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Public libraries: working in partnership to meet local needs


Public libraries: working in partnership to meet local needs

A Public Policy Exchange event took place in June 2018 looking at the resiliency and value of public libraries, and how they can work in partnership to create new opportunities and meet local needs.

In a briefing for the event we set out the benefits of libraries and profile of library users, the impact of new technologies and funding pressures, examples of library partnerships and our work with the Society of Chief Librarians to provide ethical support for partnerships.


Libraries are popular and well-supported public services attracting the most diverse audiences in the arts, culture and heritage sector. Libraries provide a range of benefits to individuals, communities, wider-society and the economy by improving literacy, health and wellbeing, developing skills and supporting economic growth.

“Libraries are, let us not forget, a golden thread throughout our lives. Despite the growth in digital technologies, there is still a clear need and demand within communities for modern, safe, non-judgemental, flexible spaces, where citizens of all ages can mine the knowledge of the world for free, supported by the help and knowledge of the library workforce.”
William Sieghart, Independent Library Report for England

While overall the sector has experienced reductions in funding and staffing since 2010; the picture across the country is mixed with some Local Authorities proposing reductions that would see the area fall far below European averages, others continue to invest and innovate.

Public libraries have a successful track record working in partnership - including with the third sector, healthcare sector, across local Government and with national Government bodies and agencies. Libraries are key points in their communities and trusted spaces where all are welcome, so working in partnership can be an effective way to develop and provide services, target specific groups, increase profile and reach, and access funding.

CILIP strongly supports making a robust case to local and national Government about the value of library services, attracting partners to work with the library sector, supporting the exploration and development of sustainable funding models, effectively promoting libraries to the public, securing the publication of robust and open data about the sector, and developing an ethical framework for public and private sector partnerships involving public libraries.    

Benefits of libraries

• Literacy: The UK’s literacy crisis costs the economy £2.5 billion every year with a quarter of working age adults in England with low literacy or numeracy skills. The crisis is particularly acute amongst young people with England’s 16-19 year olds at the bottom of 23 developed nations for literacy skills.

“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. It belongs to them by right, from the moment of their birth.”
Nick Poole, Chief Executive of CILIP, the library and information association

Reading for pleasure is vital for children’s life chances and children who use libraries are twice as likely to be above average readers. 1

• Health: Regular library users have 1.4 percent increased likelihood of reporting good general health. The improvement in health associated with library use is estimated to save the NHS £1.32 per person per year in terms of reducing GP visits. The “aggregate NHS cost savings across the library-using English population” could save the NHS £27.5 million per year.

• Economic growth: The British Library Enterprising Libraries network of 17 Business and IP Centres and satellite projects helped to create 1,692 new businesses and 4,178 jobs between 2013 and 2015 resulting in a payback of £4.50 for every £1 of public money spent. Of the people who started a new business, 47% were women, 26% were black, Asian and minority ethnic and 25% were unemployed or had been made redundant.

Profile of library users

• Around half of people (46%) in England used a library last year. 

• 15-24 year olds are the most likely demographic group to use a library and are the most frequent users.

• Public libraries engage with the most diverse audiences in the arts, culture and heritage sector across ethnicity, disability, socio-economic status and income. DCMS Taking Part 2016 diversity statistics show that uniquely in the arts, culture and heritage sector only libraries:

 o Engage proportionately more of the Black and Minority Ethnic adult population than White adults.

 o Show no difference in engagement between those with a long standing illness or disability and those with no disability.

 o Engaged more people on lower than higher incomes, unlike any other part of the sector.

Public attitudes about libraries

• A significant proportion (72%) of people in England say that public libraries are important for their communities. 

• Two fifths (40%) say libraries are important for themselves personally.

• A public poll put librarians in the top-five professional groups for providing trustworthy information.

• Research with the public shows the most popular changes and improvements that libraries could make to encourage use are: 1. Better information on what libraries offer 2. Improve the range and quality of books 3. Offer more events 4. Provide other Council services in the library. 


• CILIP believes that volunteers add a huge amount of value alongside professional staff, but are not a replacement for staff. Public opinion supports this with half of people in favour of volunteers adding value to the services that paid library staff offer and less than 10% of people in favour replacing staff with volunteers.

• The Public Library Skills Strategy is a current initiative from CILIP and the Society of Chief Librarians to develop leadership skills, support high quality customer service, and recruit and retain the best talent.

“A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination.”

Catilin Moran

Unstaffed libraries

• Increasing numbers of public libraries are using technology to provide access to library buildings when they are unstaffed. This is used to extend hours where libraries are accessible beyond core staffed hours, and to provide entirely unstaffed libraries. Typically, entry to the library is via a swipe-card system with a pin. There are self-service machines to check-out and return books, and CCTV connected to a central point in case of issues such as antisocial behaviour that require security staff.

• CILIP backs the use of this technology to extend library services, and not to replace the help that librarians provide. The public deserve more than access to books from their libraries – including help and support, a safe and welcoming environment open to all, and a range of events and activities. We are particularly concerned about the accessibility of unstaffed library services for all, for example often young people aren’t able to access them as access is often restricted to unaccompanied young people over 16. Given that teenagers are one of the most likely demographic groups to use public libraries – this put barriers in the way of using libraries, it reduces equality of access and affects part of the age-group that use libraries the most.

