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.