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Opinion

‘Libraries are at the forefront of combatting loneliness and inequality’

Don’t judge a library just by its books. They play a more vital role in communities than ever, says Pamela Tulloch

People love libraries. People are passionate about libraries.

As we emerge from the restrictions of the pandemic, we’ve heard calls from communities urging services to reopen buildings as quickly as possible.

This passion and desire for reopening library buildings proves there is a much deeper connection with libraries that goes far beyond book borrowing and reading.

Hundreds of library staff across the UK have worked remotely throughout the pandemic to maintain services as far as possible. But books and reading are only part of the service and do not demonstrate the full extent of how they support communities. They are deep-rooted and cut across and contribute to all areas of social, cultural and political life, giving everyone equal access to services, resources and information.

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From the young parents who seek entertainment and socialising for their babies, jobseekers who need access to computers and CV advice, older people who seek regular company and a sense of community and those who fostered a love of reading at a young age whiling away hours at their local library.

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The Scottish Library and Information Council (SLIC) is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. During that time, we have witnessed significant change and transformation within the library sector. Expectations have shifted with advances in technology. Library services have kept pace and transformed to remain relevant and meet the changing needs of modern users.

Nowadays, public libraries are more likely to resemble a thriving hub of community activities, attracting people of all demographics, than quiet reading rooms and bookshelves.

Libraries are more likely to resemble a thriving hub of activities than quiet reading rooms

It is commonplace for libraries to offer a range of literacy initiatives for children and adults. Entrepreneurs and small business owners can access office space, meeting rooms and a hub network of support. Jobseekers can access information and advice on benefits, job vacancies and interview techniques. Film screenings, exhibitions, even dance classes help to widen people’s cultural experience.

There are unique differences which make every library important to their local community, reinforcing their role as essential spaces. In some cases, libraries are a lifeline. For example, for people who live alone, their local librarian may be the only person they speak to each week.

Our research on mobile libraries shows this to be especially true in rural communities. Libraries provide a crucial place for interaction and are at the forefront of combatting growing issues of loneliness, social isolation and inequality.

For these reasons, libraries are often described as the living rooms of our communities because they are trusted, safe and comfortable spaces where people come together.

Last year, they were forced to close their doors to communities, a move that goes against everything they stand for.

We owe librarians and library staff a huge amount of credit. They have done an outstanding job in difficult circumstances. I’ve been so impressed with their resilience and commitment to communities, going above and beyond to ensure people can still access some services. They quickly pivoted a range of library-based activities online to maintain engagement, including virtual book clubs for adults and children, poetry competitions, Lego challenges, online film clubs, storytelling, coding classes, cookery demonstrations and keep fit classes.

In addition, new initiatives have been created to meet the lockdown environment, including online technical support services and free access to online family history content, usually only free in the library building.

The digital offer in libraries is robust and has continued to grow in recent years, with a wealth of online resources. But the lockdown has invigorated thinking around development.

Innovative projects are repositioning the public library offer beyond the traditional book lending service. Books are still extremely important, but as demand changes, so must the service delivery model.

We are launching a new public library strategy this summer that will reflect a lot of this thinking and provide a blueprint for future services to ensure library spaces, both physical and digital, remain open, welcoming, vibrant and accessible to all. 

Pamela Tulloch is chief executive at the Scottish Library and Information Council

@SLICCEO

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