Libraries as Social Hubs

Libraries are about physical spaces. That’s what the public values about them. Campaign after campaign has started not necessarily because of threatened withdrawal to services, although this undoubtedly plays a part, but because of the danger to the actual library building itself. The threat, or even the perceived threat, of closure is what galvanises public reaction.

The difficulty for public libraries is the same as for many public spaces, in that they act as “a shared resource in which experiences and value are created. These social advantages may not be obvious to outsiders or public policy makers.”

The report from which the above quote is taken, The social value of public spaces by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation goes on to state that:

“To members of the public, it is not the ownership of places or their appearance that makes them ‘public’, but their shared use for a diverse range of activities by a range of different people.”

The report identified a range of such spaces, from school gates to boot sales, to shopping malls and community centres, where people met to create spaces of engagement.

To this group I would very firmly add libraries. The tendency amongst policy makers over the past few years to insist that libraries become ‘community hubs’ misses a vital point: libraries are and have always been social hubs of their communities.

Over the years public libraries have offered an increasing range of services to reflect evolving societal and technological changes. Libraries now, quite rightly, offer 24 hours access to online services, support local and national government ‘digital by default’ agendas, provide e-books and e-magazines, online resources and academic journals, 3D printers and coding clubs, digital literacy and computers, and enable digital citizenship. But all of these services can be delivered outwith the library space, which has led some to conclude that libraries, as a concept, are outdated and anachronistic.

2015%20-%206But beyond the technology what the public really values is the library as a community space and social hub. Campaigners and volunteers understand this better sometimes than the profession itself. When looking at the range of activities and services on offer in community libraries there is nearly always a tendency to concentrate on the social value of the library as a physical space. The bringing together of people and activities that enable social cohesion and engagement such as reading groups, coffee mornings, knit & natter, film clubs, creative writing, and as a community meeting space.

The MLA report What do the public want from libraries showed something similar in that people who used public libraries valued the social contact they provided. Equally, the ACE report Envisioning the Library of the Future recognised public libraries as trusted spaces, free and open to all, and as “a safe, free, creative community space that is enjoyable and easy to use, both physically and virtually.”

For some this would indicate that community centres or hubs providing a combination of council services could fulfil the same function. This is true in some respects and libraries can be successfully relocated within shared space or co-located with complementary services. However, the opposite is also true and I would argue that there is something intrinsically unique about the library as a social space that is diluted when its core purpose is subsumed within an array of non-related services or facilities.

The public still value libraries and value them as a physical space. Those responsible for reshaping library networks within current financial constraints need to acknowledge that re-location, co-location or closure runs the risk of weakening existing social networks within libraries and undermining the very community resilience they seek to build.

3 thoughts on “Libraries as Social Hubs

  1. Hi Leon

    I agree with you completely about the importance of libraries as social space. I think you are maybe a bit inward-looking in relation to co-location though. I don’t see co-location as dilution, in quite a few projects I have been involved in what has happened is that library values have spread into other services to improve the overall offer to joint customers. I would also rather have a smaller library offer in a shared space, well managed and used, than acres of space isolated from others, or space in the wrong location, which is unvisited. From the customer point of view, it makes sense to be able to do more than one thing on a visit. I am all for defending our libraries but I see co-location as a win-win for everyone and don’t want to get into a siege mentality on this one – that seems to be to be defensive of territory and not in a good way!

    The other important thing often overlooked in discussions about social space is that it’s not all about group activities. Individuals using libraries may just do their own thing but they are doing that in a shared space and using shared resources and this feels very different either from being at home or from being in a commercial-you-must-buy-something space. We need to defend this kind of social space as important – many people who feel lonely or depressed, or are simply happily independent, do not want to be herded into group activities but get a real sense of connection and community from using the library space even if they talk to no-one. This independent user is actually our biggest customer group – only a small % use group activities – but their use of shared space is often undervalued in relation to programmed events.

    cheers

    Rachel

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    • Hi Rachel, excellent points here and honestly I’m not anti co-location. In many circumstances it makes perfect sense particularly as part of strategic consolidation of the network or housing complementary services. My concern is those instances were it’s done badly and libraries become little more than pale imitations either housed with an array of incompatible partners or being delivered by staff providing so many other services that the core purpose of the library suffers. Absolutely agree about individual users, libraries vitally important for such people.

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      • Thanks Leon. I do agree that libraries need to be strong players in co-locations – we will usually be the biggest pull and have the biggest footfall and we need to assert this loud and clear. Because we don’t always have the most cash, we often are too modest about our role. Also other partners – not to mention architects – often have very outdated perceptions of libraries as quiet,static places with a few dusty books used by a few people who are all elderly and dying off (this stereotype is not helped by the media of course). I always counter with stats for current visits plus % increase for the effect of a new/refurbed library; plus the single largest audience in all the observations we have done is 30-40 years; plus library presentation and use is much more like retail and environments are dynamic and bustling not static. Simple numbers of users per day/week/month transform partner understanding and gain respect. From that respect we can then open up debate about library values and how they can help other partners ….

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