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Building on Carnegie’s Public Library Legacy, Carnegie UK Trust

Category: #Carnegie100, Blog

This blog post is part of our #Carnegie100 series, marking the 100th anniversary of Andrew Carnegie’s death and celebrating his libraries legacy.

Building on Carnegie’s public library legacy: 2019 and beyond 

by Georgina Bowyer, Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of Andrew Carnegie’s investment in UK public libraries: the contribution made was of a level which today would only be possible for national or local government, including the 660 physical library buildings established with his funds.  When the first Carnegie library was opened in 1883, only 23% of the UK population had access to a public library service, and by 1915, this had risen to 60%, largely thanks to Carnegie’s contribution. 

Interestingly, Carnegie made it a requirement that local authorities provided the site for the library building and were responsible for the provision of books and the day-to-day running of the libraries.  The legacy of this unique partnership is more than 100 years of successful provision of public library services by local government – although the challenges facing many services today are well-documented. Public libraries continue to play an absolutely vital role in our communities, perhaps more than ever given the broader economic, social and digital changes we’re experiencing.  They are treasured resources in the heart of local communities – our Shining a Light research shows that 3 out of 4 people in the UK value libraries as important to the community. Libraries support the acquisition of knowledge, cultural engagement, democratic participation and service delivery. The best public libraries enable citizens to fulfil their potential and aspire to greater things. 

At the same time, we cannot ignore the significant challenges that many public library services face and the difficulties in securing the funding needed to survive and thrive. Undoubtedly, libraries need investment and support if they are to continue innovating to meet the changing needs of people and communities.

Public libraries are evolving to overcome the challenges they face, and help their communities to do the same.  Here are some examples of just that:

  1. Libraries are free at the point of entry and a safe public space: Public libraries have a unique role to play in our communities as safe, trusted, non-commercial spaces open to everyone.  Amongst the myriad of services they offer and activities that they facilitate, libraries are well suited to acting as a space for discussion and debate about all sorts of challenging subjects. Libraries not only provide information, but give support to navigate it – a vital service in a world overwhelmed by a huge volume of information and confronted by the concept of ‘fake news’.  In recognition of these strengths, Carnegie UK Trust’s recently launched Engaging Libraries Phase 2 programme provides funding and support to public libraries to develop projects that engage people with research on health, society and culture. You can read more about the programme here
  2. Libraries are providers of digital access: In an ever-increasingly digital age, libraries are often at the forefront of digital provision in local communities.  While this begins with the offer of access to Wi-Fi and computer equipment, library services also provide digital skills training courses, particularly important for vulnerable groups who may otherwise be ‘left behind’ in terms of digital access.  Access to a computer can be crucial to those accessing the benefits system, applying for jobs, or to children and young people completing homework
  3. Libraries are ‘catalysts for work’: Beyond access to a PC, many libraries have Maker Spaces, offering access to specialist equipment such as video cameras, 3D printers and laser cutters. Maker Spaces can also include non-digital tools such as soldering irons and sewing machines. These provide opportunities for learning and exploring and create a collaborative environment were skills can be shared and products developed in partnership.  Additionally, some libraries now offer rentable co-working spaces, adding another facet to the library environment which supports self-employment, flexible and remote working, and lends a further opportunity for connection and partnership.  Furthermore, some public libraries offer Business and Intellectual Property Centres (BIPCs), such as the one in Glasgow.  These dedicated spaces allow entrepreneurs and innovators to access support for starting, growing or running a business through workshops, mentoring and events.
  4. Libraries supporting health lives: Public libraries seek to improve the health and wellbeing of their local communities in a variety of ways, some of which are particularly designed to complement local health services by providing health information and advice in a non-clinical space. One example is Reading Well, the books on prescription programme which supports users to understand and manage their health and wellbeing using helpful reading. The books are chosen and endorsed by health experts, as well as by people living with the conditions covered and their relatives and carers.

At the Carnegie UK Trust, we continue Carnegie’s legacy today by supporting public libraries through policy work and practical projects. We undertake research to help determine direction for the future of libraries.  We run Engaging Libraries, which offers funding for public engagement activities and Carnegie Library Lab – a programme aimed at enhancing innovation and leadership in the sector. We work closely with library sector bodies across the UK to encourage a collaborative approach.  

In terms of the future of public libraries in the UK, there are five specific areas that we have pinpointed as priorities for action: 

  1. Demonstrating value to policy makers, decision makers and funders to maximise public and other investment
  2. Increased emphasis on tailored, personalised services whilst maintaining a focus on delivering a universal service
  3. Development of a user-centred, data rich service with a strong online presence should be accelerated (you can read about progress on a ‘single digital presence’ for libraries here).
  4. Investment in value-based innovations, leadership and outcomes-based partnerships
  5. Enhance learning between libraries and across jurisdictions.

This is undoubtedly a challenging time for the public library service. But the value and reach that it brings to communities across the country remains remarkable.  At the Carnegie UK Trust, we hope to continue to play a small part in supporting the incredible service that libraries and their staff offer to people across the UK and Ireland every day.  Here’s to another 100 years of outstanding public libraries.