The Common Room – getting back to the roots of public libraries
Nick Poole, Chief Executive of CILIP – the UK’s library and information association – spoke at the joint CILIP Ireland and Library Association of Ireland conference on 19 April 2018
Imagine a room. It's a simple room, this room but it is wondrous nonetheless. It is wondrous because it belongs automatically to anyone and everyone that wants to make use of it.
This room of ours belongs to the young mum who can't take five more minutes cooped up indoors with the kids. It belongs to the 55-year-old man whom life has brought low, who spends his nights in a homeless shelter. It belongs to the young entrepreneur with limited funds but unlimited ambition.
This room of ours belongs to the Doctor, the Fireman, the Nursery Nurse. To the Lawyer, the Clerk, the Farmer and the Shop Owner. It belongs to the Hairdresser and the Cadet, the Office Worker and the Civil Engineer. It belongs to the elderly lady in a high rise who hasn't spoken to anyone so far this week. It belongs to the newly-arrived migrant looking for a sense of connection – to home, to life over here, to people who care and can help.
It belongs to the group of ladies who meet once a week for a knit and a natter. To the visually impaired group who have moved on from being strangers and become a supportive network of friends. To the factory worker who secretly loves c18th French romance fiction and tells his wife he’s popping in for a Haynes Car Manual.
It belongs to the young lad who's been excluded from school. To the girl who needs to get away from her parents. To the boy who has questions he simply can't ask his mates. It belongs to the four-year-old who might one day be Prime Minister, or an astronaut, or a lion tamer. To the girl who will one day be awarded a Nobel prize. The boy who will grow up to be known by his family and friends for his kindness and compassion.
It belongs, too, to the dispossessed who have been taught to hate the culture that surrounds them. It belongs to those who feel alienated and marginalised by mainstream British culture. It belongs to the young people who walk out of their house in the morning with time and talent but not money, determined to make something of themselves, who need a place that isn't home and isn't work but is that 3rd space that is uniquely theirs.
This room of ours belongs to women and men, young and old, people of every faith and none. It belongs to them not because they hand over their credit card, or share their personal data or buy a coffee. It belongs to them by right, from the moment of their birth.
And this room of ours is full. Full to bursting with ideas, and stories and inventions and answers to questions and questions in need of answers. Every surface is laden with a feast of literature, art, poetry, nursery rhymes, facts and figures, newspapers and magazines, maps and local photographs. In this room are the myths and folklore which define us as a culture. The lessons of the past and past ideas about the future. Guides and recipe books, volumes of history, quick reads and holiday books. And this cornucopia of content isn’t limited to what you can see and touch. It spirals outward into the online world, a near endless array of things to read and do, ready to download to your device and use whenever you wish.
And it’s not just the stuff you might find in any online book retailer. Walking into this room, you are the equal of scholars and academics, able to access and use the research resources normally reserved for those at University.
You are the equal of business leaders, able to access the latest market intelligence, industry analysis and data.
And it isn’t just a random assemblage of content. Its curated, personalised – it has been put together by someone who knows and understands what their community wants and needs. And more than this, if this dazzling collection of personalised content doesn’t contain precisely the thing you need, you can reach out to the network of similar rooms across the country and they will supply it for you.
And the price you pay for this endless feast of learning and literature is the promise to bring it back when you’ve finished with it.
The dimensions of our room are miraculous too. You can walk in, sit down, find a place to work, or think or read. The room breathes in people throughout the day and breathes them out again in the evening. It accommodates chatty groups and silent study, friends catching up, groups learning, workers looking for a hot desk in the middle of the day. It accommodates shelving, events, talks and workshops, makerspaces and performances, arguments and meetings, clinics, consultations and appointments. Learning and play, work and reflection. You can access this room via a browser at your kitchen table. You can pack it up and put it on your phone. You can carry it with you, wherever you travel.
And not only that, but this room of ours is connected to the world. You can walk in, use your own device or one of the PC's you’ll find there and be instantly connected to services that will help you find a job, learn a skill, stay in touch with your family.
How would you judge the success of such a room? How would you measure its impact on the lives that encounter it?
