Guest post #3 – Focusing on poverty is risky but necessary, Jonathan Douglas, National Literacy Trust

The economic tsunami resulting from the banking crisis will shape social policy for the next decade in the UK. The recession will continue to work its way through our systems and the related cuts to public services will inextricably impact on communities. The Institute of Fiscal Studies predict that between 10/11 and 19/20 average income expected to fall by seven per cent and as a result by 2020 24 per cent of children will live in relative poverty. This is the challenge that will shape the future of libraries.

Libraries have always had a bias to the poor. It sat at the heart of their founding vision. In the past fifteen years this has been rediscovered in the context of social inclusion policy. The challenge is to put this into practice at a time when libraries’ resources themselves are being savagely cut in many places.

However the prize is great: If libraries can effectively work with individuals and the communities most at risk of poverty, they can turn lives round, boost relative social mobility and even stop the newly enlarged poverty footprint in the UK becoming intergenerational. They will also demonstrate their indispensible role in UK policy. They will demonstrate that their statutory role is no whim, but recognition of how libraries make society fairer and richer, in every sense.

The evidence  for libraries’ impact on poverty is compelling,  particularly in combating the inequalities associated with child poverty.  The Effective Provision of Preschool Education research and more recently the Avon Longitudinal  Study of Parents and Children have demonstrated the power of libraries in closing the one year gap in school readiness that exists between rich and poor children and which lays the foundations for many later inequalities.

However the effectiveness of libraries against the poverty agenda is dependent on the extent to which they commit to this audience as a priority, and the extent to which they provide services which  tackle poverty. Learning and literacy need to be at the heart of this approach. A simple increase in literacy which cuts the likelihood of an adult being reliant on benefits from 19 per cent to six per cent.

Libraries can deliver this if they rededicate themselves to this audience and refresh their focus on learning and literacy. Progressive universalism was a comfortable policy framework, it allowed you to continue doing everything for everybody and at the same time you could maintain that you had priorities. This is expensive and is now unaffordable. Public policy now expects targeted services, even seeing the state as provider of last resort. If libraries are challenged to prioritise and target, they need to be confident about the audience they can have the biggest impact on. This audience is frequently the poorest and most vulnerable.

Of course there are dangers for libraries with adopting an approach which focuses on poverty  – services may become stigmatised, they risk losing what have become seen as core audiences.  However the dangers in not proactively addressing the economic and social challenges of the next decade are much more significant.

Jonathan Douglas is the Director of the National Literacy Trust

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5 Responses to Guest post #3 – Focusing on poverty is risky but necessary, Jonathan Douglas, National Literacy Trust

  1. garygre says:

    Both this and John Vincent’s social justice post highlight areas that I hope gain a stronger focus in the future, whether that’s in the provision of library services themselves, or in informing library detractors about the value of libraries. What public libraries in the future will really need is for more of “the haves”, including the people who hold the purse strings and make the decisions (at local and national level), to be aware that for some people (“the have nots”) public libraries are still essential, especially in terms of support for literacy; community cohesion, inclusivity and development; social mobility; free access to education, lifelong learning resources, information and knowledge. In 2012 it really does seem as if the “I’m alright Jack” mentality is leading the way, alongside the notion that if something doesn’t make money or fit into a private sector model of services it’s worthless. Hopefully the future will see it developed into “I’m alright Jack, but you’re not… so here’s some help.”

  2. There is also a strong correlation between social exclusion and those digitally excluded. Recent figures show that only 31% of adults without qualifications have been online. As librarians we know that digital inclusion is not just about giving people access to the technical tools, or even the skills to use them it is also about motivating people to use them. The People’s network made huge strides in getting access to people but we now need to move beyond this.There are some really interesting projects going on out there but not necessarily connected to public libraries. Initiatives such as the DAIN project Part of this project’s remit is to seek out those people who aren’t coming through the door in the first place. This type of outreach work would be considered a luxury for most public library services but with the Government’s push towards “digital by default” this is an important area for public libraries and librarians to get involved with. People who are or feel socially and digitally excluded will never have the motivation to fully participate and engage with their communities.

  3. Pingback: Weekly Round up 30/03/2012 « North East Child Poverty

  4. Dave Arkin says:

    Hi Johnny, it’s been a while since we met, but I’d like to ask; if you and the NLT are going to get behind or advice ACE on their pretty recent involvement with libraries, how would you suggest they ensure a fair distribution of funds across the whole gamut of libraries in England, considering the total cock up they have made of funding museums?

  5. Jonathan – the dangers of targetting towards need and thereby missing the chance to provide a universal service that can really help people to avoid falling through the gaps have been very evident in Children’s Services. The report below illustrates how far this approach has failed compared with the Nordic countries who take a far more holistic approach and manage to run less confrontational but more successful Children’s Services:,Q6LS,12Q3JN,2416G,1

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