Mention librarians and an image springs to mind: a prim and proper lady with her hair in a bun peering over her glasses at anyone who dares to raise their voice above a whisper. This stereotype may be part of the reason for a nationwide decline in book borrowing - down 8.5% since 2002, according to the Chartered Institute for Public Finance & Accountancy. But libraries are fighting back and demonstrating they can be modern, welcoming places at the heart of the community. LGC looks at some of the innovative work that's encouraging people to take a fresh look at their local library.
Gloucestershire CC appointed a social inclusion officer to lead work with partners from the voluntary sector to central government. Sally Middleton is not a librarian but has a background in social services and community work. 'Library staff recognise my background is very different from theirs but that I come with a set of skills that are transferable - project management and networking,' says Ms Middleton.
'I bring a different and fresh perspective.'
The aim is to use the resources and expertise of the county's 39 libraries to tackle social exclusion, breaking down the barriers that prevent disadvantaged people accessing public services.
Quick and early wins included projects with the Department for Work & Pensions to provide benefit advice for elderly people visiting the library, talks on fire safety from the emergency service and on avoiding rogue businesses from Trading Standards. But a major theme has been working with health services. One scheme, suggested by a local GP, was a reading group for elderly carers. This provided staff for respite care to enable members to meet once a fortnight. It turned into a support network for a group of people who are often isolated. 'One woman said: 'I feel I have gained an education I never had the chance to have before',' says Ms Middleton.
One library is a member of a 'Fair Shares' time bank, acting as the focus for a community self-help project where people swap their skills. The 'incredible' impact schemes such as this have on individuals strengthens community cohesion and can aid regeneration, Ms Middleton argues.
2 Books on prescription
Gloucestershire CC is also working in partnership with its local NHS primary care trusts (PCTs) to provide support for ill people. Ms Middleton says: 'More than 60% of our libraries are five minutes walk or less from a GP surgery, so we felt that was an opportunity to work with the health service.'
Up to 130 people a month borrow self-help books aimed at patients with mild to moderate mental health problems. GPs write a prescription for a specific title and suggest how long the loan should last, based on the time it will take a patient to work through the suggested activities. Recipients don't have to be members of the library.
The books are bought from a 20% slice of Gloucestershire's annual stock budget set aside for social inclusion. The PCTs provide training materials for prescribers, including GPs and community psychiatric nurses.
Working with the NHS has been a positive experience, partly because both sides could see the opportunity, and partly because 'we were fairly astute at talking their language,' Ms Middleton says.
She now aims to take the link with GPs a step further, encouraging patients with mental illness to work as volunteers in the library service.
3 Provide a home service
Cornwall CC is running a home library scheme for people too ill or infirm to access traditional mobile libraries. A three-way partnership between libraries, social services and the Women's Royal Voluntary Service (WRVS), the scheme tackles the social exclusion faced by the housebound. Library staff or WRVS volunteers help people choose what to read and then deliver the books. Each of the county's 32 libraries has at least two volunteers working on the scheme.
Service users include carers, elderly people, those with learning or sensory difficulties and residents in sheltered accommodation. Maureen Twose, reader development and outreach officer, says: 'Many of our libraries have run an informal service on a voluntary basis for people who couldn't get to the library and we thought we should formalise and spread that throughout the county.'
There are currently over 1,000 people using the service. Many borrowers are unable to take part in more active hobbies, so reading is a lifeline. Connecting to information services also provides learning opportunities, aiding access to employment as well as support for mental health or maintaining independence.
Ms Twose says the social aspect of contact with volunteers is key: 'Volunteers have time to talk and they act as a safety check on people who live on their own.'
Under a service level agreement, the library service funds book stock, a part-time WRVS representative to organise the volunteers, premises and administration. Cornwall adult social care pays travelling expenses, up to£8,000 a year for three years. The WRVS recruits volunteers.
Ms Twose says: 'The service is a good example of partnership working to deliver a service that any one of the member organisations would find impossible on its own, particularly with tightening budgets.'
4 Redesign your library
Hendon Library is far from stuffy. A£1.5m overhaul means the building, run by Barnet LBC, is modern, exciting and welcoming. The success of this redevelopment is crucial to the
future of libraries in the borough, as Barnet is no exception to the general, nationwide decline in borrowing. A review of the whole service is imminent, with a reduction from 16 to six libraries a serious option.
The new, improved library is certain to be one of the survivors. A listed building, the old library was unfit for purpose, says Tricia Little, Barnet's head of libraries, and failed to meet the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005. Dusty and musty, it was off-putting to visitors, with an entrance dominated by barriers and no lift.
Now the library is a meeting place for the community. The entrance is open and welcoming, there is a café similar to those in many high street bookshops (playing music - although not too loud) and providing fast internet access. Children have their own space with room for activities such as story telling - the library got permission from renowned children's illustrator Quentin Blake to use his drawings on glass screen room dividers. A teen zone has PCs, soft seating and attractive lighting. While the ground floor is buzzy, upstairs has been kept quieter, to appeal to people who want to concentrate. Barnet College runs a Learn
Direct centre on the first floor.
The library service used a designer who had worked for retailers such as Marks & Spencer to create an engaging environment, with particular attention paid to lighting and signage. Ms Little contributed a third of the cost from revenue, mainly money saved while the library was shut for redevelopment. It has had the desired effect - computer use is up, more children and young people have joined, and there are over 12,000 visitors a week.
5 It's not just about books
Councils in the Black Country got together to help improve the IT skills of ethnic minorities and
older people through the public library service. The project, called BITS for all, was sparked when library staff realised that despite offering internet access, there was part of the community they were not reaching.
Robert Johnson, Wolverhampton City Council's assistant city librarian, says: 'We did some research and found they felt intimidated by the unfamiliar technology and that language was a barrier.'
The four councils, Wolverhampton, Dudley MBC, Sandwell MBC and Walsall MBC, were already working in partnership, so collaboration was straightforward. The idea won£500,000 funding from the Libraries Challenge Programme, backed by regional development agency Advantage West Midlands.
The first step was to translate information about how to use the internet into minority languages: Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi and Gujarati. Users were offered sessions with a tutor to get to grips with the technology. The scheme ran over 700 sessions and was very popular. Mr Johnson says: 'When we put a poster up about a forthcoming session, we had 260 names down in one hour.'
That funding has now run out but the project continues. Librarians took part in the original tutored programme so they are now able to run the scheme themselves, offering sessions throughout the year.
Find out more
Gloucester CC Library and Information Service
Cornwall CC Home Library Service
Barnet LBC Library Service
Wolverhampton City Council Libraries