Let’s be honest, a lot of local libraries are little more than a money sink for many local authorities. What if there was an alternative that made your library not just a viable project but a community asset too?
Here is my idea for what that would like.
Margate’s library is not quite right
Don’t get me wrong, KCC did a lot right with this library but I feel it misses the point of what a library should be. Letting Thanet District Council (TDC) move into the library definitely paid the bills and afforded them a chance to do a refit but did it really enhance the library or just stop it sucking down money?
What they got right:
- Children’s reading area
- Computer section with internet access
- Rooms where different services can be offered
- Modernised check in and check out system for books
What they got wrong:
- Fewer books – the range is pretty limited
- Integrated council services
- Massive waiting area (previously used for books)
- Feels more like a council office with a library tacked on
- No quite study area
What would I change?
Okay, so I have had my bookish rant about what I like and dislike about Margate Library – how would I fix it?
I would not have started this post without a pretty decent idea about ways things could be done differently. I believe that after you read this, you will agree with me that local libraries can be so much more than they are right now.
Here is my vision of what would make a modern library a successful place that fulfils the purpose of municipal local libraries.
What makes for successful local libraries?
In order for local councils to cover all the requirements of the “Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964”, along with other legal requirements, a local public library service must:
- Serve both adults and children.
- Be available to everyone and meet any special needs required by members of the local community.
- Encourage participation and full use of the service.
- Provide materials in sufficient number, range and quality to meet general and specific requirements of those in the community.
- Provide value for money, working in partnership with other authorities and agencies.
That is all well and good and we could argue all day about if (and to what degree) Margate library and other local libraries meet all five of those requirements. However, I would like to look at a wider definition of what local libraries could and should be.
This is what the IFLA/UNESCO Public Library Manifesto of 1994 says:
The public library, the local gateway to knowledge, provides a basic condition for lifelong learning, independent decision-making and cultural development of the individual and social groups.
How do we do that for Margate library?
To be honest, I understand why KCC chose TDC as their partner of choice to fund their library. TDC was a safe choice of partner but was it right for a library?
Safe is not always the best choice. “Safe”, the experts are telling us, is often too risky. The problem is councils are designed to always play it safe. What we need is innovation and not maintenance.
A risky but maybe better vision for local libraries
There are two issues that a local authority needs to address for local libraries.
- Footfall – how to get people into the building
- Value for money – how to keep the cost per visitor acceptably low
What KCC did is look at the low footfall and see that the cost per person was too high. Instead of increasing the footfall, they reduced the cost by partnering with the council next door. Safe but risky.
Increase library footfall not funding
If people are not coming to your library then it is almost certainly because it does not meet their needs or they do not know that it could meet their needs. That’s the same of any business too.
You can either shrink to cut costs or adapt to meet needs. Guess which one works out better in the long run?
The second requirement of a library is that is for it to be available to everyone and meet any special needs required by members of the local community. Low footfall means that the library has been failing to meet needs.
To increase footfall, you need to better meet local needs. How do we do that? These next few proposals all cover that question.
Provided lifelong learning
Just up the road, is the KCC adult education centre. I cannot help but feel that this would have been a far better partner for funding the library.
KCC adult education has a mission to provide education for adults – the clue is in the name. You have all those fantastic little rooms which are all too often empty. So why not run classes and drop-in sessions around creative writing, poetry, reading, and language learning? The funding is already in place so it is not even all that risky.
There are local literary and arts charities, Thanet Creative among them. I can only speak for Thanet Creative but we (and I am sure others) would be willing to partner with KCC to provide a learning experience that’s fun and meets needs.
Meet the general and specific requirements of the community
More and more, people are buying rather than borrowing books. Local libraries are the perfect place to discover new books but they are far from ideal as places to buy books.
Margate Library has a large space which is why TDC was interested in using it. Instead of hosting a council function which has nothing to do with books and adds nothing new to meet the general needs of the community (it meets the needs of TDC quite well), how about adding bookshops?
The safe option would be to let a chain bookstore open a branch in the library. You would definitely get the odd book signing event.
A better option would be to segment the retail space into small and affordable – maybe even subsidised – spaces. That way you could host several small independent bookshops.
Used book sellers could buy unwanted books and sell them to people that want them. Libraries which need to change up their stock would have baked in retail partners to sell to. Talk about a perfect fit.
Sellers of new books would meet the need of freshly released titles.
A computer system that allowed all those retailers to maintain an index of available titles would mean that people could find what they are looking for from a single computer. That same system could enable the library to buy in available requested books and have them available for hire within the hour.
Increase the children’s section and enhance it
When I was a child, local libraries were about the most exciting place I could visit. With a little help, I could learn anything I wanted. I could sit and read. I could take books home with me. It was heaven.
What would happen if a library could safely host thirty-five children (or more)? I’ll tell you – a lot of local schools would see the library as a potential classroom environment. A place to take a group of children where the children would learn and enjoy stories.
Right there, KCC – who also run most of the schools – would have additional partner agencies (schools) and increased footfall.
Yes, you would need desks, and more space, and places for the children to sit. And yes, you would have to think about how to structure the space so a few teachers can keep a large class safe. It would be worth it though.
