Living Libraries

Lead Research Organisation: Roehampton University
Department Name: English and Creative Writing

Abstract

Issues about libraries raised by the AHRC-funded project, 'Memories of Fiction: An Oral History of Readers' Life Stories' (2014-2018), are central to this follow-on project, 'Living Libraries'. For 'Memories of Fiction' the project team interviewed members of library-based reading groups in the London borough of Wandsworth, and the PhD researcher interviewed LGBTQ readers. These interviews provide a wealth of material about the role of reading in peoples' lives. An unanticipated and significant project impact was uncovering the diverse ways in which libraries improve people's lives, which were explored in many of the project's blog posts (on its own website and for the Libraries Taskforce); in a public talk 'Our Lives in Libraries'; in The Big Issue; and the production at London's Omnibus Theatre, 'The Living Library'. 'Living Libraries' will maximise and take these impacts in new directions.

'Living Libraries' will inform public and professional discourse about changes in library provision and their effects. It will acknowledge the complex, diverse ways in which libraries are changing across England and Wales. It will thereby resist any singular, dominant narrative about what is happening to public libraries, situating public concern about library cuts and closures in a broad historical and geographical perspective. Within the national context, the project will focus on five libraries, to allow in-depth engagement with specific cases, ensuring that the original research is informed by and impacts on regions beyond London. First, we will work with five libraries that have radically changed over the past decade, looking at some of the most innovative as well as challenging aspects of these changes, and we will carry out interviews and talks at those libraries. The project will thereby provide a detailed view of challenges and opportunities for library provision, while documenting an important period of transition.

The project's public engagement and impacts will stretch from the immediate to the long-term. Oral history will provide an immediate form of engagement: we will talk to a diverse range of people who have worked/are working in or otherwise involved with the selected libraries (8-10 people at each library, including librarians, cleaners, volunteers, and library users). For oversight of the broader context we will conduct interviews with five national figures, including Nick Poole (CEO of the Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals). The researchers will also invite project participants to contribute to public talks at the libraries, incorporating information from interviews (from both projects). By documenting memories of public libraries before and during recent and ongoing transitions, 'Living Libraries' will have the potential for long-lasting impact. It will contribute, for example, to understandings of what changes have had positive and/or negative effects, with the potential to inform how libraries are best funded and developed in future.

To maximise the project's potential for informing public and professional discourse about changes in library provision, interviews will be openly available online (through partnership with the British Library), and will provide a basis for installations and performances in libraries (taking Memories of Fiction's production at Omnibus Theatre in new directions). Along with the interviews and talks, the artworks and performances will in turn feed into a short audio documentary, and a longer programme/series pitched to BBC Radio. These activities will be publicised through local, national and social media, to contribute to public awareness of the value of libraries. Finally, the project's findings will be presented as a policy pack which will be available online and will be sent directly to stakeholder organisations, many of whom have expressed interest in such a resource.

Planned Impact

The most direct beneficiaries of this research will be library professionals and library users, including potential library users.

By gathering a collection of interviews through which people can articulate their remembered experiences of changing libraries, and also their sense of what is lost and/or gained when library provision changes, this project intends to capture a period of substantive transition while also informing public and professional discourse. By incorporating voices across England, the project will help to articulate why libraries matter in a diverse range of ways, and will also examine the effects of a variety of changes. It will seek to support pro-library campaigns, while avoiding any single dominant narrative about the impact of library cuts and closures. Many libraries have closed and are threatened with closure, while libraries have also changed positively in response to users' changing needs (such as for digital connectivity, and community spaces). By interviewing users as well as library workers, this project will provide a strong indication of what changes have positive and/or negative effects. Our consultations with organisations including the Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals make clear that it will be beneficial to explore users' experiences and perspectives on the effects of such changes through the oral histories. The knowledge gained through this project can help to inform directions taken by libraries in future.

In addition, the process of collecting the oral histories will itself be a form of public engagement that benefits people we conduct the interviews with. Interviewees on the Memories of Fiction project reported in the final stages of interviews that they found the process of interviewing interesting, enjoyable, and enlightening. Further, by updating participants with news of outputs such as publications, talks, and the theatre production, they benefitted from knowledge exchange and increased social connections. Participants expressed interest in these developments and were especially enthusiastic about the theatre production; 14 took up the invitation to attend its launch, along with other invitees including representatives from the Arts Council (Director for Libraries Sue Williamson), the Society for Chief Librarians (President Elect Mark Freeman), and the British Library's Living Knowledge Network (Manager Ella Snell). These latter attendees also help evidence how 'Living Libraries' aligns with objectives of library organisations (e.g. LKN's mission to promote 'the enduring values of libraries'). Responses from such professionals and the wider public were overwhelmingly positive, and on feedback forms attendees reported feeling much more inclined to use libraries.

