CILIPS Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland
Navigation Close

Scotland’s Libraries: Cornerstones of Democracy in Schools and Communities

Category: Inspiration for the Nation 2016

Guest Blog by Lauren Smith, Research Associate at the University of Strathclyde and library advocate as part of the ‘Scotland’s Libraries: Inspiration for the Nation’ Campaign. 

Mainstream media and spokespeople against the public funding of public services often misrepresent libraries as outdated institutions with no relevance to modern life. Now that “everything is available on the internet” (it isn’t), “everyone has the internet at home” (they don’t), and “everyone can find the information they need at the touch of a button” (they can’t), many people assume that everyone’s information needs are attended to. The privileged ignorance and/or disingenuousness of these assumptions and claims ignore the digital divide in all its manifestations: the reality is that public libraries are vital to intellectual freedom and the accessibility of information, including the information required to be informed and knowledgeable citizens with the capacity to participate in democratic life.

As my recent doctoral research explored, people use many different sources of information to become politically informed, and have different levels of skills and abilities in finding, understanding and using information. Libraries have a vital role to play in helping people to develop the capacities to locate, critique and use information sources to make informed decisions about their lives, communities and wider social and political issues. Removing local libraries, as we are seeing around the UK including in parts of Scotland, not only removes an important source of information and guidance from communities, but removes one of the few remaining public places in which people are able to freely gather, discuss and deliberate.

School libraries also have an important role to play in supporting the development of political knowledge for meaningful participation. However, this valuable contribution to democracy is often not viewed as a central role of libraries, even during the recent Scottish Independence Referendum and General Election. As part of the Information Literacy Community of Practice in Scotland with an awareness of the School Libraries Advocacy Group, I was aware that many school library staff had put a significant amount of effort into ensuring their pupils had access to all kinds of political information and information literacy support so that they could make informed choices for their vote in the Referendum (in which 16 and 17 year olds could vote for the first time), and be as engaged as possible in the Election. Research funded by the CILIP Information Literacy Group identified many ways in which school libraries in Scotland provide information about political processes, parties and issues to help young people develop knowledge and awareness of politics and the role they can play in shaping future decisions and policies. Examples of information provision and ways in which school librarians support information literacy for political participation were explored, with examples of best practice to help librarians to develop provision around the country. (Research findings will be shared at the LILAC Conference and in a report to be published soon.)

However, school libraries are the latest sector facing massive cuts, which are manifesting as the complete or partial removal of library staff, whose professional expertise and presence are vital to the success and embeddedness of a school library, or decimation of resource budgets, which are crucial to the quality of library stock. Without high quality school libraries, schools are not only depriving pupils of the opportunity to reach their full academic potential, but also denying them a chance to develop as informed political agents. It is crucial to oppose the myth that There Is No Alternative and challenge the flawed notion that our libraries, with the potential they have to provide access to information and support the development of informed and knowledgeable citizens, are not worthy of investment. Investing in our school and public libraries is an investment in citizens and in democracy, now and for the future.

Skip to content