Top of Page

Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."

ISC 10. Public libraries, social exclusion and social class

by John Pateman

People in general, and librarians in particular, seem quite uncomfortable when the issue of social class is raised. In order to deal with this discomfort a typical response to the subject is that "class no longer exists". This view is espoused at the very highest levels of public life. Margaret Thatcher informed us that "there is no such thing as society ; just individuals and their families". John Major told us that "we are all classless now". And Tony Blair, soon after becoming Prime Minister, declared that one of the aims of his government was to "make everybody middle class". At this year's Labour Party conference, Tony Blair announced that "the class war is over". Putting these political sound bites to one side, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the class system is alive and well. Indeed, the class system thrived under Thatcher and Major, and nothing significant has changed since New Labour came to power.

This is not to say, however, that the Tories and New Labour are identical in their approach to social class. Although class has been removed from the New Labour lexicon, measures such as the national minimum wage, working people's tax credits, New Deal, the MacPherson report and the Social Exclusion Unit, do indicate that this government is serious about tackling poverty, discrimination and social exclusion. This has made it possible and acceptable to discuss and take action on issues such as racism but the class issue continues to be overlooked. This may, wholly or in part, be a result of New Labour's electoral obsession with the middle classes of middle England, rather than its more traditional working class support base.

The debate about social exclusion is to be welcomed, but the exclusion of class from this debate needs to be challenged. Hill (1996) found that 81% of people believe there is a class struggle in this country compared with 66% fifteen years ago. And Travis (1998) revealed that 68% of people think that Britain is class ridden, while only 21% consider it classless. But what exactly is meant by class, and what has it got to do with social exclusion and public libraries ?

Class and social exclusion

People's discomfort about class is connected to their difficulty in defining, understanding and applying the concept to themselves and other people. As Adonis and Pollard (1997) have said, "ever since Marx, the word class has been heavily loaded. Occupation and family are generally taken as the starting point. From families and jobs flow the patterns of income, values, advantage and social behaviour which go to make up classes". Let us look at each of these in turn.

The concept of social class was developed by Karl Marx (1848), who suggested that there were three class categories :

1. the capitalist class comprises the owners and controllers of the means of production, distribution and exchange. The aristocracy, landowners and members of the military / industrial complex would fall into this category, which represents a very small proportion of the total population.

2. the middle class act to a considerable extent as agents of the capitalist class, but the degree to which they exercise control over the means of production is often limited, and their income is derived mainly from selling their labour power for a salary. The middle class includes managers, small businesses, professionals and middle ranks of the state apparatus. Many professional librarians and library workers fall into this category which makes up 39% of the population.

3. the working class includes the great majority of the population, who sell their labour power, their capacity to work, in return for a wage or salary, and who work under the direction of the owners of the means of production and their agents. This category includes skilled, semi skilled and unskilled workers as well as those defined as "residual and those at the lowest levels of subsistence". This category makes up 61% of the population.

According to Marx there is a contradiction between the interests of these classes and attempts to resolve these contradictions lead to class struggle. The Marxist analysis is based on ownership and power. More modern definitions of class have tended to be based on occupation. This is the basis of the six class A, B, C1, C2, D, E hierarchy used by market researchers. In general terms groups A,B, C1 are middle class and groups C2,D,E are working class. Under this scheme librarians were classified as "technical" or "associate professional" which put them in group B (middle class).

New Labour has replaced these categories with a new scheme which is also based on occupation but none of the 7 new categories mentions the word class. Librarians have been upgraded in the new scheme to group 1 (higher managerial and professional occupation), a position which we share with doctors, lawyers, dentists, higher civil servants, academics and engineers, which are clearly middle class occupations.

But there is more to class than occupation. As Cole (1998) has said : "The concept of class is not descriptive, describing lifestyles, but is explanatory, identifying shared (abstract) class interests. If people experience the economic crisis as unemployment, or longer hospital waiting lists, or larger classes in schools for their children, or reduced pensions for retired people, or reduced development assistance, or reduced grants for students, or homelessness and starvation, these people have a shared class interest."

