Libraries, levelling up and laundry baskets

All the talk at the moment seems to be about ‘Levelling up’, though I’m unconvinced anyone knows exactly what the term means. Not that this has stopped the UK government renaming the DCHLG as the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, in so doing causing ‘local government’ to drop off the end, much to the dismay of some in the sector.

‘Levelling up’ seems to have come to us via gaming: as the Merriam Webster dictionary explains, “After you’ve slain the dragon, new adventures await. Anyone who’s grown up with video games knows that a lot of them come with a structural hierarchy of progress. It’s a simple, graspable way to assess where you are in contrast with where you need to be“. However, moving swiftly on before you conjure up images of Michael Gove on a horse with a spear in his capacity as the new Secretary of State for LUHC (c’mon folks, keep up with the acronyms!), what is the UK government’s Levelling Up agenda actually about?

If you’ve time, the video in this link from the Institute for Government is worth watching, but a recent Guardian article puts it more succinctly: “The objectives of levelling up are clear. To empower local leaders and communities. To grow the private sector and raise living standards – particularly where they are lower. To spread opportunity and improve public services, particularly where they are lacking. And to restore local pride, whether that is about the way your town centre feels, keeping the streets safe or backing community life”.

Where do libraries come into all this? The LGA gets right to the heart of this when it says: 

“Councils fund and run a wide range of culture and leisure services, including libraries, museums, theatres, parks, sports pitches and leisure centres, which have significant value in preserving people’s mental and physical wellbeing, supporting educational outcomes, connecting communities and creating resilient liveable places. This important area of council work must not be forgotten in the Government’s levelling up ambitions – spending on culture and leisure is not a luxury: it is a commitment to the wellbeing of residents and the economic future of local places”. 

I’d like to suggest that this area, and its potential to build communities, must also not be forgotten by local authority leaders, chief executives and directors. The message is very clearly set out by Tom Kelsey in an excellent article earlier this year Levelling up Britain’s towns: The value of libraries, lidos and leisure centres. He “explains the value of social infrastructure and recommends that policymakers should consider more fully the value of spaces and facilities where people mix and engage, from pubs to playgrounds, and broaden their understanding of the infrastructure that can help address regional inequalities”.

Earlier this year in my May blog I highlighted how much is currently being written and talked about the social impact public library services can have on people’s lives. Last month’s blog focused on the relationship between public libraries and the revitalisation of town centres and local shopping areas and in the context of Levelling Up I’d like to reinforce the economic impact a good, well-sited, library can have. Why Britain’s economy can’t afford to lose the public library makes this argument very clearly, returning to the theme of the library and the high street: “Libraries can be anchor tenants in mixed-use physical developments and regeneration initiatives, potentially boosting the footfall, buzz, image and profile of a neighbourhood or area”. By way of tangible proof of the impact investment in libraries can bring, have a look at a recent academic study in the US The Returns to Public Library Investment by Gregory Gilpin, Ezra Karger, and Peter Nencka. The later chapters with the detailed research are heavy going, but it’s well worth looking at the conclusions in the introduction.

But now for those of you who only started reading this blog to find out how I was going to link libraries to laundry baskets, the article ‘File Not Found’ in the Verge has been provoking quite a reaction this month among colleagues and friends. Its basic premise is that “A generation that grew up with Google is forcing professors to rethink their lesson plans”, or to put it another way, “the concept of file folders and directories, essential to previous generations’ understanding of computers, is gibberish to many modern students”. So the suggestion is that Generation Z, who have grown up using apps such as Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and YouTube, which all involve pulling content from a vast online sea from which you retrieve using a search facility, simply don’t grasp or see the need for a hierarchy of folders: they just dump their work in a laundry basket and search for it when they need it!

Do read the full article and see how you react! I’m fairly sure that anyone who’s ever worked in libraries will, like me, be horrified by the idea of not putting everything away in a place from which you’ll be quickly able to retrieve it when next requested. Personally I can’t conceive of why anyone wouldn’t put their socks away in the sock drawer, but maybe personality as well as work background comes into this? As one colleague said to me, “it’s a bit of a false premise that kids don’t understand filing. They understand the sock drawer, even if they don’t choose to put their socks in it”. Let’s not even get into the discussion about whether you pair them up before you put them away!

I was mildly incensed the other day to see ‘librarian’ in a list of jobs with no future, this based on the mistaken presumption that in a world of Google no-one needs any help to find information. In my blog last February I talked about the importance of libraries and librarians in a world exploding with too much information. My observation then was that “when it comes to the wider local authority I suspect the role of library staff as information ‘navigators’ is scarcely comprehended, let alone valued. ‘Navigator’ is a key skill, never more vital than in 2021, which needs to be developed and recognised as we move forward”. So hang on to your libraries and their staff, or you risk never finding your socks again!

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