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Public libraries for social, digital and economic inclusion: #Chances4Life

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At the end of #LibrariesWeek 2017, it was quite appropriate that around 100 library people met in Staffordshire for the CILIP Public and Mobile Libraries group (PMLG) biennial conference. This year the conference was called Chances for Life - and the conference aimed to show how public libraries support social, digital and economic inclusion. This was doubly appropriate for me, as the last Taskforce meeting had focused on Outcome 7: Stronger, more resilient communities, and we had a good discussion on the topic of social inclusion.

Opening presentation

CILIP’s Chief Executive, Nick Poole, gave a thought-provoking opening presentation: The library dividend - standing up for the role of public libraries in digital, social and economic inclusion. His slides are available online. He asserted that it was a given that libraries are a vital part of this agenda, and questioned why is this not better recognised? He repeated one of the unique selling points for libraries - that everyone is equal when they walk through the door (or log on). Therefore, they should be a significant part of the solution when looking at social inclusion challenges.

And his advice on how library workers should stand up for this vital role? Visibility, Relationships and Evidence. Without these three elements, libraries will be overlooked as a part of the solution.


Over the course of the 2 days of the conference, we heard from a further 11 speakers (highlights follow). One immediate reflection - 14 sessions over 2 days makes for an exhausting schedule, but as we were based in the former BT training centre, Yarnfield, there was little external opportunity for distraction. The centre is in the countryside about 20 minutes outside Stafford - however, having been a BT centre, the wifi was extremely robust, and available all over the site!

Inclusion for refugees

Janene Cox (Commissioner for Culture and Communities, Staffordshire County Council) spoke about inclusion for refugees and asylum seekers. She painted a detailed picture of the process as a council made the decision to accept refugee families from Syria, under the Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement Programme. She described the planning process, which involved people from a wide range of organisations, including the library service. They started by discovering what the refugees really wanted, which was primarily: health (living independently), access to jobs, a steady income, and friends - to feel connected. She commented that the whole process proved more complex and difficult than first envisaged, but they had so far re-settled 51 individuals, including 18 children.

Within 6 weeks of arrival, people are taken to and encouraged to join their local library. Many saw library membership as part of their journey to independence and route to citizenship. They valued access to technology and the opportunity to learn and develop.

Their learning points? They recognised they needed professional support and to build partnerships. They needed to take account of the many small steps in the process - don’t expect too much in 12 months. It was good to find confirmation that communities do want to help, and on the refugees side, people just want to integrate and be independent - no-one was asking for unreasonable or inappropriate things.

Economic inclusion

Dave Gimson (Business & IP Centre National Network Manager) from the British Library talked about the role of libraries in economic inclusion, as described in the Libraries Deliver: Ambition Outcome 6: Greater prosperity.

His top tips included:

  • have a clear and compelling vision
  • understand your core strengths
  • understand your market
  • be innovative - keep coming up with new ideas
  • be passionate about what you do, and surround yourself with good people
  • write a robust business plan
  • get support from key influencers and stakeholders
  • collaboration and partnerships are key to success
  • measure and report on everything you do (back up the figures with stories)
  • if at first…..

Healthy libraries

Sarah Hassan (Assistant Head of Service, Norfolk County Council) talked about Norfolk’s healthy libraries programme (something we touched on previously at the end of this blog post). Their project started with the recognition that there are great health challenges in the county, including that two thirds of adults are overweight, over 16,000 people have dementia, and children aren’t moving enough.

They started simply, but developed their ideas into a robust programme that is now in every library in Norfolk. Components include:

  • a workbook which enables staff to check progress throughout the year which contains prompts - what could you do around customer engagement, in the library environment….. and then a parallel box where staff record the evidence
  • a campaign calendar produced in partnership with public health colleagues
  • an evaluation framework - collecting numbers, but also impact statements - including what people say about themselves - before and after taking part

They have lots more plans to develop this further, but a key element of success is that they are now seen as part of the council’s prevention agenda and health libraries have become business as usual.

