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Taskforce meeting at the Free Word centre

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Our blog on 21 April explained how we were unable to blog, tweet and publish a number of items during the pre-election period. Now it’s over, we’ll resume blogging and tweeting and will start to publish the items mentioned. These are:

  • Taskforce / DCMS research into community-managed libraries being undertaken by Serio (Action 11)
  • Progress Indicators, to measure how we are doing against each of the Outcome aspirations we set out in our Ambition document (Action 3)
  • Toolkit on strategic planning of library services (Action 10)
  • Self-assessment benchmarking tool for library services (Action 13)
  • Taskforce’s latest 6 month progress report covering October 2016 - March 2017 (Action 23)

However, please bear with us. We won’t just be able to press publish immediately on all these items - for a few of them, they’ll need to be cleared through ministers. There are also quite a lot of guest posts in a queue. So we don’t bombard you with information, these will come through at our usual pace (about 3 blogs a week).

Taskforce meeting on 25 May

During the pre-election period, work didn’t stop! The last Taskforce meeting on 25 May was held at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon, London - home of The Reading Agency. Roma Backhouse, CEO of the centre, introduced us to the centre’s work, its other residents, and talked about their plans for the future.

The entrance to the Free Word Centre. Photo credit: Julia Chandler/Libraries Taskforce
The entrance to the Free Word Centre. Photo credit: Julia Chandler/Libraries Taskforce

Words are at the heart of everything they do, and freedom of speech is woven into their make up.

There are many quotes which resonate for them and they particularly like: “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.” Dr Seuss

The concept of the Free Word Centre was conceived in the mid 2000s with the aim of bringing together people with similar interests to see what formal and informal relationships might develop. Their building is the old Guardian media archive, around the corner from the old Arts Council England offices. It is home to a number of organisations. Along with The Reading Agency are: TLC - the literacy consultancy, Arvon (who support creative writing), Article 19, English Pen, and Apples and Snakes (performance poetry and spoken word). They are also the heart of a much wider network of over 40 organisations who sometimes use Free Word as their home - holding meetings and events there. They have also become a hub for writers - who have performed/spoken there.

They intend to continue to be an inspiring home, supporting individual missions of organisations, to be an ever expanding hub, sharing ideas, and collectively achieving more. They also want to develop more as a public venue. They plan to offer 2 seasons of events, exploring themes which sit across the free expression remit, but also embody the theme of home. They will invite high profile curators to work with them - representing a variety of groups and seeking out new voices to set alongside established figures.

Roma concluded with a quote from Toni Morrison - “.... This is precisely the time when artists go to work…...we speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal”

Summary of the Outcome session: increased reading and literacy

The Taskforce has decided to focus each meeting on one or more of the 7 Outcomes. The fifth of these sessions, led by Sue Wilkinson, focussed on Outcome 2: Increased reading and literacy.

Sue introduced Diana Gerald (CEO, Book Trust), Sarah Mears (Library Services Manager, Essex; sits on SCL and ASCEL execs) and Emma House (Director of Publisher Relations at the Publishers Association) and together they gave a brief introduction to the main issues they had identified which formed this Outcome.

They talked about what needs to happen to get more people reading, plus more people reading more - and how the Taskforce can help support/deliver this. Goals include continuing to appeal to prolific readers AND finding ways of encouraging those who ‘rarely or never’ read to start.

The primary route is to provide universal access to a broad range of books - making sure these are available and in the format that people need them. They talked about the number of pieces in this jigsaw, which include:

  • promoting the need to invest in stock
  • great need for diversity (match the range of reading interests, reflect today’s society, meet needs of those with a reading disability, diversity of content, eg multiple languages and different voices)
  • building skills in stock curation and acquisition
  • understanding stock management
  • becoming better at marketing that stock

Publishers too have a role to play. They can support with marketing assets (and embed libraries in their publicity plans), and can help flag new content.

Particular mention was made of the BookTrust’s focus is on reading in early years. 97% activity is still around physical books. There is a priority need to start children reading when young, as habits are formed between the ages of 0-5. The benefits include aiding language development and leading to school readiness. For a lot of children, rhymetime is their first experience of shared arts and culture. Their main influence is their family - so the role of the library is key in helping both to set the scene, and support parents.

Another strand of discussion was the library as the retailer of reading engagement. Libraries are selling why reading matters. They should be thinking about who their competitors are, and look at ambience, stock, and customer service.

And for the counter argument, look at the impact of not reading well. In the lists of the world’s most literate nations, the UK is ranked 17 out of 64. Not terrible, but not where we would like to be. And not just the individual suffers; the economy does too. If not addressed, low literacy levels could cost the economy £32 billion by 2025. 46% of those entering the prison system have literacy levels no higher than that expected of an 11 year old [Prison Reform Trust briefing 2016].

The need is to re-ignite the passion, value and prestige that reading for pleasure should be given, and get reading for pleasure higher up national agendas - for example, with DCMS and DfE.

Our aspirations need to go beyond preaching to the converted and needs to be about making the case for investment. There is lots of evidence of need and of activity, but little about impact. The reading outcomes framework, being developed by The Reading Agency and a wider range of partners, aims to create that. The Framework Toolkit that is available now is the result of the first phase of work. Over the next year, The Reading Agency will be supporting people to use the toolkit while they continue to develop and improve it, releasing an enhanced version in the future. If you use it, please send any comments to

What happens next?

Full minutes of the meeting on 25 May have been published on GOV.UK.

Our next meeting will be on 13 July in Cambridge Central Library. It will include agreeing the actions the Taskforce will take to support the delivery of the Increased Reading and Literacy Outcome.

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