‘Better than TV!’ Art of Libraries in Gloucestershire

Art of Libraries is an exciting test project aiming to develop libraries as hubs for introducing arts and culture to children and young people, especially those who do not currently engage with the sector. Create Gloucestershire leads the project in partnership with Gloucestershire Libraries and Information, the Barnwood Trust and Real Ideas Organisation, with support from Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, Arts Council England and other local community funds over three years. 

For the past two and a half years we have worked across six very different libraries ranging from Gloucester City, to Coleford in the Forest of Dean, and Moreton in Marsh in the Cotswolds. Each library has been supported by a Creative Catalyst whose role is to act as a change agent; creating new partnerships, introducing new art forms and supporting library staff to develop new skills and the confidence to play a central part in their community’s creative life.

In each library we have targeted children and young people and responded to their feedback and interests. In Matson, we changed our opening hours following a request from a local lad who said it would be great if the library was open on Friday afternoon when the school closed early. Friday afternoons are now seen as ‘their’ time with lots of noisy, fun activities. In this area of high deprivation, we hosted Bardolph’s Box, a performance based on Shakespeare’s stories and a Year 9 student said it ‘was better than TV’, the greatest accolade he could think of!

We have come to realise that Art of Libraries is fundamentally about empowering the community and partners to be involved in planning and commissioning arts and culture themselves and ensuring that the library is an integral part of this community wide programme. In three of the six libraries we have developed a programme board which will deliver this, and we will continue working to embed this approach in the remaining libraries. This now means that library staff are increasingly involved in enabling activities rather than delivering them and this role is key to our future growth and sustainability.

We have discovered our niche within this landscape and understand that we are a place where new artists and performers can develop their practice and where more established companies can find a test bed for productions. We co-produced Plink and Boo with Gloucester-based theatre companies Can’t Sit Still and Strike a Light and hosted nine performances of this wonderful circus and physical theatre performance that explored gender stereotypes in toys and play. This gave us an insight into the creative process and as Can’t Sit Still said in their blog:

By working together, we were able to reinforce each other’s work with the library staff, building their confidence and skills to say ‘yes’ to more performances in the future which, on the basis of our extremely positive experience, bodes really well for Gloucestershire.

This has been a steep learning curve and we have needed the full three years to reach the levels of success that we have achieved but Art of Libraries is moving from being a project to a way of life.

To find out more about running a similar project in your library, email: libraryhelp@gloucestershire.gov.uk