Guest post #5 – Libraries for learning for life, by John Dolan

In early years a child is joyfully open to accumulate knowledge, skills and habits. Habits nurtured in early years evolve as a way of life. A diverse and sustained learning life lasts into old age, enriching experience and maintaining health, capacity and reward. In between these years, a capacity to learn and an appetite for discovery means a better working life, a healthier lifestyle, adaptability to change and a fuller contribution to society both economically and socially.

Many influences surround such a paradigm, but the potential of libraries to appear at all stages of this lifelong progression is understood. Alongside institutional libraries centred on education, public libraries appear and reappear along this life route as the first resource for the learning that people do of their own volition, for work, family, community or personal fulfilment.

The research that led to Bookstart – bringing home to parents the value of loving reading to babies and toddlers – demonstrated that children who took part are more ready to read and learn when they reach school. The powerful impact of a good school is indisputable. Still, children spend less than 20% of their waking hours in school from birth to school leaving age. The rest of the time the public library should be the resource for learning and discovery.

Further education is adapting to a mobile and remote student community following a complex mix of study modules, accumulating skills perhaps over several years, as needs arise. In higher education libraries are better at demonstrating their critical influence on graduate achievement.

In all stages of study the institutional library runs alongside the student, learner and researcher – just in time. Running in tandem with this should be the public library, for lifelong learning – just in case.

The public library system is a huge resource: 4,000 outlets, networked, packed with resources and staffed by skilled, empathetic information and knowledge workers. How to maximise reach and impact? Storytelling every week? It should be every morning and afternoon. Outreach projects? Community engagement should be the norm.

National recovery? A cache of research, case studies and prize-winning innovation already exists, showing the impact of libraries on the learning lives of children, families, unemployed people, disabled people, excluded groups, victims of crime, victims of the causes of crime and so on.

In a mobile, digital era with multiple family structures, uncertain economy and shifting global wealth, the cost of refreshing this amazing giant outweighs the irresponsible loss of not building on past investment. There is a unique chance in the enhanced use of this extraordinary package of infrastructure, skills, experience and, above all, the non-judgemental culture of an increasingly rare open democratic public space.

How could this happen? Shared recognition across government. Leadership for a framework and action plan. Partnerships across sectors. A modernisation plan. National programmes for variable delivery according to place or community of need. An updated corpus of knowledge for the working library, information and knowledge community serving our learning needs.

John Dolan OBE, ran libraries in St Helens and Birmingham. He is now an independent advisor on libraries and community regeneration, and also a CILIP Councillor.

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10 Responses to Guest post #5 – Libraries for learning for life, by John Dolan

  1. Desmond Clarke says:

    Libraries: Care in the community, a report by Tom Holman published by The Bookseller

  2. Desmond Clarke says:

    John Dolan was responsible for a previous consultation exercise undertaken in 2007 as part of Blueprint for Excellence. This was followed the next year by the two year Library Modernisation Review. Furthermore, we had many other intiatives, studies and consultancy reports looking at the issues facing the public library service. John’s words are fine but the real issue is who will provide the political and professional leadership that he and many others seek. What is wanted is people with the strategic vision, expertise, drive and ability to deliver and a strong leader who is firmly focused on the public good.

