Local Cultural Enrichment and Public Libraries
Public libraries are natural cultural hubs for the communities they serve. In fact, libraries are often the first point of contact for children and young people with the arts, whether it is through reading books, attending performances, or learning how to create their own art.
In 2013 the St Helens Library Service received an Arts Council England grant to improve the quality of life for St Helens residents by increasing participation in cultural events, leading to the creation of an ambitious arts programme which emphasizes the community’s role not just as cultural consumers but creators as well. In recognition of their ongoing success the St Helens Library Service was named an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation, only one of six library services to have achieved such a designation.
On New Year’s Day 2017 at the Central Library in Hull, which was selected as the UK’s City of Culture 2017, the Society of Chief Librarians (now Libraries Connected) announced the Public Libraries Universal Culture Offer. The Culture Offer, recently reformulated and refreshed as the Culture and Creativity Offer, “recognises public libraries as welcoming places where children and adults can immerse themselves in every form of art: learn from local artists; create their own art; watch theatre, music and dance performances; and learn about art and culture through books and reading.” Cultural and creative activities are not merely educational or personally edifying, but can promote wellbeing, social mobility, and even spur economic development. In recent years both local arts councils and the Arts Council of England have partnered with libraries, acknowledging the critical role public libraries play in fostering local cultural enrichment.
The benefits of cultural enrichment are well-known. Over 60% of people who have attended a cultural place or participated in a cultural event in the past 12 months are more likely to report good health. Participation in cultural enrichment enhances community cohesion, reduces loneliness and feelings of social isolation, and helps build the perception of a strong, vibrant, and safe locality. According to a 2019 report by the Arts Council England the arts and culture industry contributes £10.8billion a year to the UK economy, generating over £2billion in tax revenues and supporting over 360,000 jobs in the sector. Exposure to drama and the other literary arts can foster literacy, while music appreciation and education increases skills in maths and early language acquisition.
How do libraries foster the arts? They do so by providing the space for cultural activities, both for their own programmes and by offering/renting space to community cultural and arts organisations. Libraries also of course provide myriad cultural resources— not only in the form of books and periodicals about the arts but other forms of media as well, including CD musical recordings, DVDs of great performance, online streaming media, and other collections which open library users to an entire world of diverse music, art, and culture. The Crown Street Library in Darlington is home to the Crown Street Gallery, where local and regional artists can showcase their works; the library also offers innovative arts programming in partnership with community arts organizations, such as a recent four-hour life drawing and embroidery session in response to Italian Baroque artist Guido Reni’s The Death of Lucretia, which is currently on exhibition at the nearby Bowes Museum.
Libraries offer many cultural activities which cultivate an appreciation of the arts while also creating a welcoming and open space for the community to experiment with “trying their hands” at creating their own art. The Deptford Lounge, a community hub jointly managed by the Lewisham Library Services and the Albany Arts Center in South East London which brings the library and its collections together with working artists, is currently organising the Deptford Storytelling Project 2020, a “multilingual community film-making project in Deptford” celebrating Deptford’s rich history and diverse community. The project will feature a series of free film workshops where participants will learn basic digital media skills— including storyboarding, scripting, filming, and editing— and which will culminate in a public screening of the finished community film projects.
Of course, books and authors are also a vital part of the England arts and culture ecosystem. Public libraries have always celebrated authors not just by buying their books and stocking them on the shelves, but by introducing the community to new and diverse authors who can otherwise be overlooked by a publishing market driven by celebrity authors and blockbuster bestsellers. Libraries also offer book discussion groups, author readings and signings, and support the development of new literary talents through educational programmes on the writing process and the publishing (and self-publishing) business, as well as creative writing workshops and critique groups. Some public libraries have held or sponsored local literacy festivals— for example Southwark Festival of Words is an annual gathering of London storytellers organised by the Southwark Libraries and London Dreamtime.
Libraries are no longer merely repositories for England’s cultural resources, but they serve as catalysts for local cultural enrichment and development as well. Centered at the heart of the community, public libraries offer a safe and inclusive point of entry to the arts whilst providing resources, encouragement, and support to the local artisans and creators at large. Libraries have always been natural allies with arts organizations— recent partnerships between public libraries and the creative industry is a validation of this long-standing relationship which benefits both artists and the community they work within.