Opinion: Not just books - Public libraries and their role in communities

Wednesday 29 March 2023

Professor Peter Reid
Against the backdrop of the confirmed closure of six Aberdeen city libraries this week, Professor Peter Reid of RGU’s School of Creative and Cultural Business has written his thoughts about their importance. Not only for their books, but for their people, resources, space, and communities around them...

The issue of public library closures is, once again, on the radar as local authorities seek to make savings. Inevitably, hard choices must be made but it is important to remember what our network of public libraries across Scotland actually does, and what branches mean for the communities that they service.

In 2020-21, I carried out a study into Scotland’s public libraries during lockdown, a time when only a digital offering was available. Digital is undeniably important and will continue to play a crucial role in shaping the offer which public libraries make to the general public. Libraries will also continue to act as digital enablers within their community and helping transform Scotland into a fully digitally engaged nation.

It is complacent and naïve, however, to believe that everyone has the devices, connectivity, and ability to access digital content themselves. It is equally naïve to ignore the digital divide. We heard accounts from across Scotland of people sitting outside the library for WiFi during lockdown, with many socially disadvantaged communities in Scotland having at least one in five households without internet. Libraries are crucial lifelines for such communities.

Digital matters, of course it does. However, it is nonsense to say that libraries are not also about physical spaces. One library service manager told us: “We position ourselves in the community, as safe spaces. It would be wrong thing to say we can just be virtual. We need to develop the physical and digital together. Virtual has its place, but not at the expense of the physical space”.

Public libraries are, however, first and foremost, about safe and accessible spaces: free, trusted, safe, neutral, communal, public spaces where no expectations are placed on those who walk through the doors. Separate research conducted by the Scottish Book Trust during lockdown found that library users see it an ‘essential service’. Such views accord with the fundamental ethos and value of a network of public libraries.

Libraries support reading, yes. But they also support health and wellbeing, education, lifelong learning, creativity, economic development, the enhancement of training and skills and many other agendas. Delivery of these depends on those physical spaces. A library is not just a repository for books but a place where the community comes together. 

Scottish local government legislation says that councils must provide an ‘adequate’ public library service. This is inevitably (and rightly) a vague definition. The public library quality framework for Scotland, ‘How good is our public library service?’ helps to inform what ‘adequate’ might look like by suggesting that it is a ‘planned strategic network of branches offering core functions’. The danger with piecemeal reactive cuts to branches as part of annual budget-setting processes is that services end up without that ‘planned strategic network’ of libraries, delivering services to communities for whom it really matters.

People like that space, it fills so many functions for a community. Libraries are so much more than books. They’re about people, and about communities.

Peter Reid, Professor of Librarianship, School of Creative and Cultural Business

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