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