The range of outputs are suited to the range of beneficiaries. As well as the oral history conversations, the talks, blog posts, artworks and performances, documentary, and publicity will be aimed at both public audiences and library professionals. In these ways the project will ensure that messages about the value of libraries reach diverse audiences, and will challenge any singular narrative that libraries are in decline. It aims to increase library use, helping to break out of the cycle whereby under-use of libraries is used to justify cuts to libraries which are therefore increasingly under-used (being perceived as in decline rather than as vibrant, open spaces). We will also produce a policy pack, focusing on the effects of recent changes in library provision, and making concrete recommendations for future policy and interventions, which will be targeted at relevant policy-makers and related library organisations.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Title Audio documentary 
Description 20 minute audio documentary about public libraries, produced in collaboration with Just Radio. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2020 
Impact Made freely available on website, and incorporated into radio shows on Soho Radio. 
URL https://www.livinglibraries.uk/listen
 
Title Soundscapes 
Description Soundscapes developed in collaboration with artists from Seadog Theatre. 
Type Of Art Composition/Score 
Year Produced 2020 
Impact The soundscapes were incorporated into our radio shows as well as made available on the websites. 
URL https://www.livinglibraries.uk/seadog-theatre
 
Title Virtual Living Library 
Description This virtual space was a response to the disruption caused by Covid-19 of Seadog Theatre's plans to create an interactive physical art installation that would tour public libraries in Spring 2020. Instead, the theatre makers and live artists involved worked with web developer, Matt Stevens, and emerging computer game platform Sinespace, to create a virtual take on a physical exhibition. The aim was to animate the Living Libraries project's research, bringing it alive for the public. Over three months, the team contended with a completely new format and way of working as they negotiated how to work during lockdown and how to translate physical ideas into a virtual reality. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2020 
Impact We are aware of people using these resources to library soundscapes, e.g. to work to, while libraries are closed. As yet, we've not had much feedback, but we also anticipate that this use of sinespace could raise awareness of public libraries among new and younger audiences. 
URL https://www.livinglibraries.uk/living-library
 
Description The oral histories serve to document an important period of transition in the UK's public libraries. It furthers understanding of the changes in library provision and their effects on communities. Four key additional themes were identified from the research findings: (1) the importance of reading and libraries for health and wellbeing; (2) libraries as safe and social spaces; (3) libraries as trusted sources of information; (4) the current and potential role of libraries in contributing to a sustainable future. An over-arching finding is that libraries continue to play an important role in diverse lives, although they are under ongoing pressure from funding cuts.

Additional and unexpected findings in view of the pandemic, include how oral histories can be used in virtual reality game spaces (The Living Library output).
Exploitation Route As we have created an oral history archive that will soon be made available by National Life Stories at the British Library, there is huge potential for future use of these interviews. For example, library professionals and historians could use it to further investigate the effects of changes in library provision. Library professionals have also testified to using the interview extracts available on the project website in talks, and the policy pack for advocacy, and such uses are likely to continue and develop. For one more example, Co-Chair of the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group, expects the policy recommendations, especially for public health, to 'form the basis for the APPG's ongoing work [currently with Health Education England] for the rest of the year [2021] - and beyond'.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Education,Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

 
Description The project findings fed into the various outputs, including a policy briefing for library organisations and staff. The underpinning, qualitative research aids understanding of the role and importance of libraries as well as enhancing the relationship between library users and professionals, and creates a framework both for allowing libraries to advocate for themselves and to raise awareness of the value of local library provision with the wider public. For example, the President of Libraries Connected has attested that the interviews allow their organisation 'to more closely examine how people use libraries and how those uses have changed over time and might further evolve to suit community needs. [It] offers Libraries Connected a unique and vital resource for achieving our aims and mission'. The National Director of Libraries for Arts Council England further described how, 'As a result of your consultation, you've provided me with so many vivid and evocative quotes from library users, staff members and advocates that I have used and will continue to use in the talks I give to advocate for the future funding of libraries'. Despite the cancellation of a round of release talks and its launch at a time in which libraries had closed their doors in the first lockdown, the policy pack has already been found useful by library organisations and professionals. The Head of Library, Heritage & Adult Education Services at Merton Council notes that the 'website and materials are a great tool and something that we are using to continue to improve our understanding of how users engage with libraries'. As the President of Libraries Connected has affirmed, 'The pack complements and adds strength to the work Libraries Connected have focused on around advocacy for libraries in our ever-changing world'. The Director of Libraries for Arts Council England said, 'Your policy pack makes a clear and compelling case for the potential that public libraries haveTo have academic rigour reiterating all of the assertions that I and my colleagues make about the case for public libraries, has been absolutely invaluable in advocating for a strong public library service'. Other project participants have also commented about their use of the policy pack 'in my work as an advocate for Public Libraries and their massive potential' and that they had 'Referenced the resource to the town councillors to emphasise what an important part a library plays within a community'. Co-Chair of the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group expects the policy recommendations, especially for public health, to 'form the basis for the APPG's ongoing work [currently with Health Education England] for the rest of the year [2021] - and beyond'. Further, the project as a whole has informed how managers and colleagues are taking major public libraries forward. The Manager for Community Hubs and Libraries in Newcastle, reported that the recommendations 'will form a key part of our advocacy to citizens, colleagues and local councillors and MPs. They will also help us shape our vision and plan for the coming three years.' Ultimately, then, the research is informing library communications, practices and policy, and could shape how libraries will provide essential community resources in the future. (Information and testimonies gained for Impact Case Study.)
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Education,Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services

