THE BLOG

Libraries Are Still Vital for the Socially Excluded

25/03/2014 14:55 GMT | Updated 25/05/2014 10:59 BST

Like record stores, video rentals and book shops, there can be a commonly-held assumption that libraries are surplus to requirement for a younger digitally-native generation. It's not that their thirst for knowledge has been quenched, but more that it's shifted: according to a YouthNet survey from 2011, the key motivation driving young people online was to search for information. Access to knowledge has moved from ink and paper towards social networks and Google - a corporation whose mission statement is "to organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."

However, this all assumes that young people have an internet connection and access to a computer or smartphone. And that they have at home a stable and quiet place to work.

For many of the 1.04million young people in the UK not in education and training, this is simply not the case. Ironically, not only is this a demographic that needs library services the most, it was concern for the socially excluded that drove the establishment of a public library system in the first place. As Charles Dickens commented at the opening of the Manchester Free Public Library in 1852: "This meeting cherishes the earnest hope that the books thus made available will prove a source of pleasure and improvement in the cottages, the garrets, and the cellars of the poorest of our people."

So how do we square this circle? How do we engage with young people, many of whom live in this country's most deprived areas, and encourage them to use these fantastic facilities on their door step?

This are questions that many arts organisations like Small Green Shoots are grappling with. The vast majority of young people that participate in the kind of projects we develop tell us that the last time they visited their local library was in primary school. However, with support from Arts Council England, we have strong evidence that, when libraries open their doors for workshops and creative events, that their appeal can be as strong and enduring as ever.

Some examples?

Before Christmas, Small Green Shoots teamed up with youth organisations in Hackney, Camden, Lambeth and Lewisham to deliver the ChaucerFFWD project. Led by fantastic spoken word artists like Charlie Dark and Patience Agbabi, this initiative was developed around a series of library-based workshops - encouraging young people to compose their own interpretations of the Canterbury Tales before performing them at the British Library.

Meanwhile, in February, as part of National Storytelling Week, we developed the Tell Tales initiative - again, using libraries as a base for young people to work alongside spoken word performers and develop their own compositions.

At St Ann's Library in Tottenham, a group of young women worked on a project called HerStory, that focussed on feminist-based issues and the challenges growing up in North East London. When the project began, none of these girls owned library cards. Most had a pretty rudimentary knowledge of feminism. However, during these workshops, they picked up Atwood and Angelou. They digested and debated. And weeks later, they performed their own spoken word pieces before a packed audience at London's Kings Place.

Maybe this shouldn't be a great surprise. For, whatever a young person's background or life circumstances, when they walk into a library their natural impulse is to pick up a book. They get hooked: they read, they explore, they articulate. Many become empowered. But the biggest challenge is getting them through that door.

So this also lays down the gauntlet to our libraries. We know that many are fighting for survival, but it is vital that they continue do their utmost to attract young people and allow them ownership of a creative space. Certainly, we have been lucky enough to partner with some really forward-thinking individuals like Tony Brown at Islington Library Service and his counterpart in Camden, Peter Baxter, who have been hugely encouraging at opening their facilities to the wider community. (The Islington Reads strategy, published in 2012, offers an essential guide of all the reasons why reading is vital for communities.) But the bottom line, is that we need libraries to be welcoming, not intimidating.

As FLOetic Lara, one of the leaders of our Tell Tales project puts it: "I think it's really good to be able to speak to a younger and say 'Let's go and meet at the library'...It just shows them that there's infinite possibilities within a space like that."