It’s an anxious time for young people. UK youth unemployment stands at 21.9%, and reports show it’s getting harder to bust out of a disadvantaged start. http://www.dpm.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/news/nick-clegg-speech-social-mobility
People under 25 make up 43% of the world’s population – their choices will determine the future. Yet in England we are in danger of having a lost generation of young people – getting into debt, deterred by the cost of higher education, disenchanted with the democratic process, and isolated through rising transport costs (IMF figures predict a doubling of oil prices by 2022).
What does this mean for those shaping the future of libraries?
The danger of an age of austerity is that everything grinds to a halt. But we are seeing libraries’ growing recognition that involving young people in designing services stimulates innovation, while teaching them communication, literacy and civic participation skills.
There is intriguing evidence that young people are rediscovering libraries. New Carnegie Trust research shows that 55% of England’s 15-24 year olds use libraries – the highest figure for any audience group. Councils should see libraries as key partners in reaching young people
Young people’s heavy use of libraries is being driven by a modernised offer and a growing social need. This modernised approach involves work to involve young people in shaping the service. The 18 authorities piloting our MyVoice UK programme are finding that young people are eager to join steering groups and roll their sleeves up to help shape and deliver the future library service. Services from Gateshead to Merton are reporting that the MyVoice approach is helping them deliver strongly on the council’s priorities and is transforming the service. Gateshead are planning a MyVoice hub in every library.
Increasingly young people are volunteering through libraries too – 62% of UK local authorities now involve teenage volunteers in inspiring children to complete the Summer Reading Challenge- http://readingagency.org.uk/children/App%203%20-%20SRC%20Volunteering%202011.pdf
Not as replacement for professional staff, but as motivational mentors, who in turn gain skills and accreditation, increasing their chance of a place at college or a first job. They say volunteering reignites their interest in reading. “ When you are studying English it’s really easy to get stressed by not understanding a text, but when you talk to the kids and they tell you why they love a story, it makes you love reading again. I never expected children to teach me that” Katie O’Dowdall, 18, Essex
This isn’t just a soft, nice outcome – 2011 Oxford University research showed that for 16 year olds, reading for pleasure is the only out of school activity demonstrably linked to securing a better job.
We’ve been listening to young people’s voice in the debate. 15 year old Callum, working with Warrington Libraries says http://audioboo.fm/boos/670975-callum-15-wants-his-voice-heard
On the anniversary of the riots we’ll be launching a youth innovation network, to help libraries put democracy into action by working with local young people to create the services they want.
By 2020 we hope libraries will be playing an active role in further and higher education, offering exciting digital support, and facilities to learn in self organised groups. How fantastic if every library could have a MyVoice hub where the local youth council meets, with a team of young people helping co-create the service, and design apprenticeships. These could help libraries become cultural hubs in areas with few cultural opportunities.
Policy makers take note: stop leaving libraries out of your thinking! If we want our young people to thrive, you must factor libraries into your planning. And how about libraries being the focus for a massive Arts Council bid to the next Comprehensive Spending Review?
Miranda McKearney is Chief Executive of The Reading Agency an independent charity with a mission to inspire more people to read more.