There are 67 libraries with their own buildings in Devon, plus a few pop-ups. My local library, in Crediton, runs a Lego after-school club, reading groups for both adults and children, pre-school bounce and rhyme sessions, and a knitting group (with plenty more inventive and low-cost or free activities for children in the school holidays). The space is also used to host adult learning sessions, and a weekly job club. Other local organisations, such as the town’s garden club, meet in the library in the evenings, and there is exhibition space for the photography club or schools’ projects. More than this, though, a library is an open, democratic and welcoming space where people can find information and develop skills, or simply sit in the warm without having to buy anything. Staff and volunteers work together to create this atmosphere, often supported by energetic Friends groups.
Sure, I borrow books from the library, but what I value most is the fact that there are friendly faces there who know each of my children’s reading tastes, and give me a sense of connection, not only to the library itself, but also to the town. I’m a member of a reading group run by the library. I have to admit that I’ve had higher-level literary conversations. But there is something deliciously illicit about drinking wine in the library after hours, and (more to the point) I love the way we regularly welcome members who are newcomers to town, finding their feet in a new community.
The library then is a unique and extremely valuable focus for building community and tackling loneliness and social isolation. In the jargon, it’s a ‘bumping space’, a place for serendipitous and inclusive encounters that could lead, well, who knows where. Libraries don’t have a monopoly on this quality, by any means, and it varies of course from place to place; other candidates could include the village shop, pubs, post offices, cafes and community centres.
But libraries in particular are increasingly recognised as an excellent way of reaching out to vulnerable people who might not seek support from other sources. A recent account from the US shows how libraries have an increasingly important role to play in public health. At one end of the scale, this involves providing discreet sources of information about various health topics, but can also include hosting ante-natal classes, or LGBT discussion groups, or even basic health checks. A New York library has even developed a lending library of professional accessories: briefcases, neckties and handbags, for loan to teen and adult job seekers.
Closer to home, Plymouth-based school catering cooperative CATERed has for the last few summer holidays teamed up with libraries in the city to provide a free lunch for any child on Wednesdays throughout the holidays, along with a range of fun activities, including the Summer Reading Challenge, crafts, films, and coding workshops. This is tackling holiday hunger inclusively and without the stigma. In Crediton the library is collaborating with a local supermarket to put on a series of healthy eating workshops this January, as part of the Devon-wide Active Life, Active Mind programme, across 54 Devon libraries. Devon Community Foundation has funded organisations such as the Silver Surfers CIC, which supported older people at Teignmouth Library to get to grips with their computers, helping them stay in touch with friends and family, and find information online.
Some Devon libraries are creating even closer community relationships through sharing buildings with other organisations. Nancy Potter House in Topsham is run by local charity Estuary League of Friends and was opened in 2018. It houses the library, as well as a community café, exercise and fitness space, a day centre room and meeting and office space. A similar ‘community hub’ is planned for Pinhoe in Exeter, which will include a relocated library space, as well as changing rooms for the football club, amongst other things. These new partnerships are exciting re-imaginings of the place of libraries in our communities.
The basis of the success of these initiatives is simple, but very important: trust and goodwill. Library staff and volunteers have been at the frontline of public health, social services, and much else for years. We trust their warmth, discretion and flexibility. We respect their professionalism, for sure, but it’s the stuff around the edges that deserves more recognition.
Nicola Frost, DCF Knowledge Guru