Every Saturday as a child, while my mum went to the supermarket, I went to the local library. I would come home with as many books as I could borrow: books I could lose myself in, characters I could imagine myself as, and adventures I could dream of embarking on. Back then, the library was a place where you were told to shush by a strict librarian, while you hunted for a copy of the elusive last-in-the-series. But if you’ve been to a library recently – especially if you go to one this Libraries Week – you will know that things have changed.
Part of my job as Minister for Arts, Heritage and Tourism is responsibility for libraries. So last Friday morning, I dropped into Maidstone library in time to catch the end of ‘Rhyme Time’ for parents and toddlers. There was no sign of a librarian shushing as several tiny tots vigorously shook rattles and bells between the bookshelves. Most major libraries have sessions like this to welcome parents and small children into the library – hopefully the start of a lifetime of appreciating all that libraries have to offer.
An evolving offer
Of course, lending books is not to be overlooked. Last year, libraries in England lent more than 157 million books – albeit a significant share of those issues are now ‘e-book’ loans, which means you can borrow and read books without setting foot in the library. But then if you don’t set foot in the library you would miss out on so much else that’s on offer.
In Willesden Green Library this week I not only saw another ‘Rhyme Time’ in action, I also saw English conversation classes, a yoga class, a fellow MPs surgery, dozens of people working on computers, a display of local history and an exhibition about the local Jewish Cemetery. And that’s just what was on at 10am on a Monday. At another time of day I might have seen children at a robotics workshop, students using the library as a study space, a show of local artwork or even a dance class.
Meeting the digital demand
The theme of this year’s Libraries Week is ‘Celebrating Libraries in a Digital World’ – reflecting some of the things libraries are doing as part of the shift to digital, from e-book lending to providing access to computers and support with digital skills. Access to e-books isn’t just convenient, it means someone who can’t get out and about to the library can still access their stock. Library computers enable people to be part of today’s digital society, whether that’s to search for jobs, fill in forms or do any of the other things you need to be online to do.
Another approach to digital inclusion is Kent Library’s ‘Digital Dens’ project which gives 8-11 year olds access to technology that they otherwise wouldn’t get a chance to try out, like Raspberry Pis and Ozobots devices, and complements the coding children learn at school.
Thanking library staff and volunteers
This week is a chance to champion the work of libraries, but in practice DCMS supports libraries all year round. Every year millions of pounds are invested in libraries and the Libraries Taskforce is working hard to achieve the vision set out in the “Libraries Deliver: Ambition” document.
In a nutshell – libraries are doing completely brilliant things at the moment, reinventing themselves as community spaces, finding out what people need and setting themselves up to provide it. All that is thanks to the energy, ingenuity and commitment of everyone working in libraries, together with hundreds of volunteers. Tons of the things that are going on in libraries like the robotics workshops and the home delivery of books (real books, not just e-books) depends on dedicated volunteers. I’d like to say a huge thank you to all of you.
And I encourage anyone reading this, if you haven’t been down to your local library recently, drop in and see what’s going on. It might not be what you expect.