the current harsh and discriminatory treatment of all kinds of groups in society (claimants, single parents, migrants, disabled people) and finding ways in which the library can provide information and other support (eg meeting spaces) to assist communities to fight for their rights, and also to help people think through where “the truth” may lie. In its policy guidelines, What makes a good library service?, CILIP says that:
“A good library service will deliver against key policy objectives and provide:
• … Equality, community cohesion and social justice …” [p2]
So, how are we doing?
As the CILIP Libraries Change Lives Award finalists (and, indeed, the other applicants for the Award) have demonstrated, despite the gloomy economic and political climate for public libraries, there is brilliant work going on in some libraries – work which not only supports communities that may otherwise be marginalised (unemployed people; children with special needs and their families; and young people from BME communities, many were excluded from school, experienced poor formal education and many have been long-term unemployed – to take the three finalists), but also shows how vital a public library can be.
However, is this pattern universal across the UK? To take two examples, if, ten years ago, you looked for examples of public library websites that strongly promoted their LGBT provision, there would have been many good examples. Today, there are hardly any.
When the Welcome To Your Library project finished in 2007, there was growing interest in developing provision for ‘new arrivals’ (refugees, asylum-seekers, migrant workers, etc), not only from the six WTYL partner areas, but across the UK – now, provision is minimal, with only a very few libraries targeting and providing services.
We know some of the reasons why this is happening: lack of library staff, time and resources; communities overwhelmed by other demands on their time; possibly political views about ‘new arrivals’.
But is there more to it? Could it be that, surreptitiously, we’ve become worn down by the calls to return to building-based services, to concentrate on existing users and their demands, to abandon ‘risky’ types of service, or services that do not show ‘high returns’ such as increased issue figures and visitor numbers? We do know that the sort of work that is required to make public libraries really relevant is time-intensive, and often involves relatively small numbers of users.
In addition, how many public library services have actually taken this sort of work into their core? Is social justice (or tackling social exclusion) embedded in everything they do, for example in making funding priority decisions? Or is it an add-on? Is it seen as a core activity, or a ‘project’? (And, by ‘project’, I mean something that is time-limited and short-term funded.) One of the dangers is that, when funding diminishes and when external funding sources dry up, so ‘social justice work’ also stops, instead of its being seen as a core activity.
And this then brings us to community libraries. I am arguing here that, currently, social justice is already on the ‘back-burner’ for some libraries, and, with politicians’ apparent urgent desire to decimate local services (at a time when, ludicrously, Britain is starting to commit vast sums of money to a highly risky and unproven war strategy in the Near East and North Africa; and the anomaly of savage cuts to local services whilst giving huge grants to businesses is only just being explored by the media), libraries – along with other vital provision – continue to be at risk.
The pros and cons of community libraries are neatly summed up in the new report from OPM and Locality, Rural library services in England: exploring recent changes and possible futures:
“Where communities have become more directly involved in supporting or managing their rural libraries, they can evolve into more effective, positive and well-used venues than their predecessors. This can involve the nurturing of a
library’s role in supporting social interaction, strengthening community ties, hosting events and activities to appeal to a wider range of people and creating space for clubs and societies to flourish.
In other cases, however, library friends groups might save a branch but bring with them very limited perceptions about what that facility will offer. As such, library service managers are sometimes concerned about the inability of some of their community libraries to live up to what should be expected of a local library from the point of view of standards / consistency of service and inclusivity.” [pp5-6, emphasis theirs]
It is this approach that has led to library provision becoming something of a postcode lottery, particularly where libraries have been ‘cast adrift’ by their local authority, losing the steer that they had previously.
Libraries must be properly funded and properly staffed if they are to take their rightful place in the struggle for social justice – and working towards social justice has to be their core aim. Without that, what is their purpose?
 Dave Muddiman, Shiraz Durrani, Martin Dutch, Rebecca Linley, John Pateman and John Vincent. Open to All? The public library and social exclusion: volume one: overview and conclusions. Resource (Library and Information Commission Research Report 84), 2000.