Would you measure its value merely by counting how many people walked in? Would that be sufficient to tell you the full story of what it means?
What would such a wondrous room be worth to you? Would it be worth £12 and 90 pence a year? A pound and change a month for each woman, man and child? What return on investment would you be looking for from such a room. What metric would be sufficient to legitimise the money it costs to secure the right to such a room for every single one of us?
And what if I told you that this room, this wondrous, common room, could help us attend to some of the most pressing challenges confronting our society in every corner of our island home, in every town and city, in every community.
What if I told you that part of the answer to sowing unity in our fractured society lay within the walls of this room? That our common room is the perfect place for people in our cosmopolitan and multicultural society to come together, learn about each other and to begin to build bridges rather than walls. That spending time in our common room can help alleviate the anxiety and alienation many people feel about modern life.
What if living near such a room made people feel just a little more proud of the place where they live. And that feeling a little more proud of it, they take more responsibility for and better care of it.
What if inside this room people could develop the skills they need to spot and be resilient to fake news and misinformation? What if this room could help people feel more connected to the civic life of their community, help and encourage them to vote, to stand, to get involved? What if this room could provide a platform for people to challenge their prejudices?
What if this room had the ability to alleviate the pressure on providing meaningful, dignified social care for some of the hardest to reach people in our community? What if it could provide a buffer for the health service, helping to ensure that people make better use of their local GP and that we can extend the support for people experiencing mental health issues?
What if it could extend teaching and learning beyond the local secondary school or college – providing a safe and trusted space for young people to work and learn and socialise? What if the very presence and use of such a room helped to ensure that local business have access to the skilled and literate workers they are going to need in order to remain relevant and competitive?
And what if the presence of such a room in your town, in your community, helped improve property values, created a halo effect for local businesses, made that town or community a better place to invest in?
And not only all of this, but what else might such a room provide a platform for? What new forms of community engagement, cultural activity or civic participation might find a natural home in our common room? What uses might we put our respectful, quiet community space to in the future?
What would you calculate as the worth of such a room, that can do all of these things?
Let’s reflect for a moment on the kind of person it would take to be the caretaker of this miraculous room. Because a room like this wouldn’t spring spontaneously into existence – it would need to be built. The placing of every brick and window, every door and stick of furniture would need to be considered so that it didn’t inadvertently undermine the universal right to make use of it, so that it sends a universal message not only of welcome but of belonging.
It would need to be designed to accommodate all human needs and a dizzying range of activities. It would need to be run and managed, cared for, developed and adapted over time to ensure that it could continue to make its extraordinary contribution to the life of its community.
So what kind of person would it take to be the human face of such a room? It would have to be someone who believes, fundamentally, in people. In their dignity. In their rights. In empowering people to better themselves and their situation. It would have to be someone who has a real personal and professional connection to the idea of the ‘public realm’ and the ‘common good’ – that litany of rights which ensure the equal right to freedom of expression and the freedom to learn, to question and to know.
It would have to be someone who believed in true equality – that all people have equal value, deserve equal access to ideas and opportunity. That all information users are equal. And more than this, it would have to be someone who believed they had a duty to challenge inequality wherever they found it. Whether in the pages of a book or in the actions of their users.
It would have to be someone willing to sublimate their ego to the real needs of others – to ensure that their practice and their service were in keeping with the universal nature of the room. Someone for whom your success is their success. It would have to be someone with outstanding skills in customer service, the ability to communicate sympathetically with everyone, a sense of humour and genuine determination. It would have to be someone willing to be accountable for their service, able to answer for it if it fails and to be celebrated for it when it succeeds.
It would have to be someone who understands enough of the law to know the parameters and constraints they are working in, and what to do when their work looks like it might take them beyond these.
It would have to be someone with the skill to organise that huge volume of knowledge so that it can easily and quickly be found and used by a near infinite variety of readers. It would have to be someone with the communications skills and insight to see through what people are saying and understand the real question they’re bringing into the room with them.
It would have to be someone who believes in and is dedicated to upholding your right to privacy. Not as a faint ideal, but as a fundamental part of enabling you to live well in an increasingly connected world.
It would have to be someone who has made a decision, a choice, a commitment to do this for a living. To do this for their profession.
