Isolation and loneliness have been an issue during this pandemic, but also Community hubs have blossomed online, bringing out the best in people. We can’t let that fade away, we need to carry that forward and bring people together in person once we are able, but we need a place to do this.
Public libraries could be re-invented and used to provide that space. This should be done in the spirit of creating a safe inter-generational, multi-cultural community space where people can learn, work, socialise, develop skills and crafts.
As a result of changing technologies and the last recession, many public libraries were shut or had their opening hours severely reduced. We need to re-think these spaces to meet society’s current needs and maximise their potential. Each library could be looked at to meet the demographic and economic needs of their local community, employing some of the suggestions listed below.
Old & Young Together:
I believe we could do more as a society to bring people together in a mutually beneficial way. For example, the issue of loneliness is a particular problem for the elderly, whereas the young are adept at using all social platforms to communicate. Local sixth form centres and secondary schools could be approached so that teenagers who are adept with modern technology, and who want work experience or to volunteer through the community or do Duke of Edinburgh, could volunteer to share their skills, and in turn, learn themselves from the experience of helping others. If more is needed to support an elderly population, group audio book sessions or scrabble clubs could be set up.
Children’s Book Clubs:
Some children need access to more books and also could do with being encouraged to read in a relaxed, sociable and enjoyable environment. Libraries could provide the space for these book clubs to take place with local volunteers. A pilot was set up in Northcote Library and the children called their club “Chatterbooks”. It was very well received. For many children this would not only help their literacy, but enable friendships and maybe even provide a critical safe space.
Teaching English as a Foreign Language:
Language can be a barrier and lead to isolation. We need to do all we can as a society to integrate and help people to develop the language skills they need to feel like a valued member of the community and also to maximise employment opportunities.
There has been a boom in crafts during the pandemic, be it knitting, crochet, painting, sewing. Libraries could provide a space for people to come together and develop their skills. These could range from free social gatherings to paid for classes. It could even result in some products being sold and the creation of new businesses. These activities are very beneficial for mental well being.
Using the wall space to support local artists:
Many libraries have blank, empty wall space. Inviting local artists in to display their art would help make libraries more interesting and inviting spaces. This would be mutually beneficial as the artist could sell their work on display and the library could take a commission. Our local borough runs “Artist Open House” days, but this would take it to another and more permanent level.
Depending on the local demographic, which may range from deprived, where there is a dire need to support children after school, to very affluent (in some areas parents pay £50 – £70 hour for their child to be tutored). Either way, the library could provide extra support. This could be subsidised, charged for, or part of a scheme where mentors and volunteers help.
Office Space & meeting rooms:
Many libraries have smaller rooms that remain unused for most of the time. Depending on the size, these spaces could be advertised as available as meeting rooms / lecture spaces / office space / Wellbeing & Mindfulness space. If the room is there, it should be used. They could provide an essential support to new and struggling businesses. Schemes could be run where they are available rent free for a while, then the business would be charged once it is up and running. Libraries can help as a practical spring-board for new businesses.
Bookshops have seen how having a cafe can support trade and encourage people to stay longer. Not only would the introduction of cafes make the library more welcoming, but it could be a source of income. This could be done in conjunction with already established coffee shops.
The Government could provide Library consultants who look at each library and assess the building and demographics and needs of the community, suggestions could come from the local community and the library could be used to its maximum potential, depending on the layout, space and rooms it has to offer. The buildings exist 24 hours a day, it’s a waste not to maximise use of them. Some libraries do already run children’s reading sessions, baby song times and computer classes, but so much more could be done to breathe new life in them and to provide a space for some of the groups that have set up virtually as a result of Covid-19.
These initiatives do not have to be a burden on the taxpayer, some could be subsidised by the state, and others could generate an income in their own right or be carried out with the co-operation of private enterprise. With the internet and downloading books online, libraries as they existed do not have much of a future. They have to evolve or die. In the past they have provided much more than just a place to study quietly or to lend books. They provided a safe space and a community hub. We need that more than ever now.