Grant Palmer 20 January 2016

Creating the public library of the future

The world has undeniably changed dramatically since the first public libraries were established in the 1850s. Technology is playing an increasing role in everyday lives and the rise of the Internet and the influence of technology on social behaviour have created both challenges and opportunities for public libraries.

Today, people can research, read, learn and interact without leaving their home or workplace, but this has not diminished the value of libraries; in fact as technology has changed, so have libraries, in order to help bridge the digital divide for those at risk of being excluded by the pace of technological change. A survey of 2,000 UK adults in November 2015, commissioned by Axiell, showed that 56% visit their public library, with 25 – 34 year olds the most likely to use their library.

Despite the challenges, there is a clear opportunity for local authorities to re-create and re-establish the public library as the community hub that is ideally placed to cater to the needs of local residents they serve.

It’s a role that could resonate well with citizens, as the appetite for community is strong across the UK. Over three-quarters (78%) of adults believe that having a hub for their village or town is important and 71% are keen to have a place to meet others in their local community.

Critically, the Axiell research showed that 89% of UK adults agree that libraries are an important and integral part of the community. By diversifying the services that libraries provide, local authorities can appeal to a wide range of age groups and backgrounds, attract more visitors and, critically, increase the value of the library in the community.

Since 2011, the Arts Council has been working with libraries to develop the services they provide. Supported by government funding, this initiative has been granted £6 million to help libraries innovate and increase the range of services and activities that are available to the public.

It’s an initiative that aligns with the views of UK adults, with 66% saying they would visit their public library more frequently if they offered an extended range of services. Social clubs, cafés/coffee shops and postal or ‘click and collect’-style services are most appealing, but services including free courses (language classes or improving digital skills) or even just an expanded book collection also resonated.

Libraries can be – and many are – more than just institutions for literacy and self-development. The recent report by the Art Council shows that library services are moving with the times and in the last few years it highlights how communities are directly helping to support and even manage libraries.

Some councils such as Middlesbrough Council are particularly progressive. The council has drawn up plans that will see all except its Central Library renamed as a 'community hub', adding services and expanding on existing ones to create a wider role.

Creating the library of the future means maximising relevance to the community and its citizen demographics. It’s about creating outstanding experiences and embracing digital services to engage with patrons wherever and whenever they want to engage. In doing so, local authorities have a clear opportunity to position the public library as an increasingly critical community service.

Grant Palmer is managing director of Axiell UK

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