• In 2016 there were 24 public libraries using this technology across nine Local Authorities . In 2018 the Public library News website says that to date “There are at least 109 staffless libraries in the UK (across 34 councils) all for some of their hours, or in process of becoming staffless.” 

Impact of funding pressures

• 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. At the same time the number of looked-after children increased by 10% and the number of over-65’s in need of social care increased by 15%.

• There was a 10.3% reduction in the number of public library service points from 2010-11 to 2016-17

• Between 2010 and 2017 the number of qualified librarians has reduced by a quarter (8,000 jobs lost).

• The European benchmark for library service provision is one service point for 13,000 people. In the UK, this has fallen to around 1:20,000 and some Local Authorities are implementing spending cuts which would reduce this to as little as one library per 40- 50,000 people. 2  

• The total net expenditure by Local Authorities in England on public library services fell by £69.1m between 2012-13 and 2014-15 3  to £762 million (net), just over 27 pence a week per person (under 1% of England’s local government net expenditure).

• There were 20.5 million fewer books in English, Welsh and Scottish public libraries in 2015 compared to 2010. 4  

Examples of library partnerships

Reading and literacy

• Bookstart is the world’s first national book-gifting programme, providing free books to all children in England and Wales at two stages before school. Run by the charity BookTrust, the programme involves multi-agencies across health, education, early years and local authorities. It encourages the promotion of libraries as hubs for activities centred around literacy, health and early years’ development. Evaluation shows a £25 return on every £1 spent in terms of social benefit to parents, children and communities.

• The Summer Reading Challenge is a reading challenge that takes place through libraries to address the summer reading ‘dip’. Over 750,000 children across the UK took place last year. Run by the charity The Reading Agency, in 2018 the Summer Reading Challenge is delivered in partnership with the Beano.

Health and wellbeing

• Reading Well Books on Prescription is available in libraries across England where patients are given prescriptions by GPs or other health professionals for self-help books from an approved list of titles. It was developed by The Reading Agency in partnership with the Society of Chief Librarians, and with funding from Arts Council England and the Wellcome Trust.

• Sandal library in Wakefield re-designed their library in partnership with the Alzheimer’s society to help people living with dementia.

• Hertfordshire library service works in partnership with the charity KidsHub to run closed library sessions and tailored activities with additional needs such as autism, cerebral palsy and profound multiple learning difficulties.


• Cultural Hubs is a programme of arts in St Helens libraries featuring theatre, dance, gigs, poetry readings, workshops, exhibitions and films. The programme is delivered in partnership with arts and creative organisations to improve mental wellbeing, and support neighbourhood development and community cohesion.

• The Civilisations Festival was a major cultural initiative where the BBC partnered with libraries, galleries and museums to host events to discuss and share ideas about what the term ‘civilisation’ means for their communities.


• WorkZone is a partnership between Westfield London, and Hammersmith and Fulham to provide a free one-stop recruitment service to help people find jobs, apprenticeships and with training.


• Glass Box is a community space in Taunton Library to support digital and business innovation where start-ups, innovators and digital makers can come together to share knowledge and increase digital skills development. The library works in partnership with businesses, who can offer to share their skills and expertise. Workshops have included a Google Digital Garage masterclass, where experts from Google offered advice and tips to local business owners on growing their businesses.

• Libraries across the UK run free code clubs for children in partnership with the volunteer network Code Club. Usually, the library provides the venue and equipment while Code Club provides the volunteers and expertise

Ethics and partnerships

• Some partnerships involving libraries have raised ethical concerns. A recent example is a contract between the Society of Chief Librarians and service provider Sopra Steria where 56 public library services will provide ‘community service points’ for in-country UK Visa applications on behalf of the Home Office UK Visa and Immigration service.

• CILIP’s concerns regarding the Sopra Steria contract include the appropriateness or otherwise of associating public libraries with visa and immigration processing and the risk this may present to the perceived neutrality and trust in the public libraries.

• CILIP and the Society of Chief Librarians will partner on the development of a guidance note on Public and Private Sector Contracts and Partnerships, using the new CILIP Ethics Framework as a basis for ethics-based decision-making and negotiation.

1  National Literacy Trust, 2011

2  Analysis by CILIP of Eblida EU library statistics

3  Comparing DCMS, (September 2012), Taking Part 2012/13 quarter 1 report: statistical release with DCMS, (January 2016), Taking Part 2015/16 quarter 2 report

4  CIPFA statistics for various years quoted in House of Commons Briefing paper no. 5875 Woodhouse, J. & Dempsey, N., (April, 2016). Public libraries

Headline image photograph author Smriti Prasadam-Halls reading one of her stories to a rapt audience of children photographed by Julia Chandler at Pimlico Library from Libraries Taskforce Flickr feed, Cropped and re-sized. (CC BY 2.0)



CILIP news   

Published:  7 June 2018


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