Digital inclusion

Ayub Khan (Face to Face Services Manager, Warwickshire County Council) took us through the SCL digital offer - which is (in a nutshell) the expectation that every library will provide:

  • free access to the internet for every customer
  • clear and user-friendly online library services including ebooks
  • staff trained to help customers access online information - especially those who lack IT skills or equipment
  • 24/7 access to library services via online services

He covered recent achievements: digital skills training for 14,000 staff, digital leadership training for 80 senior staff, a partnership with Halifax and Barclays, a successful bid to be part of government’s Digital Training and Support Framework, promoting free wifi in all public libraries, and achieving a national discount deal for online subscriptions. And he talked about what was coming next: the single sign on project, more work on joint purchasing power, loanable devices, the Single Library Digital Presence (SLDP), and plans to run a series of digital roadshows.

His final comments were on challenges he saw emerging on the horizon: getting the right balance between mainstream and targeted services aimed at minority and disadvantaged groups, and combating fake news. Regarding the latter, he emphasised the role of library workers in promoting trusted and credible sources of information.

Social inclusion

John Vincent (co-ordinator of The Network) talked about the creation of The Network and its role in tackling social exclusion. He described major issues that society isn’t grappling with, such as racism, homophobia, burgeoning numbers of prisoners, and poverty, and asserted that these are all issues that public libraries can address. He mentioned a paper he is writing for Arts Council England on the equality and diversity work that libraries are doing (this should be published shortly), but he invited conference participants to suggest examples of work they were doing in their libraries, as more current case studies will bring it to life.

Outreach for inclusion  

Chris Garnsworthy (Community Library Service Manager, Hackney libraries) gave a short, but evocative, talk on the community library service he runs for Hackney council. He shared a powerful video that was made by volunteers (he simply put up a notice in the library and asked people to step forward), and talked about the telephone book group he has created. I hope to publish a guest blog from him soon with more details. While the Hackney service is perhaps unusual in having paid staff, I’m sure there are ideas that services delivered via volunteers could implement.

A final case study on digital inclusion

Following a brief presentation from Rosalind Fairclough of the Society of Editors and Proofreaders (maybe a useful contact for those who run writers groups in libraries), the final talk was by Alison McAllister (Libraries Systems and Support Officer, North Ayrshire) who presented two projects she is responsible for in Scotland.  

‘Appiness’ is a digital education programme that kick-starts very young children’s learning in a range of areas including literacy, numeracy, art, music, science and technology. It was the winner of the CILIP Libraries Change Lives award in 2015. The project teaches the safe and informed use of digital technologies and parents are also encouraged to get involved.

Digidabble is Alison’s more recent creation. It is designed as a pop up event that can run in any library - and their initial focus is on libraries who had lost their Saturday afternoon opening, and those which are in the Scottish areas of most deprivation. Their aim is to provide a safe environment for families to learn together, and initial feedback is that the sessions are proving hugely popular, with 100% of those surveyed reporting an increase in confidence in using digital technology

Workshop ‘teaser’ sessions

There were 5 different workshops offered but only 2 time slots - so to try and avoid that common conference problem where you sit in one room and worry you are missing something even more interesting going on next door, each workshop presenter was given a 5 minute opportunity to pitch their session.

We heard from Darren Smart on redesigning digital services, Julie McKirdy on the diverse range of activities that take place in Thimblemill library, Sandwell (her workshop topic was top tips for community engagement), Rob Jones on practical, low budget makerspace activities, Aude Carillion on open data for all, and Holly Bagnall-Bell from Good Things Foundation on running digital inclusion activities.

Very hard to choose, but I enjoyed learning practical tips on making visualisations out of datasets from Aude, and crowd sourcing many more than 10 top tips on engagement in a lively session with Julie.

