A Blueprint for Excellence Public libraries 2008-2011

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					A Blueprint for Excellence: Public libraries 2008-2011
Connecting People to Knowledge and Inspiration
Response by Helen Carpenter, Project Co-ordinator, Welcome To Your
Library (connecting public libraries with refugees and asylum seekers)

About Welcome To Your Library
Welcome To Your Library (WTYL) is a project connecting public libraries with
refugees and asylum seekers. Funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and
co-ordinated through the London Libraries Development Agency, it began as
a pilot project in five London boroughs in 2003-4, and has since extended
nationally. The project recently won the CILIP/LiS Libraries Change Lives
Award 2007 and was one of six finalists in the community cohesion category
of the LGC/HSJ Sustainable Communities Awards 2007.

By increasing opportunities for engagement by refugees and asylum seekers,
we aim to improve access to and quality of library services for everyone. The
vision of WTYL is “to nurture learning, well-being and a sense of belonging for
all”. We are working to achieve this through:
 Participation of refugee communities throughout the work
 Partnerships to raise awareness and increase public library use
 Confident, trained library staff
 Sharing good practice based on evidence
 Advocacy for public library work with refugees and asylum seekers.

This response to the consultation on Blueprint for Excellence reflects the
messages that have come through very strongly from our work. Evidence
shows that, in order to have a sense of belonging in a wider community and to
play an active economic and social role, asylum seekers and refugees have
key language, information, orientation, learning and cultural needs that public
libraries are in a strong position to meet or support. There are, however,
numerous barriers to achieving this. Some of the points in my general
comments below, illustrate the journey which the participating local authorities
in WTYL are undertaking and the shift in thinking that this involves to make it
possible for different audiences to “connect to knowledge and inspiration” via
their local library.

General comments
Firstly, I would like to welcome the chance to comment on the Blueprint for
Excellence document. This is a timely opportunity to develop an inspiring,
challenging, bold and even provocative vision for the future of public libraries.

How that vision is articulated and the language used are key. The process to
arrive at the vision needs a debate and a spark that will excite and draw in
participation from policy makers and practitioners outside the sector as well as
in it. In particular, in my opinion, it must get participation from those who are
committed to social justice and community engagement and are supportive of
the role of public libraries in this context.

There is plenty of public policy work to draw upon – from the Social Exclusion
Task Force, the Commission on Integration and Cohesion, (as well, of course,
as MLA‟s own papers on wider community engagement and the „new‟ social
policy agenda) to the recently released report on Community Management
and Ownership of Assets, by Barry Quirk, Chief Executive of Lewisham
Council. This has concluded that transferring public assets to communities not
only leads to more responsive services that meet local people‟s priorities but
can also create more confident empowered communities with greater civic
spirit. There are numerous implications – and opportunities – for public
libraries here.

One of my observations drawn from the WTYL project planning process is
that staff in participating library services were not used to positioning
effectively in words the role and value of public libraries in the broader social
policy context – nor did most of them find it easy. Part of the issue seems to
be that there is a tendency to place the institution at the centre of the frame as
the “protagonist” rather then seeing what success might look like from the
standpoint of a library user or potential user. This is where phrases, such as
“hard-to-reach” come from, in relation to potential audiences, when this is
clearly the library service view of that audience. From the opposite end, it is
very likely the public library that is “hard-to-reach.” So far as I know, there isn‟t
any research to show the effect of such phrases on people working in other
sectors with local communities, but it is likely that many find this offputting (a
point recognised by the Home Office, for example, over the last couple of

Public libraries must express their purpose and what they do in carefully
chosen plain words drawn from broader policy, which people working in
health, education, housing or regeneration, for example, will immediately
recognise. It is only when key players from this wider arena can see at a
glance how public libraries relates to their own agendas, that real
opportunities for future resources and strategic partnership working will open

The independent external evaluation of WTYL is currently underway and the
final report will be available in the autumn. The consultants have developed a
framework to show “distance travelled” by each of the participating public
library services and are gathering evidence through case studies to
demonstrate the various stages through examples of good practice.

The journey being made is moving commitment from the efforts of an
individual staff member (the pilot phase had specially recruited short-term
Project Officers) to a whole-service commitment where the principles and
practices involved in community engagement work are transferable to all
audiences. It is also moving towards a much more participative approach,
where there are real opportunities for refugees and asylum seekers to
influence service planning and delivery, rather than simply accept whatever is

This shift, towards libraries not only as places of consumption, but as places
of exchange, is a key part of the debate that needs to inform Blueprint for

There is a need to ensure that any words used in the Blueprint document (eg
outreach, community engagement), which may be open to different meanings
and interpretations, are defined as clearly as possible so that debate does not
start with misunderstandings.

There is a need to start with the word community. Every public library has a
different “community” in the sense that, demographically, even nearby areas
vary radically in the composition of their population, and, as you will know,
“community” is a contested term, especially when applied – wrongly many
people would now argue – to groups such as the “Black community”.

In order to provide relevant and appropriate services, public library staff need
constantly to be updating and gathering intelligence about their local
communities by talking to and engaging with people in their neighbourhoods,
non-users as much as library users. What will be relevant and appropriate in a
public library in one neighbourhood may not be right in another and public
libraries should be in a position to decide on priorities based on evidence
about their local population. Public libraries should also be targetting those
who are likely to benefit most – there is a great deal of evidence to show, that
for asylum seekers and refugees, who are often very vulnerable and isolated,
public libraries are a lifeline. This may be a literal lifeline, in the sense of
helping them re-connect via the internet for example, with news in their
country of origin, where they may be deeply concerned about the fate of close
family members.

Targetting development of services to population and to need, means taking a
close look at what precisely is meant by “universal” – if this means “one size
fits all” then this is not a good basis on which to plan for the future.

Please feel free to contact me (after 6 July 2007):

Helen Carpenter
Project Co-ordinator
Welcome To Your Library
London Libraries Development Agency
35 St Martin‟s Street
London WC2H 7HP
T (dir) 020 7 641 5269
T(office) 020 7 641 5266
Title               Response to Blueprint for Excellence consultation
Author              Helen Carpenter
Version             1.1
Date                25 May 2007
Revision history    First draft shown to John Vincent The Network
Document status      For external circulation as relevant


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