You can be certain of positive educational outcomes from such a service.
Create a performance area
Create an area with a raised platform, some microphones, a mixer and speakers. Right there you have a mixed-use area that is just as good for poetry recitals, open mic, book readings, storytelling, seminars, and small public meetings.
How is that for meeting the specific and general needs of members of the local community? Not to mention the potential educational outcomes of stimulating the local arts and literature community.
If your eye is on funding, you could make it available to publishing houses looking to push new authors. For a small fee, they could rent the space and run an event. It is not like there is a shortage of local arts and literature festivals locally – an idea venue like that would be sure to attract customers.
Keep reading because there are other ways this service could be used by a local library.
Run DIY “fit it” sessions at the library.
That might sound unusual but when you think about it, DIY “fit it” sessions are a perfect fit for local libraries. After all, there should be a solid DIY section to point people towards. So why not bring that knowledge to life with experts that can help guide you in actually fixing this?
There is evidence that this can be a very successful event program for libraries.
Create a “teen space” for after school
The single biggest gripe I hear for youngsters is “there is nothing to do”. Ask a gang of teenagers – if you dare – that are hanging around and being a bit of a nuisance what they are up to and they will tell you “we’re bored”. So fix it.
Not only will you encourage younger adults to socialise responsibly but you will give them a way to learn about themselves and the community. That’s a win-win, right there.
Help with homework
Do you remember when libraries were palces of learning? They could be that again.
Thanet, like other areas, has something of a huge economic divide that shows up in academic performance. A library offering free tutoring, homework help programs, and summer reading programs for kids and teens would help bridge that economic divide.
The cost of hiring a private tutor is well beyond what many library patrons can afford. Local libraries could offer homework help and tutoring online, by phone, in person, and even through social media and homework apps.
This is well within the remit of “Be available to everyone and meet any special needs required by members of the local community”. Not only that, but it is good for the long-term economic future of the area too.
You can bet that the local home education community would make use of this service too. I fail to see a single downside.
One of the problems with local elections is that so few people bother to even show up to them. The same is true of a lot of local issues – no one does anything because they feel there is nothing that can be done. So, change things.
Libraries can help people learn how to become advocates for themselves and their communities. Remember that performance area we talked about – you may just find a whole new set of people keen to make use of it.
Hold events that gather the community and encourages them to talk about issues of freedom, justice, and democracy. Signpost them to the wealth of books and other publications where people can learn how to responsibly act on what they learn.
Partner with MPs and Councillors
One of the problems a lot of people find with politics is that they simply do not know how to access their representatives. What if libraries became the default hub for political clinics?
What if the local political parties were available once a month to listen to what people wanted to tell them?
What if you could meet your MP there? What would happen, come election time, if the public could interview all the candidates?
What if you could ask your local county and district councillors about the issues of your neighbourhood?
Do you think things might get sorted out? I do.
Support local businesses
What if the larger local libraries, like Margate library, supported local businesses? At the very least a library could bring in the kind of books that a business person might need to consult. They could go further, offering not only business resources, but also a state-of-the-art video conference room, full-time business section librarian, and staff-training workshops.
That covers both the footfall problem and the funding issue. Furthermore, it is a far better fit for four of the five requirements of the “Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964” than facilitating a land grab by a council with office space needs.
Bussiness support would be available to everyone. It would meet the special and specific needs of the local community. It would encourage participation and full use of the service. It would be a step towards providing materials in sufficient number, range and quality to meet general and specific requirements of those in the community. Most importantly it would provide value for money by working in partnership with outside agencies.
Not to mention, it could improve the local economy and generate jobs.
Become a hub of social integration
Local libraries should provide immigrants with helpful information about, and opportunities to connect with, their new communities. They should be a place that is welcoming, helpful, and informative. A gateway to community integration.
I mentioned already that Margate Library is just up the road from the Adult Education centre. This is something the library and Adult-Ed can partner up to provide.
This is something KCC is supposed to offer anyway so why not double up on existing resources to deliver that service more effectively?
Encourage content creation
Local libraries could easily use their rooms and computer suit to enable people to express themselves and feel heard. Why not provide spaces and services that meet the needs of people who want to learn how to edit Wikipedia, set up blogs or podcasts, create their own zines, and so much more?
I have already told you that Thanet Creative stands ready to offer workshops and to work with KCC to deliver some of that training.
Local politicians have some good reasons to fear local blogs. Blogs have, in the past, been very vocal critics of local authorities. However, if you do not support the community in learning to express themselves, the only people who do will be those with something they really need to gripe about.
I think it is time libraries helped to round out the conversation on local issues by empowering more people to join the conversation.
Where do we go from here?
I can appreciate that KCC has almost certainly signed a long-term lease with TDC for use of our library. There is no changing that now. However, there is nothing stopping the library from pressing forward with a good number of these projects even with half the library taken up with non-library business.
Our libraries have the space, so why not make full use of it?
I challenge our local politicians and activists to take up this idea and reform our local libraries into powerhouses of positive change and local growth. The only question remains which councillors and MPs are brave enough to take this and run with it? Whoever you are, Thanet Creative stands ready to back you up.