An example of these shared interests was revealed by the visit, earlier this year, by Indian community leader Stan Thekaekara, who swapped the thatched villages of southern India's tea producing Gudalur Valley for Matson, a post war brick and mortar housing state in Gloucester (Griffiths, 1999). He was in England as part of an unusual initiative run by Oxfam. Stan talked to residents on this disadvantaged estate. George Smith, who is 82, has lived on Matson for more than 40 years. He says that the biggest problem facing people is not the lack of money, but the feeling of not being accepted by society. Stan was able to tap into the shared interests of Matson residents - their shared feeling of not being accepted by society - and offer some solutions. One of his objectives is to establish trading links between Matson and Gudalur Valley, which is an interesting reversal of normal first and third world trading relationships.

Class is also about values, attitudes and behaviour. But the single greatest link between class and social exclusion is poverty. Class background has always been strongly associated with risk of poverty : "Despite the impact of the 1990's recession on some middle class areas of employment, poverty is basically a working class phenomenon" (LGMB, 1995) This does not mean that all working class people are poor ; but most poor people are working class. CPAG now estimate that one child in three in the UK lives below the poverty line and one commentator, David Byrne, has estimated that no less than 50% of the population are affected by unemployment and "labour instability" in some form from time to time (Byrne, 1997).

There is a similar overlap between poverty and social exclusion : not all socially excluded people are poor, and not all poor people are socially excluded, but most poor people are socially excluded and vice versa (Miller, 1998). Poverty is the most direct link between social exclusion and class : because most poor people are working class, and because most socially excluded people are poor. Exclusion is, however, not simply about material poverty (as shown by the Matson study), and because of this, some individuals and groups who are not necessarily poor may well suffer from other forms of discrimination and exclusion : for example black and ethnic minority communities ; women ; people with disabilities ; gay men and lesbians and so on.

Class and Public libraries

That social exclusion is not just about poverty has been recognised by government ministers, including Arts Minister Alan Howarth. His statement on public libraries and social exclusion is a good starting point for examining the issue of class and public libraries. Howarth (1998) said :

"The socially excluded are not just suffering from material poverty but are all too typically isolated from the social and civic networks that enable people to live successfully in - and contribute to - modern society. We are determined to ensure that our society does not become divided into information haves and have-nots. Those who are socially disadvantaged, those with disabilities and those who otherwise cannot participate in education and training in the normal way must not be excluded from the information revolution that is upon us...Public libraries must more and more take their place as street corner universities, providing real opportunities for everyone regardless of their place in society"

This seems to suggest that everyone has a "place in society" and it is my view that this place is largely determined by the class system. As Muddiman (1999) has said : "The key determinants of social exclusion, most studies show, are structural : that is, most excluded people are poor, and they are working class". The key determinants of public library use and non use are also poverty and class. The "Breadline Britain" surveys reported by Bramley (1996) looked at the use of and attitudes to a range of public services by poor and disadvantaged people. Through use of multivariate analysis, these surveys identified social class as the most important single determinant of public library use, respondents in Bramley's highest social class grouping being 1.4 times as likely to use libraries compared with those in the lowest.

  • Bramley's findings have been echoed by a number of other studies. The major ASLIB (1995) study of public libraries found "substantial numbers of users" in each social class "although there is a higher proportion in the A,B,C1 (middle class) categories". The issue, then, is not how many middle and working class people use or do not use public libraries, but the percentage of these users and non users in proportion to the population as a whole :
  • the upper middle class and middle class make up 15% of the population, but 41% of this class are frequent library users and 29% are non users
  • the lower middle class make up 24% of the population, but 30% of this class are frequent library users and 40% are non users
  • the skilled working class make up 30% of the population, but only 25% of this class are frequent users and 49% are non users
  • the semi skilled and unskilled working class make up 31% of the population, but only 26% of this class are frequent users and 57% are non users
  • The Household Library Use Survey (1998) found that :
  • the biggest users of public libraries are A,B,C1s (middle class)
  • AB (middle class) households are more likely than other groups to be library ticket holders
  • AB (middle class) people make wider and more extensive use of libraries than working class users who mainly visit libraries to borrow books
  • there are significant variations in the proportion of households borrowing categories of stock among social classes. ABC1 (middle class) people borrow more adult fiction and non fiction than C2DE (working class) people, for example.

