I was recently challenged to summarise over a decade’s experience working in public library audience development, in a way that could be usefully and succinctly shared with Higher Education counterparts. The resultant presentation was an energetic exploration of the history and future of public libraries, following a latterly very steep learning curve for the sector. What follows is an easily digestible boiled-down version, served as 5 top tips:
1. Evolve with the Times
When most people think of public libraries, they think of dusty shelves of information books and well-thumbed fiction. Yet, a visit to a modern public library is just as likely to involve high technology, live music or blood pressure checks, as any of the bibliophilic pursuits. Our rapid transformation is seeded in the necessity to respond proactively to the disruptive technologies of the digital age. Professor Hank Lucas1, University of Maryland, identifies eight reasons why companies like Kodak, Borders and Blockbusters did not survive the digital revolution: denial; history; resistance to change; mindset; brand; sunk costs; profitability; and lack of imagination. For a full explanation of how Lucas’s model relates to libraries, see my article of 20142, but here it suffices to say that the biggest evolution in public libraries has been in our attitude towards change. Examples of where seizing the opportunities inherent in disruptive technologies has enabled us to engage new audiences abound, including: maker spaces, sensory rooms, digital book clubs, live-streaming talks, supporting SMEs and business start-ups, LAN parties, library apps, VR & AR events, code clubs and escape room… the public library offer is stronger and more varied than ever before.
2. Start Them Young
Public libraries hail from a ‘cradle-to-grave’ approach, with a well-established tradition of sowing the seeds early to nurture the library users of the future. We achieve this through, among other things, a strong Early Years offer, family education/support services, children’s holiday programmes, young volunteers programmes and, perhaps most notably, our Schools Offer. Here are my top tips for class visits:
- Respond to national curriculum objectives3, for example: ‘Pupils should be taught to plan their writing by […] drawing on reading and research’4
- Respond to Ofsted5: ‘give all learners […] the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life’6
- Timing and convenience is everything
3. Give Them More Reasons to Visit You
Presupposing that the ubiquity of libraries acquaints the average member of the public with core concept of libraries as places for books and reading, simple reasoning suggests that, if you want to engage new users, you need to give them new reasons to connect with your service. This can take one of two forms: add something to your offer (see item 1), or help people to see you in a new light. Public libraries have been cultivating both forms of engagement in equal measure. Here are some examples:
- The cluster attraction model is gaining in popularity; where the public library is cohabited with other services or organisations, such as leisure centres, health centres, Citizens Advice, Tourist Information, cafes, museums/galleries, adult colleges, children’s centres, shopping centres, registry offices and archives.
- The mental health and wellbeing benefits of reading have become a major selling point, with many libraries regularly supporting: Reading Well (Books on Prescription)7; health checks; public health campaigns; social prescribing8; and generally building the Universal Health Offer9 into core library operation.
- Public Library Design is increasingly oriented towards versatile spaces for multiple uses, that are responsive to community requirements and open possibilities such as: 24hour access; bookable spaces; small business markets/stalls; learning opportunities and an absolute bounty of cultural events.
4. Partnership Working
A problem shared is a problem halved. Modern public libraries function on a foundation of partnerships that can yield a wealth of opportunity, such as: division of labour/cost on joint initiatives; improved access/success rate for grant bids; added-value through combining different specialities and different resources; broadening staff knowledge (training and signposting); and placing libraries at the heart of many community networks. The ideal scenario connects your library with organisations that bring new audiences you want to engage. Public library examples include:
- Children’s Centres for early years families
- Job Centres for job seekers
- Community groups for residents
- Housing Associations for residents in areas of deprivation
- Charities for vulnerable groups
Remember, however, to ensure that you are offer something that your partners want, like your beautiful books and/or spaces and information/knowledge they need. Successful partnerships require clear and well-defined mutual understanding, underpinned by shared and/or aligned goal. A partnership agreement can really help with this.
5. Your Heart Must Be in It
“You never get real adventures without a bit of risk somewhere.”
― Ian Fleming, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 1964
If I could impart just one wisdom from the world of public libraries, it would be this: remember your Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Real change doesn’t come without risk. Embrace the risk and enjoy the adventure! Yet, I also invoke the children’s novel as a cautionary tale. Seek to listen and understand your new audiences, rather than seeking only to be heard. The latter will follow from the former, but if you fail to communicate with an open heart you will also fail to make enduring connections. When people cannot see your motivation, they mistrust you and suspect the proverbial Child Catcher who offers temptations with a hidden objective. Therefore, wear your intentions on your sleeve and be ready to respond to what your new audience actually wants.
About the Author
Jacqueline Widdowson is a qualified and chartered librarian, who has been working in libraries for more than 10 years, and has experience in both public and school libraries. She has a particular interest in engaging children and young adults with reading and making library spaces open, inclusive and relevant for the communities that they serve. Jacqueline has been a senior executive of the CILIP Public and Mobile Libraries Group, since its formation in 2012, sits on the CILIP Working Internationally Project Board and has also served as a Youth Libraries Group committee member. She is currently the Senior Library Office at Oldham Libraries, responsible for the Children’s and Health Offers of the Oldham Library Service, as well as the Co-Chair of the CILIP Public and Mobile Libraries Group.
1 Lucas, H. The Search for Survival: Lessons from Disruptive Technologies, ABC-CLIO 2012
4 Department for Education, ‘The national curriculum in England, Key Stage 1 and 2 Framework Document’, 2013. p47 [accessed online 04-12-19]
6 Ofsted, ‘The Education Inspection Framework’, 2019. p9 [accessed online 04-12-19]