Sue Williamson - Director, Libraries, Arts Council England

This article forms part of the LGA's Re-thinking local think piece series.

As a trusted network, free to access at the point of contact, with over 3,000 branches spread throughout communities, Public Libraries in England are ideally positioned to support Councils in the aspirations expressed in Rethinking Local.

During lockdown, library services worked tirelessly to support their communities. Buildings may have been closed; libraries were not.  They moved swiftly to adapt their digital offer to meet increased demand from all ages, for both educational and recreational purposes.

For many, that lifeline epitomised hope. For those without digital resources, Libraries provided a personal service based on in-depth community knowledge, gained through years of operating at branch level. 

Suffolk Library service alone made over 7,200 telephone calls to the vulnerable during lockdown. Many library staff across the country were redeployed to support volunteers and organise supply lines. In Gateshead, the library service adapted their MakerSpace and provided over 2,000 PPE sets locally.

Through partnerships, over the years Library Services have supported many into work, providing digital support and skills support, such as CV writing. Through the Business and Intellectual Property Centre network, in partnership with the British Library, Libraries have helped over 12,250 emerging new businesses; so successfully, that after three years, over 95% are still trading and Government is investing a further £13 million in that programme. Many of those businesses were started by underrepresented groups such as female, ethnically diverse or disabled entrepreneurs, because libraries are inclusive, universally supportive, trusted spaces.

During lockdown, library services worked tirelessly to support their communities. Buildings may have been closed; libraries were not. 

Libraries operate four national Universal Offers: Culture and Creativity, Health and Wellbeing, Information and Digital and Reading, with the Children’s Promise extending those workstreams to young people.  Books on Prescription for Children and Young People support wellbeing, while the physical and digital reading offer develops reading for pleasure, established as a determinant of better life experience.

Libraries also offer opportunities to develop coding skills, to volunteer and to follow programmes such as Arts Award. Read and Rhyme times often provide the first cultural experience for a child.

Lifelong learning underpins all four offers, strongly supporting the levelling up agenda. Libraries have the potential to lead a revised programme to bridge the digital divide, building on the original premise of the People’s Network.

With 1.9 million households without access to the Internet, this is a key area in which Libraries can drive change.

Libraries have been described as the university of the poor. Today, they offer access to the burgeoning world of information and, through trained staff, the support to navigate it successfully. This develops active citizenship and informed response to key issues, such as climate change, while supporting users to gain new skills.

Open to everyone, and completely non-judgmental, Libraries have a role in the place making agenda and are anchors in their communities. In some rural areas, they are the only community space or cultural venue.

At Arts Council England, Libraries are at the heart of our new strategy, Let’s Create, with its focus on community creativity. We have widened our National Lottery Project Grant programme to include applications in support of those 4 national universal offers.

So Libraries have a vital role to play in Rethinking Local.  They can enable resource and support to be delivered where most needed, in those areas hit hardest by COVID-19, to achieve many of the outcomes identified in this report. They have been described by psychologist, Eric Klinenberg, as Palaces of the People, places where people meet, where bonds are forged and communities recover and regenerate after crises.

As the national development agency for Public Libraries, we at Arts Council England would hope to see that potential realised and fully exploited.