Marcella and Baxter (1999) looked at the information needs of library users. When the social class of employed respondents to their survey was analysed, 76% were ABC1 (middle class) and only 24% were C2DE (working class)

We have a situation, therefore, where, in general terms, one third of the population is middle class and yet this class makes up two thirds of library users ; conversely, two thirds of the population are working class, but this class makes up only one third of library users. This disparity can be found in other related areas, such as education. For example, approximately two thirds of pupils at grammar schools are middle class and one third are working class ; the situation is reversed in comprehensive schools. The same ratio applies to sectors of further and higher education.

This is not a purely library and education phenomenon ; it also exists in many other areas. For example, a similar situation can be found with regard to participation in sport. In a survey by GHS (1998), 65% of professional (middle class) people participated in at least one sport over a 4 week period, compared to just 23% of unskilled (working class) people. This 40% difference offers a challenge to the sports industry, which is now trying to engage more working class people through leisure card schemes. This sector has recognised that there is a problem - based on class - and is doing something about it. The same cannot be said about the LIS sector, which has yet to recognise that there is a problem, and to accept that there a number of institutional barriers to public library usage.

Institutional barriers

As Muddiman (1999) has said "working class non users of public libraries...point to the institutional culture of the public library as a barrier to use...for many, public libraries continue to be associated with a white, middle class, academic culture which alienates many disadvantaged people". Durrani (1999) has made a similar point in relation to library services for Black and working class people : "In LIS it is the white, middle class that holds the stick which is used to marginalise Black and working class people and their information, education and cultural services. It is in this relation of power that Black librarians and communities have lost out. Until there is genuine equality in this power relationship, there will not be a relevant library service for Black people".The same could be said of working class people.

A starting point in building relevant library services for working class people is to ask them what they want. There has been very little research into the library needs of working class people. Most public library research, including the Public Library Users Survey (PLUS) focusses on library users, who tend to be predominantly middle class. However, the work which has been carried out with working class communities is very revealing.

ASLIB (1995) found that "non users predominantly suspect that public library users are mainly middle class and that the library has an unchanging image". Cultural barriers associated with the institution are particularly powerful for age groups like teenagers. Linley and Usherwood (1998) report the following comments from a young person in a detached youth project : "Its a bit scary always seems to be quiet and you feel terrible if you make a noise. There are lots of rules and regulations and quite honestly it turns me off."

In focus groups commissioned by York City Council (MCG, 1996) non users particularly associate such barriers with problems with library staff. Informants report that "staff are welcoming to people they know really well, but I could walk in and was completely ignored" and that staff were "unsympathetic to children and a bit dismissive if it's not a very high class subject". In similar groups commissioned by the London Borough of Merton (MVA, 1998) some working class non users highlight the still powerful association of the library with books, silence and reading as a source of alienation : "it's the word aint it, like library - its known as being a place where people just sit reading books doing nothing. Its the word aint it"

As the Merton report itself suggests, the very word "library" thus acts as a deterrent to many non users and as a symbol of a traditional, middle class alien culture. Other informants, however, immediately see through the tactic of a change of name : "I think your flogging a dead horse here, because people in this room dont really use a library and I dont think whatever you call it youre not gonna get us through the door. Its because we dont read and the fact that we dont go really"

As Muddiman (1999) has commented, "for these non users the gap between their own culture and that of the library is unbridegeable". The challenge for LIS workers is to bridge that gap, and this is what I would like to consider in the final part of my paper.

