CILIPS Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland
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Libraries for Life – Why Public #LibrariesAreEssential in Scotland

Category: #LibrariesAreEssential, Blog, News

by Kirsten MacQuarrie, CILIPS Membership Officer

‘I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass.’ As C.S. Lewis could attest, a child’s first experiences in a library can lay the foundations for a lifelong love. In this blog, I’ll be exploring the power of public libraries to change lives for the better: providing space for people to grow and, whatever their unique circumstances, finding new ways in which to flourish.

a collection of open books laid out on grass in sunshine

There can’t be many public spaces in which a person is welcome quite literally from birth, but libraries are definitely one of them. In fact, some public libraries support their littlest visitors before they are even born! After the Scottish Government committed to providing free vitamins to all pregnant women in Scotland, libraries were highlighted as easily accessible public spaces that could support this provision, and some public libraries now offer both prenatal and early years vitamins to expectant mothers and their children. During the first three years of life, the human brain forms connections more quickly than at any other time in our lives, and public libraries have an essential role to play in supporting babies and toddlers to develop key language, literacy and social skills. Free Scottish Book Trust Bookbug sessions take place in libraries across Scotland featuring songs, rhymes and stories for little ones and their caregivers, including in Gaelic and many other languages spoken in Scotland. Even during the Covid-19 crisis, library staff have worked together to provide online versions of their regular sessions for families. Why not check out South Lanarkshire Libraries Children’s Assistant Adam delivering an online Bookbug, ably assisted by his own new arrival in the form of beautiful ‘lockdown’ baby Astrid!

In person or on screen, public libraries know that inclusivity is essential to their communities. Many children’s library services have adapted their sessions to be more accessible for neurodiverse youngsters, including Inverclyde Libraries who offer monthly Bookbug sessions with Makaton at Greenock Central Library as part of their Au-some autism-friendly afternoons. For looked-after and adopted children in Scotland, lots of public libraries also facilitate sign-ups for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a book gifting programme that posts a different free book each month to every eligible child aged five and under, with the goal of ‘inspiring kids to love to read’. You might know her better from Islands in the Stream, but Dolly’s no dumb blonde when it comes the essential value of libraries!

a father sharing a picture book with his young child

Reaching school age, children and young people (as well as adults) can continue to engage with public library projects across Scotland that are designed to support them as they grow: quite literally in the case of Dundee Central Library, where poet Joseph Coelho was delighted to taste some homegrown tomatoes on a visit as part of his 2019 Library Marathon! From LEGO to Harry Potter and everything in between, public libraries encourage young people to be themselves and feel proud of their passions. In areas facing the challenges that come with multiple deprivations, the local library can also provide essential physical nourishment, as well as the psychological equivalent. We were moved to read this case study submitted to us by Muirhouse Library, discussing their Holiday Breakfast Club and its contribution to tackling holiday hunger. ‘For many children in our community,’ notes Lifelong Learning Library Development Leader Tony Stewart, ‘the library is a second home’, and public library staff across the country are similarly committed to ensuring that the essential safe spaces they provide will once again be open and available to all soon.

Public libraries are often the only places where diverse members of a community can come together to share their love of literature. There are book groups for every genre, including those inclined to the dark side (why not try Saturday Slaughter at Orkney Library, Write your Own Murder Mystery with Western Isles Libraries or even Murder, We Wrote, a chilling creation made by South Lanarkshire libraries staff during lockdown?) Stockbridge Library in Edinburgh runs an audio book group too, ensuring that members of their community who have a visual impairment can still connect with fellow book-lovers (and the group has continued online throughout lockdown!) Of course, every writer started out as a reader, and the variety of creative writing opportunities offered by public libraries (such as Open Book, an online creative writing club run by Shetland Library) continue to provide essential foundations for the next generation of authors. Matt Haig revealed recently that ‘growing up as a latchkey kid … the library was my place of escape and freedom,’ while for Alexander McCall Smith, libraries ‘are about the good that comes from the written word in an age when there are so many lies around’. As award-winning author and CILIPS 2021 Conference keynote speaker Kerry Hudson shared with us:

‘It is no overstatement to say I wouldn’t be alive today without having access to libraries as a child and young woman who grew up in extreme poverty. Mine is only one of thousands of similar stories of the vital importance of well-funded, well-facilitated libraries.’

As Kerry so eloquently highlights, the essential good that public libraries spread in the 21st century is in no way limited to literature and literacy. Throughout our lives, public libraries can be our port in the storm, and the lifelong relationships of trust, compassion and mutual respect that staff take the time to build with their communities mean that they are often uniquely placed to support individuals facing challenging life circumstances like unemployment, bereavement, ill-health or the need to negotiate complex social security systems. In practical terms, libraries offer up-to-date and accurate careers advice as well as free Wi-fi in every public library across Scotland, essential for anyone wishing to make an online job application. And from collaborating with Macmillan Cancer Support to create spaces where people affected by cancer can come to receive advice and assistance, to offering free hearing aid batteries to all users who need them, public libraries are also an essential part of their communities’ general health and wellbeing.

three women look at leaflets beneath a sign for Macmillan Cancer Support

ANGUSalive Libraries are one of several services across the nation that has created Dementia Memory Boxes, featuring books alongside tactile and sensory items to encourage emotionally-comforting reminiscence, and dementia research indicates that this return to familiar objects, sounds and even scents can be highly reassuring to those living with the condition. As Alzheimer Scotland notes in Living Well with Dementia, being ‘socially active’ also brings ‘considerable benefits for ‘physical, emotional and mental health’, and libraries represent key public spaces where multiple generations of the same community can interact (click here to check out the many Scottish libraries who run Intergenerational Bookbugs for the young and young-at-heart alike!)

In a key recommendation from the Together We Help report 2021, a piece of community-led research commissioned by the Social Action Inquiry in Scotland, Scottish policymakers were advised that ‘those on the ground know their communities [and] this knowledge should be trusted, respected and engaged with more’. Public library staff in Scotland are precisely who the report calls ‘experts by experience,’ and as we move into a brighter future post-pandemic, we hope that librarians and information professionals will get the much-needed recognition they deserve. Their dedication to their communities never stops – literally in the case of Rutherglen Library, which kept its doors open on Christmas Day to spread a little extra festive cheer for those who might find it a difficult time of the year – and the passion of Scottish public library staff for serving their communities continues to be apparent in everything that they do.

At every stage of our lives, public libraries are essential: to fun, to freedom and to feeling that there is somewhere in your community where, whoever you are, you will always belong. Thank you for supporting CILIPS as we shine a light on their incredible contribution and seek to put libraries front and centre of Scotland’s brighter future.

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