Fiat Libraries: Laying a Strong Foundation for Education and Community
Public libraries have continued to evolve since Carnegie’s day, adapting to modern developments and expanding their roles not only as repositories of literature, but as institutions for education, job training, social assistance, and even as thriving community hubs and centres for the arts.
The famous Enlightenment motto "Let there be light" adorns the door to the original Carnegie Library in Dunfermline, Scotland. When the Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie helped establish over 600 libraries within the UK, this motto became emblematic of a new beacon of learning and community born in the form of the modern public library system. Very few public services have the audience and reach of public libraries, which see over 250 million in-person visits and over 90 million online visits per year across diverse age groups and walks of life.
Recent years have seen approximately half of all UK adults use their public library, with increasingly more users choosing to make use of library resources on offer online. Young people are more likely to visit their library than ever before, and the number of women and parents leveraging public library services continues to increase. In fact, about 75 per cent of people say libraries are important to their communities, recognising the benefit of public libraries in improving literacy rates as well as offering opportunities for skills attainment and development.
The DCMS Taking Part Survey for 2016 discovered that the most common factor driving library usage is encouraging children to discover books and reading, a primary contributor to literacy rates as well as an important factor for social and skills development. This ability of public libraries to cater to young people through reading, education, and other arts and social programs is just one of the many unique strengths inherent in the system.
According to a report by the Audience Agency commissioned by Arts Council England, public libraries serve all ethnic and minority groups in the UK, with a high proportion of users identifying as being Black, Asian, or Ethnic minority (BAME) making use of these facilities, painting a highly-diversified picture of library audiences and the encompassing nature of their services across community members of all backgrounds. This research also discovered that among library users, those who are in the process of setting up a home or are living with children on limited budgets are able to find significant value in the public library system.
According to DCMS Taking Part statistics, around 37 per cent of people living in disadvantaged areas make use of their public library and the valuable educational, social, and community resources provided within. Public libraries are able to foster life-long learning habits, improve literacy rates, and offer opportunities to learn and develop new skills which are all beneficial to these types of communities.
These vital services are not all that public libraries have to offer, however. The ability to grab a coffee and sit down with a new book or find an exciting new title to read with the help of professionally-trained reference staff is an invaluable form of relaxation and entertainment for library users. Even with the prevalence of e-books and other forms of electronic entertainment, research continues to show that there is a preference across diverse groups for traditional media and dedicated spaces devoted to reading, writing, and other creative endeavors outside of the home.
Public libraries also offer other forms of entertainment in the form of local art displays and performances, hobby classes, interest group meetings, gaming get-togethers, as well as makerspaces providing materials and opportunities which may be unavailable or expensive in the local private sector. And if your interest lies in e-reading and electronic checkout, your local public library can help with that too given their access to vast electronic collections.
This ability of the public library system to serve a wide range of needs including educational, social, and recreational ones across the entire range of income and ethnic groups has been a major contributor to the diverse and growing audience of library users in all of the studied UK jurisdictions (England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and Northern Ireland). The Audience Agency has also found that libraries reach a much wider range of age groups and social backgrounds compared to other cultural activities.
Public libraries hold a unique power across all demographics to create and foster a thirst for knowledge among young people, assist working adults with skill training, provide access to vital resources helping homes and families, and give the public an opportunity to navigate complex social systems. The research shows that there is a place for every user to come in and explore the benefits of their nearest library branch, and such a valuable public resource should be considered by everyone searching for solutions to day-to-day issues or simply seeking to find a new book or exciting hobby to with which to pass the time. By helping to lay the foundation for a strong education and creating strong threads to tie their communities together, the timeless motto of “Let there be light” continues to burn bright within the public library system.