 
Description Strategic Priority Fund for Impact
Amount £6,225 (GBP)
Organisation Roehampton University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2020 
End 03/2020
 
Title Oral history interview questions 
Description Developed semi-structured oral history interview questions for library professionals and library users. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Conducted 48 interviews, engaging with library professionals and users. At the end of interviews participants described benefitting from the process, e.g. gaining insights about themselves and library use. The interviews are the basis for the rest of the project's activities. 
 
Title Oral history interview archive 
Description 48 oral history interviews with library workers and users. 7-10 interviews at five libraries across England: Peterborough, Colliers Wood, Falmouth, Chester, Newcastle. 5 interviews with national library figures e.g. from the Libraries APPG and Libraries Connected. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2021 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The oral history interviews will be archived with National Life Stories at the British Library, and made available online (where permissions given). 
 
Description Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals 
Organisation Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Consultation on bid to ensure maximum benefit.
Collaborator Contribution Input into bid. Oral history interview with CILIP CEO, Nick Poole.
Impact The bid/project itself, with its oral histories and so on.
Start Year 2017
 
Description Libraries Connected 
Organisation Libraries Connected
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution We consulted with Libraries Connected (then Society for Chief Librarians) during the writing of the bid, and they helped with the selection of the five libraries as case studies. We have also carried out oral history interviews with the President, Mark Freeman, and the President Elect, Carol Stump. We continued to consult with Mark and Carol, plus Marsha Lowe (Marketing and Communications Manager), while designing the project outputs including the public talks and the policy pack. These conversations fed into the themes we focused on on plus the design of the pack, to ensure they are of maximum use. They also invited us to contribute to their two day event 'Creating our Story', about helping libraries to make the case for their services to funders and other decision makers (cancelled due to pandemic) and they publicised the project on their homepage. The President of Libraries Connected attested, 'The stories told give voice to the value of libraries, demonstrating the vital role we play at the heart of communities, the health benefits that library events and activities bring and, the still important role, of access to a wealth of literature and information'. The interviews, she continued, allow Libraries Connected 'to more closely examine how people use libraries and how those uses have changed over time and might further evolve to suit community needs. [It] offers Libraries Connected a unique and vital resource for achieving our aims and mission'. On the policy pack: 'The pack complements and adds strength to the work Libraries Connected have focused on around advocacy for libraries in our ever-changing world'.
Collaborator Contribution Oral history interviews, and input into the project design and outputs. Publicising the project. We are also discussing collaboration on a future network of libraries related to environmental action, for which we will seek funding.
Impact The collaboration fed into the bid/project itself, plus the various outputs including the policy pack and audio documentary.
Start Year 2017
 
Description National Life Stories 
Organisation The British Library
Department Archives and Manuscripts
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Oral history interviews (48)
Collaborator Contribution Input into the bid/project. Archiving the interviews. BL website for interviews to be openly accessible (where interviewees give permission) and for blog posts.
Impact Oral history interviews. Blog posts.
Start Year 2017
 
Description Engaging with national library organisations 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Met with key figures from library organisations in 2020, to update on the project and consult for input, including: Sue Williamson (Director for Libraries for the Arts Council), Lord Tope (Vice-Chair of the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group), Mark Freeman, Marsha Lowe, and Carol Stump (President, Marketing Manager, and President Elect of Libraries Connected). Produced project briefings.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Radio shows 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We produced and presented three one-hour radio shows for Libraries Week, with Soho Radio (who provided studio space, editing and production time), using the oral histories as a basis and also interviewing other key library professionals for up-to-date discussion of libraries in the pandemic (e.g. Dir. for Libraries for the Arts Council). The shows have so far reached over 25K listeners.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.livinglibraries.uk/blog/living-libraries-on-soho-radio-for-libraries-week
 
Description Social Media 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Twitter channel with 790 followers. We ran three discussion 'events' in spring-summer 2020 posting key findings and interview extracts with questions prompting further discussion and engagement with the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020,2021
URL https://twitter.com/LivingLibs
 
Description Website 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact As we had to cancel the planned events, we quickly moved online, creating a project website. This hosts sound pieces, an audio documentary, blog posts, policy pack, selected interviews, the virtual Living Library, and links to radio shows on Soho Radio plus the archive to come with National Life Stories at the British Library.

The website has had over 2.5K unique visitors. We are using it in many ways. One way, is to highlight the current and potential role of libraries in supporting environmental action (as the basis for a future project).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020,2021
URL http://www.livinglibraries.uk