How would you calculate the worth of such a person? How would you calculate how much such a person should be paid? A professional who helps their entire community to succeed. What would you say that was worth? What share of the future prosperity of our society would you give them?
Our prison, school and public libraries and the librarians and library workers that run them are that room. That common room of our nations and regions and communities. They are the common room at the heart of the school. They are the ‘other place’ – the common room at the heart of the prison that makes you feel like a whole person again. They are that trusted place of comfort and community and learning and discovery.
So I wanted to take a moment to invite you – whichever part of our sector you work in, whichever type of library you work for, whichever community you serve – to celebrate and stand in solidarity with our colleagues in all libraries, but particularly in our prison, school and public libraries.
Every day, the length and breadth of the Island of Ireland, of England, Scotland and Wales, they go in, open the doors, turn on the lights and get ready to welcome their community. To create that common room. To give people that sense of ownership and belonging. Answer their questions, chat to them, help them to help themselves.
There’s a saying that I’m fond of which is “if people could fly, they would call it exercise and they wouldn’t do it”. It is amazing how quickly we normalise the miraculous. There’s a risk sometimes that even we as librarians and as information professionals forget quite how remarkable a thing a library truly is.
In England for the past eight years we have seen what happens when society forgets just how miraculous a thing a library is. In the cold reckoning of the National Audit Office in their recent report on the Financial Sustainability of Local Government, we experienced in England a 10.3% reduction in the number of public library service points in the six years to 2017. This figure doesn’t tell the full story – the story of the wider impact of hollowing-out, reductions in hours and the transfer of around a further 8% of English libraries to being wholly community-led, the loss of the role of librarianship at the heart of the library.
Other figures from the same report tell a story of a society with real and complex needs. Funding to Local Government has fallen by 49%, a real-terms drop of 28% in their spending power of local Councils in less than six years. Bus service mileage – the number of miles covered by rural bus services in England outside London – fell by nearly 50%. The number of looked-after children increased by 10% and the number of over-65’s in need of social care increased by 15%.
And yet, it is clear from many of the conversations I have with politicians and leaders and decision makers in Westminster that they look at our common room and see not a cost-effective answer to these complex social and economic challenges, not a partner ready and willing to use our trusted role, our unmatched infrastructure of trusted, networked places, but a room filled with books. A nice-to-have. There is an increasingly jarring disjoint between the sector we know and love – with its 250m plus physical visits a year, 96m online visits a year, its growing audience of 15-24 year olds, its 26 million hours of supported internet access – and how it is perceived by the people whose support and engagement we need. The story that is old and familiar to us is new to them. Which is why we must learn to tell it with a renewed freshness and enthusiasm.
This is why I believe we have so much to learn from you here in Ireland and Northern Ireland – from the relationships you are building across your Government and the public and third sector and the vision you have for the growth and success of your libraries. From the relationship between CILIP Ireland and the Library Association of Ireland and the way in which you are working together to champion all of Ireland’s libraries.
And similarly from our colleagues in Wales, where real valuable work is being done to connect libraries with Government priorities such as Prosperity for All, the national strategy to target poverty, particularly child poverty in Wales. And in Scotland, where Ambition and Opportunity and the new impetus towards a National School Libraries Strategy give us real inspiration that decision-makers really do understand the value and the potential of this common room of ours.
And so I hope you will stand with us too and help us as we find our way towards telling a new story about the future of our libraries in England. Over the next two years, we want – in the words of one long-standing librarian and colleague – to “go back to the roots of our sector – to the essential role we play as the common room at the heart of our communities – and re-cast them on the shores of a modern age.”
We have to give our politicians and policymakers a fresh understanding of the power of libraries. We have to fight to ensure that we are embedded across Government policies on skills and housing, social integration and the digital economy, fake news and local economic growth. We have to prove that our common room is there, right at the forefront of tackling society’s greatest challenges.
And to do this, we must build new partnerships, make new friends. We must build up our relationships with the business community, with the technology sector and with retail. With health and formal and informal learning, with the third sector and with Local and National Government. We must find new champions who champion not only the vital power of reading and literacy, but of digital skills, enterprise and innovation.
