In the spotlight with Darren Smart! Darren (aka Darren the Viking) and one of the people I most admire in the library industry. He is best known as a passionate advocate for public libraries, including as his alter ego @darrensmart on Twitter. A chartered librarian who has worked across a range of roles in public libraries for over 16 years. Currently he is now the Service Manager for Somerset Libraries, having previously worked in Essex, West Sussex & Kent, as well as the Libraries Taskforce in the UK.
An amazing, passionate advocate for public libraries, their digital future and the need to focus on outcomes, Darren writes, presents and comments on these topics widely, including working with CILIP, IFLA, Libraries Connected, DCMS and the Libraries Taskforce. He chaired CILIP’s public and mobile libraries group for two years and was the CILIP lead for IFLA’s digital satellite symposium.
In Essex, he pioneered community hub approaches for library services, positioned mobile libraries in the county’s rural agenda, developed innovative outreach services for groups such as the homeless and women’s refuges, as well as teenage boys in a pupil referral unit. In West Sussex he began developing a new methodology to demonstrate how libraries contributed to the county’s wider outcomes, he developed their digital strategy & led on a key asset utilisation pilot.
He was seconded to the Libraries Taskforce, where he led work to help develop the national digital agenda for public libraries, as well as leading related pilots and partnerships, now well established successfully across the country.
Subsequently, he joined Kent County Council as their Strategic Operations Manager for Libraries, Registration & Archives, developing innovative customer service, wellbeing and digital initiatives. During this period he refined his outcomes model & in 2018 helped organise a series of DCMS Masterclasses to encourage libraries to adopt more systematic and effective impact measurement approaches.
In Somerset he continues to lead new initiatives enabling libraries to deliver an expanding range of wider outcomes. He will be a key speaker at EDGE 2023 and recently received a British Empire Medal in recognition for his contributions to the public library sector.
Darren Smart is an amazing professional and we love that he made the time to talk to us about his work. We asked him 10 coffee break questions.
1. What does your current role involve?
I started my current role 6 months ago as Development Manager for Somerset Libraries. We deliver library services to the 575,000 residents of the rural county of Somerset in the UK, with 32 branches, a mobile library service & an extensive digital library offer. My role is shaping the strategic direction of the library service by developing innovative, outcome-focused offers, services & partnerships. So far this has included lending blood pressure monitors, as part of the ongoing ‘Health on the High Street’ initiative; developing a bespoke library offer for Ukrainian refugees, including adding the Transparent Language Online service to support ESOL; and partnering with a local microprovider to deliver Gamechangers, an initiative to tackle social isolation & health inequalities in neurodiverse adults.
2. What was your earliest ambition?
From a very early age I wanted to be a scientist and thus make the world a better place. Indeed, I gained a PhD in Neuropharmacology and went on to a highly successful career as a biomedical research scientist in both academia & the pharmaceutical industry. However, I changed career in my mid 30s and became a librarian instead.
3. What has been the proudest moment in your career?
That is a hard one, I have been privileged to work on so many great projects & initiatives in the library world that it is hard to pin it down to one moment. If I really have to chose then it must be the award of a British Empire Medal for service to Public Libraries in the Queen’s New Years Honours list in 2022. I was both surprised & delighted as it meant I had been nominated by my peers in recognition of my contribution to the profession and, more importantly, to the impact that had on the public we all serve. I also view it as recognising all the fabulous people I have worked with, & learnt from, throughout my career, without whose support & encouragement I could not have achieved anywhere so much.
4. What drives you on?
My personal mantra is ‘Help others to help themselves’ and I cannot think of any other field that would allow me to contribute to so many different outcomes for so many people. I truly believe that public libraries are a key tool for making our world a fairer, more inclusive place, by helping the people we serve fulfil their potential. As the Manic Street People put it so succinctly ‘libraries gave us power’.
5. Have you got any hidden talents?
I paint in oils & sculpt and have sold several pieces. I have also appeared on television & in films several times in my guise as a Viking re-enactor, demonstrating a number of ancient crafts including moneying, and on rare occasions parrying an arrow in flight with a sword. Please do not try this at home!
6. What’s the coolest (or most important) trend you see in libraries today?
For me the most important current trend in libraries is the shifting to co-production of services with a wide range of partners including local communities, other council/government departments and businesses to tackle wider societal issues. However, the coolest trend has to be the growing use of virtual reality in libraries as a way to engage a new audience.
7. What three traits define you?
Professional curiosity, a short attention span and a burning passion to make the world a better place.
8. What is the best thing about being a library leader?
The opportunity to work with so many dedicated, innovative & creative people who simply want to help others achieve their own goals
9. How has covid made you change anything about the way you used to run your service?
We now have a much more rounded digital library offer, indeed it can almost be viewed as our 33rd service point. This in turn has broadened the audience we engage with and increased access to our services, positioning us as a truly 24/7 service. Covid also stimulated the growth of our community outreach offer, with the introduction of pop-up libraries and more outdoor events, including having our outreach vehicle & team delivering a range of activities at the world famous Glastonbury festival for the first time in 2022. Much of our outreach work is about tackling inequalities, improving mental health and increasing community resilience. Finally the pandemic has helped us show how versatile our staff are and how partnering with us enhances the outcomes other services can achieve, especially those engaging with traditionally hard to reach groups.
10. If money was no object, what would be your top priority?
Ensuring that all Somerset residents had access to good connectivity and the digital skills needed to use it to its full potential. Like it or loathe it our society is now a digital one, with technology increasingly driving economic growth, learning & employment opportunities, as well as our leisure and cultural activities. Digital inclusion is also evermore important for our access to vital services such as health, wellbeing & social care, especially for the most vulnerable. Moving forward digital equality, which remains underpinned by actual literacy, will determine whether our future is a virtual paradise or a dystopian nightmare, so let’s invest in libraries and work together to make it the former rather than the latter
Darren wanted to make a special tribute –
“In memory of the late, great Jenny Salisbury, who sadly died recently and
without whom I would never have become a librarian”
Thank you so much for your time Darren, the SOLUS team are so looking forward to hearing you present at EDGE 2023
Want to know more about SOLUS? Contact us for a chat!