  3. As part of this conversation I thought it would be interesting to post the thoughts of library users themselves at a recent discussion morning:
    ‘Hats off to Libraries’ discussion event at Saltford branch library (Bath and N.E. Somerset) –
    As part of their programme of activities and events the Friends of Saltford Library group recently held a hats off to libraries morning facilitated by the library service Reader Development Officer, to celebrate libraries and to have a lively and open discussion about what people thought a 21st library should be. The Friends of Saltford Library is a group of people who live close to and use one of our smallest branch libraries in the authority. Their aim is to contribute to ensuring that the local library not only survives into the 21st century but that it is a central part of the local community offering activities that local people want in a friendly and safe space.
    Some stimulus materials (such as what purpose libraries have served in the past and in other countries) were provided to instigate the conversation. Everyone was also encouraged to wear a hat to the event – weird, beautiful, ordinary or bizarre! This was to add a little extra interest and zing to the occasion and to establish an atmosphere where people felt they could say whatever they really wanted to say. The event had 17 participants. These participants included some regular Friends of Saltford Library event-goers and some new participants.
    The discussions were very interesting. Everyone agreed that libraries had changed for the better within their own life times. Although participants had some very happy memories of libraries throughout their lives people also associated libraries from the past to some extent with: ‘silence’, ‘shushing’ and with them sometimes being ‘scary’.
    People now associated libraries with being ‘warm’, ‘home from home’, ‘a meeting place’, ‘a place for groups’, ‘somewhere to socialise’ and a place for ‘books and information’.
    At one stage in this discussion one participant mumbled “pass the feathers” (so that a late comer could add a feather to their hat to brighten it up) and it was felt that this aside showed the extent to which libraries had developed and become unique and valuable places in which creative discussions and new ideas could take place in innovative ways.
    One participant cited libraries as somewhere that promoted activity for the mind quoting Sigmund Freud’s “reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” This led on to a discussion of e-books. Most of the participants preferred the physical book but could see the benefits of e-readers for journeys and the advantages of being able to increase font size.
    People felt that books should be the real staple offering of libraries but could see the impetus and advantages of including new technology formats as options for library users. One participant said that he read mainly non-fiction books and that he often used his own physical books as a repository for clippings and notebook comments and additions to the subject matter of the book and that this couldn’t be done with an e-book. We thought books as a repository was an intriguing and additional (but probably impractical) concept for library books!
    Following a reading out of one of the discussion stimulus sheets (Libraries in the Soviet Union and Russia) participants were interested in knowing how Bath and NE Somerset Libraries selected stock. One participant said that she had a Russian penfriend and that she would ask her about libraries in the former Soviet Union and in contemporary Russia and then let us know about her experiences and opinions.
    Another discussion strand centred around the function of the library as a source of information and whether the Internet had resulted in less importance being placed on the library as a source of information. It was acknowledged that increased ease of access to information had changed the role of the library as an information source but that it was still important. The Internet can be accessed through libraries and libraries can be part of a social aspect of gaining information.
    It was felt that libraries played an important part in people socialising in their communities. One participant asked whether Bath and N.E. Somerset Libraries had a policy for the use of libraries as places to socialise. What an interesting question.
    We looked at some further discussion stimulus material on what libraries should be doing to survive and thrive through the 21st Century. These example recommendations were that libraries should: embrace new information technologies (providing resources and advice on modern technologies), preserving memories of the communities they are based in (everyday life, experiential memories) and thirdly experiment with library space and usage in a creative and experimental way.
    The participants were in agreement with these recommendations. They personally put less of a stress on the use of new technologies but felt that Saltford Library was already trying to achieve the other two recommendations. Through the work of the Friends of Saltford Library there has been a strong emphasis on capturing local experiential memories through the ‘Local Memories’ sessions and the group has already been exploring and will continue to explore new exciting uses for the library space.
    The discussions particularly highlighted the library as a place for social interaction. A place that is free, conducive to creativity and new ideas and has a ‘home from home’ feel to it. It should have a welcoming atmosphere as soon as members of the community walk in.
    The meeting closed with everyone feeling very positive of the need for libraries to survive and thrive into the 21st Century and with the hope that Saltford Library would remain and develop providing: books physical and in different formats), Internet access, collections of local memories and the space and support for people to meet, socialise and develop creative and interesting groups and activities.
    It would be very interesting to know the ideas and opinions of other grass roots library users in other areas of the country.

    • Alan Wylie says:

      June – a very welcome addittion to the conversation, thank god someone has expressed the views of library users, which funnily enough sound very familiar to the ones highlighted in the last piece of MLA research “what the public want from libraries”!
      I am becoming very concerned that library users (and non-users) are too a large degree being left out of this consultation, so thanks very much!

