Libraries Week: the role of public libraries in health, wellbeing and democracy

This week is Libraries Week on Storge where we’re looking at the potential and the context of public libraries, and their future as changes to the way they are run in Derby are proposed. In this piece we look more closely at the view that libraries should be considered for their value to community beyond the books they hold, but also for their links to health, wellbeing, democracy and civic life. 

In recent years the way that public libraries have been used, indeed the amount they are used, has undergone a huge change. Once a vital lending and reference service the growth of the internet and eBooks has allowed direct, convenient access to all that information without having to physically go to a location or wait in turn to borrow it. But while borrowing from libraries may have declined many have found a new purpose, or perhaps their existing secondary purpose, has moved to the forefront.

For libraries have deeper links to a community than through their lending and reference alone. Librarians have long been known for their knowledge, their ability to find things and often this goes beyond the stacks and stores, to things not classified by Dewey Decimal but to the services of a place. Libraries were community hubs long before they began to be marketed as such, and while they are now recognised for being a multi-purpose space beyond reading their deep links into the health, wellbeing and even the democracy of their locality are only just being seen and studied. One such study by the University of Pennsylvania stated, “public libraries are dynamic, socially responsive institutions, a nexus of diversity, and a lifeline for the most vulnerable among us.” This emerging link may throw question on whether the money saved from the budget now in moving to a volunteer-led model is a short-term gain that could have a negative longer-term financial impact through adding pressure in seemingly unrelated services.

To begin to understand the link we must recognise libraries are seen by communities as a ‘third place’, one outside of their home and their workplace but an extra trusted and neutral place where planned and spontaneous, formal and informal meetings, with other people can take place. These third spaces are important to building strength of community, and form a place and support from which to navigate the complexities of life and public services. Some may argue that just like lending much of this third place activity is now done online, and while internet access and use is high and rising it is by no means universal.

Often the most vulnerable, the most in need of public services and help to navigate them, and for who access to culture supports a sense of self-worth with positive benefits to health and wellbeing, are unable to independently or regularly log on to the online space. The Council’s plan to move Central Library from its long-time and purpose-built home on the Wardwick into the Council House somewhat supports this view of the library as a needed third space and will move it under the same roof as services including the JobCentre. Yet at the same time it carries a risk of diminish the perceived neutrality of the space as much as it aims to improve access and convenience.

Perhaps alone this wouldn’t be a worry but at a time when true public space is greatly reduced – the sort of welcoming, intricate and lively spaces which foster community that the journalist, author and commentator on urban renewal and sociology Jane Jacobs captured in her years of prescient writing on American cities – in favour of moving people toward spending their time in commercialised spaces, then the loss of third spaces should be carefully considered beyond the immediate demands of the budget book. For public spaces have long been recognised as vital to a functioning democracy and Derby is arguably low on options – in the city centre perhaps the Market Place and Cathedral Green could be seen as such gathering places, St Peter’s Churchyard and The Spot perhaps at a push. Other spaces are now controlled by their commercial purpose and whether the Council House is seen as a public building or one of political control is a matter of debate also.

But what of the cost to the Council, and ultimately the tax payer, in these ongoing years of austerity? It would be naive to think the overall cuts to local authority funding by central government are not ultimately behind the re-thinking of how libraries are delivered and the need to save from the libraries budget. The move to make 10 of the 15 city libraries community-managed is said to save £648,000 in this budget if successful, however it also comes with a high cost of implementation and the loss of some 40 jobs. Are the changes just deferring costs or moving budget pressures to other areas of public service?

A 2015 study carried out on behalf of Arts Council England explored the impact of libraries on health and wellbeing as well as costs, and cost savings, to local authorities, tax payers and the health service. Their study found, “Library usage is associated with higher life satisfaction, higher happiness and a higher sense of purpose in life (although usage was also associated with higher levels of anxiety).” The study went on to find that library users were 1.4% more likely to report good health, and while this may sound small when linked to likelihood of reduced GP visits it nationally equated to an estimated £27.5million saving for the NHS.

Studies such as this begin to show that investing in culture has a societal and economic benefit beyond individualistic entertainment and enlightenment. The council’s current plan is to maintain the number of libraries and move the management of them to a new model, however some critics of the proposal have suggested that this leaves the community-led libraries at greater risk of closure in the future if proper support is not in place for the volunteers. There is little information at the moment about what would happen if a community-led library failed in someway – through inconsistent or lack of volunteers as raised as a risk by those already under the model – would the council rescue and resource the branch or would it be closed temporarily or permanently?

Libraries perhaps have an almost invisible but important purposes. Not as the under-used-but-nice-to-have repository of books and runner of events but as a signpost to health, wellbeing, housing, preventative and self-care, and other vital services; as someone another person can guide you through the complexities of life or provide quiet company to the lonely; as a place ready for public discourse; and for people to become self-educated as rounded citizens. They play key roles in the way we survive as a community and prosper together beyond providing us access to reading material.

We looked earlier in the week at whether volunteering is the future of public libraries and now ask, if so, how do community-led libraries recognise their role in other services and how are they supported to fulfil this purpose? Is the rest of the public service and health system ready for the repercussions – positive or negative – changes in public library provision may bring in the coming months and years?

Read more about:

Find Derby City Library plans on their website here. More information for groups and organisations interested in volunteering to run a library is here.

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