Posted by: bluesyemre | October 25, 2022

Being an Engaged Citizen

John Vincent shares the importance of libraries in these trying times and how they can help us all become more engaged citizens.

For Libraries Week 2022, we are celebrating the key role that libraries play in supporting life-long learning. As part of this, they support their users to build skills and confidence at every stage of their lives – whether it be empowering people in the workplace, helping to build active citizens, instilling creativity, or supporting mental health and wellbeing.

This is a critical area right now. There is so much change going on around us – some of it threatening and destabilising – and we all need to understand what is going on; how we can react and interact to try to make some sense of it; and how we can play a part as active and engaged citizens. The cost-of-living crisis (and the resultant slide into poverty for many people), the war in Ukraine, the increasing climate emergency… it almost feels as though there are too many things for us to grapple with. Indeed, recent writing is suggesting that we are becoming overwhelmed, for example with the talk of “climate grief” or people fatalistically thinking that there is nothing we can do, and this situation is not helped by glib social media comments or a sense of growing powerlessness and rage. With the growing realisation that we cannot solve these issues on our own, we need to find individuals, groups and organisations that can offer connections, support, ideas.

Libraries have a key part to play in helping people in times such as these.

As community hubs and recognised sources of information, libraries are places where people should be able to access a range of information and ideas, as well as many local resources, all of which can offer them support and encouragement to get involved. A major role for a library is to signpost people to local agencies that can offer support, advice and, frequently, opportunities to get involved. These include local authority and community-based organisations, and may also include agencies across an organisation, for example in a college or university. These agencies can, for example, offer health advice and support, help with housing, financial and money advice – or just somewhere to meet people in a similar position, who, together, can begin to resolve some of these issues.

Through the major work that libraries participate in, such as hosting exhibitions, book displays and events – sometimes linked to a national activity (e.g. Black History Month), sometimes to a very local activity – they also showcase issues at national, regional and local level. They offer opportunities for people to visit and get involved, and also act as a focal point where people can come together, some of whom might never have met otherwise.

Libraries also showcase work of local community groups directly, and this may, in turn, encourage more people to get involved. For example, there are libraries providing facilities for people to donate to foodbanks, to help support people affected by period poverty, and, as demonstrated in the Libraries of Sanctuary resource pack, showcasing the work of organisations that provide a welcome for people seeking sanctuary and other new arrivals. There will also be outside organisations running activities in libraries both showcase their work and also create an opportunity for people to offer to get involved.

The libraries themselves may well offer some opportunities too, for example as volunteers offering IT buddy support (eg Surrey’s Digital Buddy scheme); English as an Additional Language (eg in East Sussex); or as a Memory Cafe Support Volunteer in Essex.

Hands piled on top of each other

Of course, for any of this to take place successfully, library staff (and this includes paid people at all levels and volunteers) need to be engaged too. This is a particularly busy and pressured time for libraries, so we need to think through some straightforward ways in which we can all keep up-to-date. This involves, for example, keeping in touch with local/regional/national networks and sharing the latest information and good practice; finding ways of passing on key elements of this to the whole team without overwhelming them; and helping staff learn about and understand the impact of current events – the welcome being offered to people from Ukraine, for example, and what impact that might have on other communities of people seeking sanctuary. The more sources we can tap into the better, provided we don’t become exhausted by the volume of information available!

Moreover, with the adoption of the “Changing Lives” strategy by CILIP, we have a strong commitment to the principles of social justice – backed up by our professional ethics – and have six vital priority areas for action:

  1. True equality and equity for groups that are marginalised in our society
  2. Equality of opportunity for all, irrespective of class or socio-economic status
  3. Overcoming the debilitating impact of all forms of poverty on people’s lives
  4. Opposing all forms of prejudice, conscious or unconscious bias, discrimination or hate speech
  5. Supporting our members to rebalance structural inequality in their collections and services
  6. Environmental and climate change and their social and ecological impact.

This places libraries in a core position to help people become engaged citizens and places a real sense of duty on all of us working in and with libraries of all kinds.

An additional help in this will be the new series from Facet Publishing, Libraries and Social Justice. This new series will focus on important areas such as the equality of access to resources; equity; participation; diversity; and human rights. It is intended to be a direct response to historical and contemporary challenges in communities and in society. As the series develops, this will help library staff understand more of the background to particular groups’ needs and provide practical examples of ways of developing our services. We are about to launch the first title in the series, Libraries and Sanctuary, which looks briefly at the historical background to libraries’ support for people newly-arrived in the UK (especially people who have arrived seeking sanctuary), and focuses on good practice and ways of improving our provision, drawing on examples from across the UK and elsewhere.

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