The decline in use we have seen in some library services is not, in my view, anything to do with a decline in need. It is a decline in the understanding of what the word 'library' means today.
We are I think at a turning point. The politics of austerity which have for so long constrained our ambition, prolonged by the process of Brexit, must now come to an end. We have a Spending Review in 2019 and yesterday morning I met with the Libraries Minister to talk about how we can secure both investment in Local Government to maintain local services and additional investment to rebuild our publicly-funded sector. We know that over the next 18 months, we must speak the language not of emotion or ideology, but the spreadsheet. To bring a true end to public sector austerity we, along with our partners in other parts of the public sector, must demonstrate the case for investment to Treasury in language they understand.
As we look ahead to the English local elections on 3rd May on doorsteps across our country people are crying out for a new sense of aspiration, of hope, of opportunity. That is why CILIP wrote yesterday to candidates in those elections - prospective Councillors and Metro Mayors - to give them a new idea of what libraries are today.
Because when you give people a sense of aspiration and hope and opportunity, they go to work. They graft to make it a reality.
And so we must be ready to tell a new story about our common room, our libraries, and the role they play in our future success, here in Ireland and across the rest of the UK.
And we must be clear-eyed about the economics of our sector. Over the past 20 years it has cost around £800-900m a year to run an effective public library service - around £12.90 per person per year.
Estimates suggest we are currently running on around £700m. So there is a shortfall in public investment of some £100m. That's £3 a year for every taxpayer in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. When you factor in the cuts to school budgets as well, this gap grows larger still.
We have closed some of that gap through being more efficient, working together. Some of it has been closed by new investment from our Governments. Some of it through the creativity of librarians seeking new sources of funds.
But the lion’s share of that gap remains. It can be closed, but in order to close it and to secure the future viability of our sector we can't tell the same old story, nor can we afford to wait for the winds of political fortune to turn in our favour. We have to tell a new story which speaks both to the finest values and ideals of today's political generation and to the need for meaningful economic and industrial growth - for jobs, productivity and social and economic mobility.
And in telling that new story I think we have some powerful tools.
Firstly, we have the work that is done every day in every library. The track-record of delivery, customer service and impact that has continued throughout these difficult times, delivered by professional librarians.
Secondly, I think we now have better leadership at the helm of our libraries and organisations than we have for many years. We have good dedicated people in a position to take the library message to the people who need to hear it.
Thirdly, we have the biggest and best network of trusted, physical and digitally connected spaces of any public service. There may be more GPs and more schools but there is no other service whose doors are open to so many people of such diversity every day, physically and virtually.
Fourth we have you - advocates and influencers - each with your own network each with your own voice. Every single conversation you have, every misconception you correct, every interaction helps to turn the tide in favour of our sector.
And finally we have the most important things of all - confidence and conviction. The knowledge that in today's fast-paced, complex connected age, our communities need us more than ever, not less.
Because at the end of all this, there is a prize to be had.
I will tell you what I want. I want libraries and librarians to win. I want our common room at the heart of every community, every business, every school, every college, every hospital, every Government department. Every life.
I want our services to be fully funded, not as an obligation but an opportunity. Not because of a nostalgia for what we were but because of a full recognition of what we are today and have the potential to be tomorrow.
I want professional librarians managing and leading this common room not because of a residual memory of status but because of who we are today and what we can do today. Because of our contemporary skills and ethics and values and professionalism. Because of our ability to lead and drive the ongoing evolution of this common room of ours.
I want the Doctor, the Fireman, the Nursery Nurse, the Lawyer, the Clerk, the Farmer and the Shop Owner, the Hairdresser and the Cadet, the Office Worker and the Civil Engineer to see us and use us as their common room, a vital part of their daily lives.
We know that no one of us on our own is going to secure the future prosperity of our common room. If we are going to win, we need to stand together. Which is why I would like to ask every one of you once again to put your shoulder to the wheel and get behind the process of telling our story with a new voice. I hope that over the next two years you will get involved, share your ideas, help us to bring that message to every meeting and conversation.
We know we have to fight to make all of this happen. I am ready. CILIP is ready. I know you are ready. We are ready.