    • Ka-Ming says:

      “People felt that books should be the real staple offering of libraries but could see the impetus and advantages of including new technology formats as options for library users. One participant said that he read mainly non-fiction books and that he often used his own physical books as a repository for clippings and notebook comments and additions to the subject matter of the book and that this couldn’t be done with an e-book. We thought books as a repository was an intriguing and additional (but probably impractical) concept for library books!”

      I can see this becoming a possibility. There are already version that let you highlight and make notes, I think. All you need to do is to add a function where you can all scan or take pictures, add web links, audio clips etc etc.

  4. Oskar Matzerath says:

    What if Freud was wrong? Perhaps reading is to the mind what food is to the body. Unfortunately, there is a lot of junk food around. And librarians may have been directed by seasoned professionals to work on the wrong mandate.
    Also, John has a very clear approach. So, why has all this not happened in the last xx number of years? Should the current leadership of libraries be trusted to implement John’s vision now? Why?
    Could this very thorough plan be the completely wrong approach, producing more of the same, taking a long time to implement, and providing more scope for academic, but fruitless, discussion?

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  6. Gerald Rigler says:

    Our predecessors wished for it (judging from their investments) and, having read some of the contributions, it is obvious that the desire for an effective and understanding Society based upon mutual trust and informed understanding is alive and well.

    To achieve such a desire will require change from the constant fragmentation of ‘cost centres’ designed, apparently to demoralise staff and ensure that “critical mass” is lost so that Society is prevented from improving itself !

    As a governor of a respected hospital trust, I know that hospitals try to ensure that patients, prospective patients and all carers are properly informed through their Patient Advisory and Liaison Services (PALS) but their endeavours would be so much more effective if such attempts to educate / inform were part of a cohesive attempt to create the desired collaborative Society that positively seeks to remove the shocking and persistent inequalities identified by the Marmot Report and which afflict the life choices of so many.

    I did hear tell of a “bibliotherapy service” (involving users of the service receiving specific advice about the usefulness of certain books for the health condition needing to be addressed). Our librarians can and do provide such advice, so let us use and celebrate our library assets, get them to grow and tune their services to suit the emerging needs of this century in collaboration with all the others wishing to improve the quality of life and living in our Society.

    Enough of words let us have some action to tackle the ignorance, non-awarenesses and uninterest in life long learning : particularly action that builds upon the vision of our generous predecessors who were aspiring to improve Society by means of an accessible community based library service.

    It has been said that If you think education is expensive try ignorance ! As an initial step it is essential that our politicians are discouraged from persisting with undermining or destroying information and cultural services so that Society has to deal with the effects of ignorance.

    I support the views of John Dolan, thank him for his cogent article and commend it to our political decision makers..

  7. Kate Millin says:

    What would a library for children and learning look like in 20 years based on the comments from our current customers as described above?
    It would be a number of places – both physical and virtual allowing those wanting to access learning to get hold of it at the time, place and in the format of their choice.
    The physical buildings would include areas with books in current formats, including comfy seating areas and more formal areas where children, parents and other learners are using the physical books to read and learn.
    The buildings would also have a range of electronic and other media available for people to work through their stories in an interactive way with their friends – like the online games of today but with people inside the story and helping it to develop with their choices. These formats would also be used to help someone work through an issue with visual clues and responses and not just words if that is a learning style that suits them better.
    There would be experienced librarians helping those who are less comfortable with the range of formats trying out something new – even in 20 years time that will still be important.
    There would also be librarians/ learning advisors helping people to work out what they are really needing to help them either restart their learning or challenge themselves even more.
    There will be seminars/events with people in other libraries or learning institutions working together as if they are all in the same room.
    Online there will be the chance for those that wish to/ are able to/ can afford it to access and be part of the same community and with the same support available.
    Some of this is only a short step from what we are doing now. We need to work with our current users to develop challenging visions which still use those strong benefits of a good librarian – the facilitator, encourager and passionate advocate and supporter – which make excellent libraries what they are today.

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