Why libraries are vital in 21st century Britain – Catherine Stihler

A modern library is about much more than books ' it can be a computer lab, a homework centre and a theatre too (Picture: Jane Barlow)
A modern library is about much more than books ' it can be a computer lab, a homework centre and a theatre too (Picture: Jane Barlow)
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Public libraries can play a key role at the heart of communities for decades to come, writes Catherine Stihler.

With councils across the UK facing major financial pressures, libraries are too often seen as an easy target for cuts.

It’s estimated that more than 120 libraries closed their doors in England, Wales and Scotland in 2017. That figure is likely to have increased last year.

Thousands of jobs have also been lost, with libraries’ existence more reliant on volunteers than ever before.

But closing down a library has to be one of the most short-sighted decisions that public officials can make, with serious consequences for the future of local communities.

There is a widespread misconception that the services offered are out-of-date – a relic of a bygone age before youngsters started carrying smartphones in their pockets with instant access to Wikipedia, and before they started downloading books on their Kindle.

But a recent study by the Carnegie UK Trust found that people aged 15-24 in England are the most likely age group to use libraries. And nearly half of people aged 25 to 34 still visit them, according to the study.

Today, the most successful libraries have remodelled themselves to become fit for the 21st century, and more can follow suit if they receive the right support and advice, and have the backing of governments and councils.

I am encouraged by the Scottish Government’s support for adequate library services across Scotland.

Tomorrow, the tenth Edge conference held by Edinburgh City Libraries will be held in the capital, where library experts from across the globe will gather to share good practice and discuss future developments.

Everyone attending shares the same belief that libraries offer crucial support to help people help themselves – to support literacy, digital participation, learning, employability, health, culture and leisure.

As a former MEP who founded the European Parliament’s All-Party Library group, I’m delighted to be attending this event in my new role as chief executive of Open Knowledge International.

As experts in opening up knowledge, we help governments, universities, and civil society organisations reach their full potential by providing them with skills and tools to publish, use, and understand data.

READ MORE: Pamela Tulloch: 21st century libraries are more popular than football

Part of our role involves delivering technology solutions which are particularly relevant for libraries.

One of our initiatives is called OpenGlam, a global network that works to open up content and data held by galleries, libraries, archives and museums.

All over the world, libraries are coming up with new ideas to make them relevant for the modern age.

Take virtual reality as an example, which is arguably the most important innovation since the smartphone. It not only provides a source of fun and entertainment but it has also become a platform to explore science, nature, history, geography and so much more.

You no longer have to pick up a book in a library to learn about the Himalayas, the Great Barrier Reef or the Grand Canyon – you can explore them in virtual reality.

You can learn by time travelling back to a prehistoric age or go forward into the yet undiscovered possibilities of the future.

Virtual technology can also be used to visit places that humans can never travel to other than in the Hollywood world of Ant-Man – deep inside the body to a cellular level for example.

And technology can be used to examine the impact of humankind on our natural world, particularly the consequences of climate change.

I have long championed the importance of coding as part of the education curriculum, especially given that Scotland is home to more than 100,000 digital tech economy jobs.

But while there remains a shortfall in what is delivered in our schools, libraries can fill that gap.

Our world is moulded in code, and libraries offer young people an opportunity to bring ideas to life and build things that will bring joy to millions.

So by embracing the future, they can continue to be an unrivalled place of learning, like they always were for previous generations.

But libraries are much more than just places to learn. They are part of the fabric of a local community.

At the Edge conference, we will hear from Henrik Jochumsen of Copenhagen University about the Danish ‘three-function model’ for libraries: as a place, as a space and as relations.

READ MORE: Leader: Use it or lose it – how to keep our libraries open

Libraries can serve as a catalyst for change and urban development and build new creative partnerships in towns and cities, which in turn create vibrant, liveable and coherent communities.

We will also hear about the Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina, which has transformed into a ‘studio’ – meaning a meeting room with four walls can be a computer lab, storytime room, homework centre, book club, stage and theatre, all in one day.

Last year, Liverpool Central Library was named the Bookseller’s Library of the Year in the UK.

Its success, which has resulted in a steady increase in customers, stems from the decision to make the building part of the community, with events where people create art projects, and late-night openings until midnight.

And being part of the community means providing a service to every single member of that community.

While some people in society become ever more marginalised, there is a job to be done to ensure that digital library services are more inclusive to all, including people with disabilities.

And as more people live into old age, libraries can play vital role as a dementia-friendly space.

They also provide an important resource for migrant families to develop their reading skills with access to dual language titles.

Public libraries have been at the heart of our communities for decades, and I dearly hope that continues for decades to come.

And with technological advancements, they can become more useful than ever before.

But their success is also dependent on those in a position of power recognising their worth.