Award winners

Awards were presented at the conference dinner (although Scott Brown was on holiday, so his was collected by someone else and will be presented in November). PMLG’s Jacqueline Widdowson has provided the winners citations which follow.

Photo of 2 women each holding an award
Award winners Aude Charillon (left) and Julie Thomson (right). Photo credit: Julia Chandler/Libraries Taskforce

Public Librarian of the Year 2017 – Aude Charillon

Aude, Library and Information Officer for Newcastle Upon Tyne, has consistently shown a desire to learn and develop innovative services to benefit customers and the wider library and information community. She introduced coding sessions and Microbits to engage children and parents in deprived areas; Newcastle Libraries’ social media output blossomed under Aude’s input and guidance, creating interesting and useful information in unique ways that have seen followers increase considerably; and she has led the drive to open up library data in the city to the public.

Aude is passionate in her belief that librarians have a duty to enable citizens to make informed decisions. Aude was invited by the Carnegie UK Trust on a high level study trip to New York on public libraries and online data privacy. Through Aude’s Carnegie Library Lab project and regular presentations at international conferences, she is now renowned nationally as one of the leading voices of open data within the public library network. For her passion, innovation and commitment to her colleagues (both within her own library service and beyond), Aude Charillon is our Public Librarian of the Year 2017.

Mobile Library Champion of the Year 2017 - Scott Brown

Scott, Senior Library Assistant (in charge of three mobiles) has been a loyal, valued member of the library staff in Perth for 20 years. His flexible approach and commitment to evaluating his work and improving the service to his customers is unparalleled. Scott is well known for his resourcefulness and level headedness – so important on a remote rural route where anything can happen – he goes to great lengths to anticipate and minimise disruptions to the service. He has given up his own time to take the Mobile to local Shows and Games, representing and promoting library services.

Scott knows his customers well and has become a valued member of the remote, isolated communities he serves. When regular customers have become housebound, he not only delivers books to their door, but also essential groceries. He is flexible and compassionate in his approach to customer service, and has even been known to step in and rescue customers with car trouble. This year, Scott has identified a way to restructure his timetable making more efficient use of his routes, increasing the frequency of visits to rural primary schools. He developed a new holiday service to our most remote area, supporting rural children to participate and complete the Summer Reading Challenge and providing activities using his football coaching skills. Scott is an all-around superstar champion of not only mobile library services, but for the public library in general. A well deserved winner!

Public Library Champion of the Year 2017 - Julie Thomson

Julie, School and Community Library Assistant for Shetland Library, runs the UK’s most northerly public library – Baltasound Community Library. It is on the island of Unst - population 640 - and the main town Lerwick is a long journey (including two ferry rides) away. Julie’s job incorporates school and public library, and though ‘technically’ public access is just one evening a week, she expands opening times by removing unnecessary barriers. She encourages pupils, parents and staff to use public library stock freely, ensuring a large part of the community has access at hours that suit them. The school is very supportive and this year has committed more space, allowing Julie to greatly improve the public lending area. Most notable perhaps is the way Julie has promoted and developed the early years reading programme, Bookbug, regularly packing her little library with parents and babies for sessions. She has established intergenerational events by holding Bookbug in Nordalea, the local care home. This has been noted as good practice by Scottish Book Trust, and earlier this year, Julie was asked to talk to the national Bookbug conference in Glasgow about her community outreach. She also impressed visiting ‘How Good is Your Public Library’ assessors during a recent inspection. Julie is very supportive of her other school and library colleagues and cross-promotes library services on her lively Baltasound Community Library Facebook page. She works single-handedly and part-time, so the success of her library is down to great personal commitment and enthusiasm. She really champions the Library! Julie Thomson is Public Library Champion 2017.


A thoroughly enjoyable and well organised conference with a packed agenda. If you’ve never been, I encourage you to consider it next time PMLG run one (which should be in 2019).  Note: All the slides from the conference are available online.

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