Even as society undergoes continuous change, the public library continues to be considered by some as a much-loved and respected institution – even those who have never used it can still see its wider democratic and civic value. The public library is still widely and globally recognised as a free and trusted institution, a catalyst for change, facilitating social, economic and cultural development and supporting communities to take advantage of the opportunities afforded them by a modern society.

At its best, the public library is a hybrid space – digital, physical and social – a place that people trust as they know that we understand privacy and equality. In many places it is also a Levelling up centre, putting the digital economy within everyone’s reach. A one-stop destination to test drive the latest technology, equalising access and skills around the new technologies, from coding and circuit making to artificial intelligence and virtual reality. At its best, it is part of a national network of learning and literacies – an experiential, entrepreneurial and experimental space.

Diana Edmonds MBE recently described libraries so aptly as levelling up machines

“One of the key challenges of our time is making sure everyone, everywhere, has the opportunity to flourish. While the levelling up agenda plays out at a national level, it is easy to forget that at a local level, public libraries are operating as levelling up machines. We all know libraries provide books for people who cannot afford to buy everything they would like to read and offer free access to IT for people who have none. But libraries are now playing a crucial role in supporting communities during the cost of living crisis and should be seen as a vital tool within the levelling up agenda.”

Diana Edmonds MBE

National Libraries Director at GLL

The public library is that place where if you can’t afford an expensive education, college or university, you will still be included in the digital world due to public libraries’ social inclusion strategies. It is also where you can get help, support or join a group on autism, dyslexia, literacies or cancer care. Get the kids to a story time, rhyme time or summer holiday activities, join a teen group, hear an author, work in a homework club, makerspace, coding club or try out a 3D printer. If you need a workspace, desk printer, business or IP, information or free Wi-Fi, your public library probably has all this and more, not to mention the books, fabulous genealogy, local history and special collections!

Public library outcomes are associated with health and wellbeing, quality education, equality, economic growth, sustainability, justice and the reduction of poverty, amongst other things. Many of the public library services that are thriving and well supported around the world are in countries that recognise these goals and values and are tying their policies and strategies to these internationally accepted objectives.

New independent research  has shown that libraries have evolved to become a vital lifeline to local communities and how they play a pivotal role in people’s wellbeing. The study by Moore Kingston Smith revealed that thanks to their pivotal role in supporting communities, Suffolk’s libraries generated £41m worth of social value, translating to £6 social value for every £1 invested and saving NHS services in Suffolk a whopping £542K per year. In simple terms, social value is a means of quantifying the importance that people place on changes they experience in their lives. The study brings to life libraries’ unique ability to support the NHS’s preventative health agenda which is now being delivered through its new integrated care systems.

While many people immediately associate libraries with books, for many of us in public libraries a huge part of our role is about forging connections – be it people, resources, agendas or partners. It is about connecting people to each other, connecting people to content and information and also connecting people to their local place.

In the age of new technologies, artificial intelligence and facial recognition, those principles are more relevant than ever. Public libraries have a huge role to play in media literacy, in protecting citizens as people become more aware of the importance of taking control of their online privacy. We’re getting much better clarity on the perils of not paying attention to our digital identity.

Forget whatever preconceptions you have of public libraries and imagine what a national partnership network of public library levelling up centres could deliver? We have publicly owned buildings and spaces across the UK, potentially a fabulous, statutory network of places entirely devoted to our literacy and tech-skills, to our social, educational, health and cultural wellbeing.

Improving quality and delivering on so many local and national agendas, these are places where our children and teens are safe and where lonely and elderly people are welcomed. They are places you can trust, are free to use and open evenings and weekends too! Just what could they deliver and change if well-funded, supported and re-envisaged levelling up partner?

Our public library network deserves its place there, as a strategic asset in the future economy, prosperity, equality and learning of our neighbourhoods and cities. It’s quite simply a no brainer!

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