Guest post #1 – Libraries and social justice, by John Vincent, The Network

Social justice needs to be at the core of what the library of 2022 does. By this, John Pateman and I mean that libraries need to:

  • Embrace equality and diversity
  • Focus on a needs-based service and targeting resources towards those who need them most
  • Know and understand the components of the local community
  • Have an active, collaborative role in empathising and working in partnership with the local community
  • Fully engage the community, moving as far as possible towards co-production of service provision.

This will become ever more critical; because unless the UK has a sudden change of policy direction, what many expect is that by 2022 the gap between the haves and the have-nots will have widened even further than today.

There is already ample evidence (eg The spirit level; the Marmot Review of health inequality) of the dire effects that this gap has on all aspects of society. For example, The Spirit Level argues that: ‘for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are substantially worse in more unequal rich countries.’

Similarly, the Marmot Review of health inequality found: ‘There is a social gradient in health – the lower a person’s social position, the worse his or her health. Action should focus on reducing the gradient in health.’

In addition, there is growing evidence that, without reducing this gap, social mobility also stalls (see, for example, the Equality Trust’s, Among Equals).

The optimistic view is that by 2022, UK society will have fully recognised and accepted these impacts, and will be targeting resources and activities towards reducing that gap – and this would include public libraries as the late Bob McKee argued they should:

‘With seven million people in Britain lacking basic literacy skills, at least six million excluded from access to digital technology, and over four million experiencing multiple social and economic deprivation, libraries should be central to our strategies for literacy and learning, digital inclusion, regeneration, equality of opportunity, and personal well-being. To fit libraries for the future, government needs to recognise the contribution they can make to key policy objectives.’ [Taken from: Empower, inform, enrich: the modernisation review of public libraries. DCMS, 2009, p36]

Libraries’ role in ‘evening-up’ that gap would become critical.

A pessimistic view is that  by 2022 the inequality gap has still not been confronted, and the UK is torn apart – by poverty, unemployment, poor skills, continuing unrest, and blighted prospects. In this version of the future public libraries could again take a centre-stage role in terms of providing critical information and advice, supporting otherwise abandoned communities in their fight to survive.

Either way, public libraries have a fundamental social justice role to perform.

John Vincent is the co-ordinator of The Network  which supports libraries, museums, archives, galleries and other cultural and heritage organisations working to tackle social exclusion.   He and John Pateman wrote Public libraries and social justice
 

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7 Responses to Guest post #1 – Libraries and social justice, by John Vincent, The Network

  1. Alan Wylie says:

    I’ve always dreamt of being part of a radical library movement working hand in hand with the community with a common goal of justice and equality but i’ve never quite had the opportunity!
    I totally agree with you that we need to take more of a holistic approach to our work and really properly engage with our users and the wider community, i think it’s central to our future existence as a profession with any resemblance of integrity and purpose! But unfortunately the SCL have their own dystopian plans for us and the service!

  2. willimen says:

    The role of social justice should play in public library service provision, is not only paramount, but I would say essential to ensuring the continued and sustainable relevance of public libraries. The intentional and active mainstreaming of needs based services will ensure that library staff and those developing services ‘with’ and not for community, discover and collaboratively ensure the libraries relevance.

  3. Dr Malcolm Rigler says:

    The library , like the NHS GP and Hospital Services , should be a centre of social justice promoting the positive values of social solidarity, mutual support , shared learning ,concern for those without access to the internet – stranded on the shoreline of society. Constantly finding out about and responding to local health and social care needs.
    How can the library become aware of and respond to local health and social care needs?
    One solution could be the development – with funding from the newly emerging “Health and Well Being BOards” of a “Libraries and Health” partnership in every town and city in the UK. GPs like myself have been frustrated for decades that the 10 minute consultations – which is all that we can offer – leaves no time to explain to patients in terms and language that they can understand ( especially if ten or more languages are spoken by patients attending the practice )
    the diagnosis made ,the expected outcome of medications and treatments , the side effects of drugs prescribed and just as important the changes patients can make in their lives to avoid further complications of their conditions.
    Another way to promote social justice and to become aware of local health and social care needs would be to adopt the refreshing approach to libraries that Petina Gapphah , Head of the Harare City Library outlined on Radio 4 recently – she said “Libraries are not about books but they are about stories ( I would add especailly my patients stories) they must become the cultural centre in all our towns and cities”.
    Arts events , small – or large – drama should be normal,visual art exhibitions , fashion shows, food festivals should all be part of the offer.
    If we develop our libraries in this way they will soon become more user friendly and my patients will much more likely be willing to go to the library for e-learning about their conditions, medications and treatments , find out – maybe with the help of a trained volunteer – some key pieces of information that will be helpful to them as they try to cope with so called long term conditions so that when I give a “prescription for information” as part of the consultation I will feel confident that the library service will “fill the prescription” in a style and a way that my patient will value and find totally acceptable.

  4. Mike Cavanagh says:

    I don’t disagree with the huge potential that libraries have in social justice but we have one heck of a long way to go to achieve it.

    Neither the public library staffing profile nor the user base of libraries are representative of our diverse society. Our libraries are typically staffed by middle aged to elderly, white females who serve a user base that is typcially middle aged to elderly white females. Particularly in rural branches.

    The charge of the community managed library will simply perpetuate this with plenty of research showing that most volunteers in libraries are…yes you guessed it, middle aged to elderly white females.

    Not that I have anything against this demographic group I might add!

    While librarians may say libraries are about social justice, combatting the digital divide, health, etc, – (and I agree with this) – when you ask the general library user or a non user in the street what libraries are about, they will tell you they are about borrowing books.

    (Comments are personal and are in no way representative of the views of my local authority).

    • Alan Wylie says:

      “when you ask the general library user or a non user in the street what libraries are about, they will tell you they are about borrowing books.” – the last bit of proper research carried out by the MLA backs this up, this is what the vast majority of library users want, surely it’s our responsibility and job to give the public what they want? Why do some of us struggle with this?

      • Mike Cavanagh says:

        It’s an interesting question.

        Local research that I’ve been involved in also backs up the wider MLA findings. I think part of the reason why some professionals struggle with the notion of libraries being ‘only’ about books (reader development advocates please don’t shoot me for using that horrible phrase), is fear.

        If libraries are fundamentally about books, what happens when everyone is getting their books on their Kindle or other reader? What happens in a generation or two when our core audience has been brought up with this technology from a young age and no-longer values the smell of a physical book or the feel of a physical book. What happens when fewer books are produced because the demand for them in their physical form has waned. It will be market forces that dictate when this will happen and I think it’s coming sooner than many think.

        Much of the physical bulk of a library is made up of the display of books. What might a library look like when people use physical books by exception rather than by rule? Will there still be a place for libraries?

        There is a parallel concern around ‘information’ generally. Many people use google and other search engines to access information rather than their local library. Some of us maintain that libraries provide the added value through information literacy but I don’t think most users buy this.

        So, with a low and diminishing demand for books and a low and diminishing demand for access to information in its wider sense, what future is there for libraries?

        A future that focuses on social justice and needs-based services, providing safe neutral spaces that bring people together, will always be in demand and may well be the future for the profession, with or without large stocks of physical books.

  5. Pingback: Social justice and libraries in the UK – well, England in this case! | Social Justice Librarian

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