Combatting exclusion

If public libraries are to successfully combat social exclusion, a number of obstacles need to be overcome :

1. a class based analysis of social exclusion is required so that library managers and staff are aware of the connections between social class and social exclusion. Failure to recognise this link will lead to inappropriate action being taken. Short term, externally funded projects will not solve the problem. New public library strategies, structures and cultures are needed which recognise and tackle the class based nature of social exclusion.

2. social class is a taboo subject and it is difficult to get people talking about it, without them rejecting the idea or getting very defensive about it. More discussion by the profession is needed - more meetings on the subject and more articles and letters in the professional press are required. The LIC funded research into Public Library Policy and Social Exclusion has started this process.

3. social class is not viewed as being relevent by many senior public library managers and staff. Class is seen as being "political" while the library profession must stay "neutral". This explains the craven attitude of many library managers during the Thatcher years when the thrust of her policies was to redirect wealth from the poor to the rich. The Tory agenda for libraries was adopted, along with a whole new language and approach to service delivery based on managerialism and income generation. While managers focussed on the 3 Es of economy, efficiency and effectiveness, the other 3 Es of equality, equity and exclusion were forgotten.

4. public library staff are part of the problem rather than the solution. With the exception of some notable individuals and authorities, the service is managed and operated by middle class people who share their middle class values with middle class library users : what Rachel van Riel (1999) calls the dominant borrower. This makes the system self perpetuating and has marginalised all previous attempts to tackle social exclusion, such as community librarianship. Public libraries have institutionalised classism, which is a reflection of a societal problem, in the same way that institutionalised racism has been exposed in the police force.

While these obstacles are large, they can be overcome. What is needed is a fundamental shift in attitudes, behaviour and values within the public library service. This will require cultural and organisational change which is notoriously difficult and takes time. The following recommendations are necessary steps in this process.


It is recommended that public library authorities :

1. produce and implement long-term strategies for tackling social exclusion. These strategies will involve : targeting priority need ; secure funding ; advocacy and innovation ; monitoring and evaluation

2. adopt the five I's of involvement when dealing with working class communities and the socially excluded : information (maximum public access to as much information as possible) ; independence (community access to independent specialist advice) ; initiative (community groups to develop their own agendas, pro-actively) ; influence (communities to influence decision making) ; implementation (communities to participate in implementation, monitoring and supervision) 3. support communities in developing their own policy analyses :

"Communities would then be better placed to play an active role in setting the agenda and pressing for the wider policy changes required, if partnerships are to meet social needs as defined from the bottom up, rather than responding to the requirements of market led agendas determined from the top down" (Mayo, 1997).

4. develop meaningful partnerships between libraries and working class / socially excluded communities. Partnerships should be based on common objectives, shared resources, openness about power and dedicated staff.

Partnerships should focus on : process as well as social exclusion ; sharing of power and policy ; diversity across sectors with a commitment to social exclusion ; non-tokenistic involvement of people experiencing exclusion ; speaking out against social injustice, together and separately.

"Partnership that is an open, honest, targeted, outcome related process can and does make a distinctive contribution to combatting poverty and social exclusion" (Thornton, 1996)

5. provide adequate continuing education and training, via :

  • appropriate staff training and awareness programmes
  • education and training in community development for local councillors, to see it as a positive challenge, rather than a potential threat
  • relevant training opportunities for the socially excluded

6. recruit staff who reflect the socio economic profile of the local community

7. bring the process of budget allocation within the social exclusion strategy. In other words, mainstream social exclusion by putting this issue at the heart of the budget setting process.

8. include social class in equal opportunity, anti poverty, social exclusion and other policies.

9. review rules, procedures and charging policies to ensure that these do not create barriers to tackling social exclusion.

10. carry out or commission research into the use and non-use of libraries by social class. This research should include studies of societies and services that are more socially inclusive in other parts of the world.

