Changing the library narrative

Suffolk Libraries CEO Bruce Leeke reflects on the real impact of libraries, and how they can tell a new and compelling story. 

The stereotypes are widely held. Libraries are stuffy, silent places where the elderly shuffle in and out, the quiet punctuated by a noisy child dragged in with a parent to while away some dead time. Relics of a glorious civic age of self-improvement, where Amazon, Google, Spotify and a million other digital services were yet to be dreamed of. 

The default story is one of decline, reflected by catastrophic closures, staff reductions and declining book loans over the past decade. 

While libraries have had to counter huge funding cuts, it’s worth asking whether we’ve been telling the right story about what we do, and the impact we have on the country. The image of libraries as a place of betterment and books is beguiling, often reinforced by celebrity authors. Reading is central to libraries. But does a preoccupation with reading reinforce the story of decline when book loans in libraries decreased by 70% in the 20 years to April 2017?

We could see that every day, activities hosted by libraries create positive change for people. But we had no independent evidence to prove this and as a result no way of demonstrating our value to key stakeholders and funders. So, we commissioned research to explore the real impact of Suffolk’s libraries on its communities. We’re confident the findings can be applied to any library service. They suggest that not only are libraries a rallying point for those who have been lost in an ever more remote world, but they also have a significant positive effect on wider public health. 

The research was carried out by national accountancy firm Moore Kingston Smith and focused on three of our core activities. These were aimed at pre-school children, the over 55s and people interested in improving their wellbeing and mental health.

We found these three activities alone generate just under £2m of social value every year. This is the total saving to individuals and stakeholders such as the NHS after all costs are considered. Or for every £1 spent on the three library activities, the county gets back over £8 of social value.

This is a story of community and better health – and a spectacular return on investment. The research provides a compelling narrative of how libraries engage, connect and support people, showcasing the power of the library and its ecosystem.

The phrase ecosystem is often used as a catch all for the latest tech trend but for libraries it couldn’t be more apt. They are organic and authentic – the ultimate community, blending real people, their local environment and a plethora of physical resources. The magic happens when they interact together as a system and this chemistry is where the social value comes from.

The library ecosystem naturally improves outlook and ultimately enhances wellbeing. Whether it be physical or digital content, a network, an experience, a service or a piece of advice or information. What makes libraries unique is their neutral status allowing them to build a trusted relationship with the customer in a way that other public bodies cannot. This is the crux of what we call socio-recreation or relating to society through recreation.

There’s a growing appreciation of the mental health problems in our society, which the government has acknowledged through such measures as its Strategy for Tackling Loneliness and the recent launch of the National Academy for Social Prescribing. We play a key role in preventing these problems through socio-recreation, without the need for a doctor, referral or any other ‘medical’ intervention. And it’s a story we should be telling more. 

A powerful example of socio-recreation is our Open Space sessions. These weekly drop-ins are designed to give people an open forum to discuss their wellbeing.  The research found the sessions help to reduce anxiety and depression amongst those attending and this chimes with earlier research carried out by The McPin Foundation. Their Research Officer, Rachel Temple, gave us this feedback:

'I spoke with various people who told me about how Open Space has changed their life. When you are lonely and isolated, there are not always readily available places to go. Open Space is special because it is readily available, every week, to anyone who wants to join in.'

The beauty of what we do is that it can come in a million shapes and sizes. For example, in the next week Ipswich County Library is screening the movie Brooklyn while serving food inspired by the film, holding painting and crafts workshops and putting on internet taster sessions for beginners. This is in addition to its regular Baby Bounce and Top Time sessions for the over-55s. 

As real incomes, statutory services and community-based support are reduced, these events, activities and experiences have become increasingly important, even as libraries suffer from the same spending cuts. Talking about how we provide social value through statistics and real-life examples of socio-recreation will help us change the library story. 

But changing the narrative isn’t just about statistics and proving that libraries enrich the fabric of society. It’s about building a new relationship with the general public where they understand the transformative power of socio-recreation and relate to libraries in a whole new way.

For more information about Open Space email: