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Introducing the new Director of Libraries and the National Portfolio programme

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[Editor’s note: Sue Williamson: Director, Libraries and Birmingham writes about her new role at the Arts Council and the overall programme. Follow this blog for a post from each of the new National Portfolio Organisations, which will appear over the next couple of weeks.]

New Director of Libraries

Having come to the Arts Council with 20 years’ experience in the library sector, I have arrived at a very exciting time.

For the first time, six library services are part of our National Portfolio representing a total investment of £1.6 million per year between 2018-22. Most of them have a strong track record in delivering projects funded through our National Lottery funded Grants for the Arts programme and others have benefitted from our strategic funds, illustrating how we’ve used different investment streams to support the full integration of libraries into the Arts Council.

In my last role as head of library services for St Helens, I led the process of applying to be a National Portfolio Organisation. I helped write the business plan and assembled a board to translate the offer to reality and fulfil the Arts Council’s expectations on governance, financial viability and resilience, while demonstrating a commitment to the Creative Case for Diversity.

Introducing the new Library NPOs, and Sector Support Organisation

I am delighted to be working now to support, not only my former service, but also the other five library services joining as NPOs: London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, Culture Learning and Libraries (Nottinghamshire), Community and Cultural Services Cambridgeshire, Suffolk Libraries and Libraries Unlimited (Devon).

I hope this will herald great things for public libraries, with these six services acting as beacons of excellence. They will be supported by existing NPOs and the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) in its new role as a Sector Support Organisation with the ability to deliver Arts Council goals and prorities across the library sector. SCL is a key partner for the Arts Council, with our investment enabling its development, and it joins the National Portfolio with a new chief executive and supporting team.

Opportunities for all libraries

Library services are changing fast with a broad range of governance models represented - mutuals, trusts and local authority run - and they are always looking to try new business and operating models. Increasingly, library services are also being integrated and co-located with other local services, with communities becoming involved in their design and delivery.

Free to enter and open to all, libraries offer the opportunity to explore and share reading, information, knowledge and culture in a safe space - physical, virtual and in the community - that is enjoyable and easy to use. From being gatekeepers and custodians, those staffing libraries have become curators, creators and facilitators.

Becoming more creative places, libraries have a greater reach than many of our other funded organisations and strengthen the capacity of the portfolio to reach people not highly engaged in arts and culture.

Libraries increasingly offer quality artistic activity, collaborating with arts organisations and individual artists through Arts Council funded projects. A broad range of digital activity is proposed within libraries, including content creation and distribution, as well as audience engagement. There is an impressive breadth and depth of partnerships with arts/cultural and other organisations: Spark Arts, Loud in Libraries and Small Green Shoots are three examples of how the arts and cultural sector is reaching out to libraries.

Photo of a female singing on stage.
Josefin Öhrn & The Liberation, Loud in Libraries Photo credit: © Andy Von Pip

Libraries are particularly effective in reaching children, young people and their families, making a strong contribution to our Goal 5 priorities (Children and Young People), through Cultural Education Partnerships, Quality Principles, and the libraries’ Children’s Promise.

Changes in the Arts Council

The Arts Council has also seen recent changes. The new National Lottery Project Grants have replaced our Grants for the Arts programme. Funding is no longer ring-fenced for libraries, but they will be able to apply to us on an equal footing with all other artists and arts organisations. This represents a real opportunity and we have been working with the Libraries Taskforce in delivering workshops to demystify the application process and support library services in gaining confidence to apply. I hope to see many library services taking advantage of this fund to deliver art and culture in a library setting.

We’re also working on the new 10 year strategy document to define the work of Arts Council from 2020-30. Libraries are integral to the Arts Council in its role as the developmental organisation for the sector. It is vital that libraries have a strong voice in these discussions, commensurate with the potential they offer for delivering art and culture in settings where people feel comfortable.

Finally, we have also welcomed two library leaders to support our governance: Ciara Eastell from Libraries Unlimited in Devon has joined our National Council, while Ayub Khan from Warwickshire Libraries has joined the Midlands Area Council. It is great to see libraries having a strong and active role in this way.

So many changes and such exciting times. I am delighted to be here at the beginning and look forward to the future!

Please note, this is a guest blog. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of DCMS or the Libraries Taskforce

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  1. Comment by Lynne D posted on

    "Free to enter and open to all, libraries offer the opportunity to explore and share reading, information, knowledge and culture in a safe space - physical, virtual and in the community - that is enjoyable and easy to use. From being gatekeepers and custodians, those staffing libraries have become curators, creators and facilitators."

    Those public libraries which have, or are on the brink of introducing smart card access, are surely not "free to enter and open to all" as presumably to enter one would need a smart card, which would be issued upon proof of identity / abode / ability to pay a bill? What happens to those folk who currently use the building / service who cannot produce such documentation, cannot be issued with a smart card, and therefore can no longer access the building and all the information and services contained therein? Maybe I'm just missing something. I use my local studies library on a regular basis, but I am not a member of the library.

    • Replies to Lynne D>

      Comment by Sue Williamson posted on

      Thank you for your comment and highlighting this issue. As I understand it, those library services that have introduced Open Hours plus or a similar system enable access through the borrower’s card which is upgraded electronically to allow access, a bit like a hotel room card I presume. There will be some security issues which need to be addressed, and for safety reasons, I would imagine that most authorities would ask that children be accompanied by an adult, but theoretically, all members are eligible to use it.

      Also, most of those library services have used the opportunity to extend opening hours, with some staffed hours to enable universal access.

      Some library services do not ask for proof of address, I know of at least two personally and I’m sure there are more. That is at the discretion of the Local Authority. Finally, most library services have a mechanism for joining those who do not have an address but again, this is at the discretion of the individual authority and that policy will, I think, not have been changed by the introduction of open access.

  2. Comment by Dr Malcolm Rigler posted on

    Delighted to learn just recently of the fact that the charity "Libraries Connected" ( was The Society of Chief Librarians) is soon to review and revise the Universal Health Offer. So many of our rough sleepers with no known address need health and social care information from our "Information Professionals ( Librarians ) ". Just as important everyone that visits a GP or a Consultant these days will "Google" their diagnosis, treatment options and prognosis but so often find "unreliable" websites. The library service needs to work with Macmillan Cancer Care and Maggie's Cancer services to offer "guided web-surfing" that is nurse led and also libraries would make great venues for interactive plays such as "Families Like Us " and "Silver Lining's Care Plan" . As Petina Gappah said recently on Radio 4 "Public Libraries are not about books but about stories. Fashion shows , art exhibitions and dramas should just be a normal part of what the Public Library offers - the Public Library in every Town and every City should be the cultural centre offering people reliable information and putting before people positive attitudes and values that promote health and well being. As David Stewart Vice President at CILIP says " librarians are health professionals too".