  • In trying to implement these recommendations, public libraries will have a number of useful and powerful tools at their disposal :
  • the four C's of Best Value can be used to carry out fundamental reviews of public library services, to make them more relevant to working class communities. Challenge all of your services to see what they are doing and what they can do for working class people. Compare your services with other library services and other Council services to see how they are dealing with these issues. Consult all sections of your community, including the working class. And look at what the "competition" is doing in your area via the private, voluntary and other public sectors. In particular, develop relevant performance indicators which can measure your progress on these issues.
  • use the DCMS (1999) policy guidance, "Libraries for all : social inclusion in public libraries", as the basis for your strategy and to raise the issue with your staff and Members. The guidance contains a six point plan for tackling social exclusion and some good practice examples from library authorities around the country.
  • the DCMS will be monitoring how these policy guidelines are being implemented by library authorities through Annual Library Plans. Use these Plans as a way of planning, implementing and monitoring services to working class people.
  • the LIC is funding a major research project into Public Library Policy and Social Exclusion, which Dave Muddiman will be talking about later. This project has produced working papers on aspects of social exclusion, including class, which you can read to inform your thinking and action. You can also join the Action Planning Network which John Vincent will be introducing later.
  • the LIC will also be producing a policy statement on social exclusion which you can use to raise the profile of this issue in your authority
  • finally, there are a number of action plans in existence which you can easily adapt for working class communities : Ethnic Diversity, Public Libraries and Citizenship (Roach and Morrison, 1998) ; the Macpherson Report (1999) ; and Racial Equality Means Quality (CRE, 1995) all contain recommendations which can be applied equally to the Black and working class communities.

A combination of national policy and local action can lead to fundamental changes in the ways in which public libraries interact with their communities. Public libraries are already based in those communities ; our challenge is to make them community based.


Adonis, A & Pollard, S : A class act, Penguin, 1997
Aslib : Review of the Public Library Service, Aslib, 1995
Book Marketing Limited : Household Library Use Survey, BML, 1998
Bramley, G : Poverty and local public services, in Gordon & Pantazis (eds), Breadline Britain in the 1990s, Ashgate, 1996
Byrne, D: Social exclusion and capitalism, Critical Social Policy, 50, Vol 17, 1997
Cole, K : Cuba from revolution to development, Pinter, 1998
Commission for Racial Equality : Racial equality means quality, CRE, 1995
DCMS : Libraries for all - social inclusion in public libraries, DCMS, 1999
Durrani, S : Black communities and information workers in search of social justice, New Library World, vol 100, no 1151, 1999
Griffiths, G : Trading places, Morning Star, 8.11.99
Hill, D: She is, areyou ?, Observer, 31 March 1996
Howarth, A : Street corner universities are the key to tackling the information divide, DCMS press release, 1/12/98
Linley, R & Usherwood, B : New measures for the new library, University of Sheffield,1998
Local Government Management Board : Combating local poverty, LGMB, 1995
Macpherson, W : Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, Home Office, 1999
Marcella, R & Baxter, G : Citizenship information, Robert Gordon University, 1999
Marketing & Communications Group : Whose library is it anyway, MCG, York, 1996
Marx, K & Engels : The Communist manifesto, London, 1848
Mayo, M : Partnerships for regeneration and community development, Critical Social Policy, 52, Vol 17, 1997
Miller, C : Managing for social cohesion, Office for Public Management, 1998
Muddiman, D : Images of exclusion - user and community perceptions of the public library, LMU, 1999
Muddiman, D : Public library policy and social exclusion - a progress report, LMU, 1999
MVA : Community consultation on library services, Merton, 1998
Office of Population and Censuses and Surveys : GHS, HMSO, 1998
Riel, R van : Opening the book, PLA conference, Torquay, 20.10.99
Roach, P & Morrison, M: Public libraries, ethnic diversity and citizenship, University of Warwick, 1998
Thornton, P : Some issues around partnership, LGMB, 1996
Travis, A: Britain really is cool, Guardian, 7/7~98

Information for Social Change #10


For enquiries contact   isc-journalat

All articles, reviews or other works are the copyright of the respective author(s) as shown.