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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

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ISC 15. Tackling social exclusion

John Vincent

What is social exclusion?

There is a major difference in thinking between the terms social inclusion and social exclusion. Social exclusion focuses on the needs of those who are excluded. This includes groups and individuals who suffer direct and indirect discrimination, as well as larger sections of the population - such as some children and young people, older people and women - who find themselves subject to multiple disadvantage, and therefore excluded. Exclusion also affects certain localities - for example, some rural areas, parts of the inner city. By focusing on 'exclusion', we draw attention to needs, identify specific groups and individuals, and target services to them.

Social inclusion focuses not just on the needs of the excluded, but also looks at the effects on the rest of society. This can take the form of concern for the plight of others, but it can also manifest itself as a fear of the consequences of exclusion - for example, the fear that crime will affect others' quality of life, or that there will be a major economic impact as a result of paying benefits, repairing vandalism, and so on.

Tackling social exclusion is different from other initiatives:

  • Equal Opportunities policies have tended to focus on providing more of the same, and assuming that this will inevitably increase take-up
  • Access policies have tended to focus on physical access to buildings and their contents
  • Audience development has tended to look at developing our existing users and looking at bringing in non-users
  • All of these are vital, but work to tackle social exclusion also means changing entire working policies and practices, looking at ways of overcoming barriers, how to reach non-users, how to work with all our users.

How well are public libraries tackling social exclusion?

If we go back a couple of years, then the picture was fairly bleak. When we (1) carried out the research for the report, "Open to all?" (2) , in 1999 (for which we sent a questionnaire to every public library authority in the UK, and received a 63% return), we discovered just how patchy the work really was:

  • 24% of authorities that responded had little or no social inclusion strategy and few/patchy service developments
  • 60% were concerned with inclusion but had uneven/intermittent activity
  • 16% had developed policy and good practice, and had service-wide initiatives.
  • In terms of service priority, we showed that far from being 'open to all', there was actually a clear hierarchy of provision:
  • 82% of the authorities that responded had housebound people as a service priority, whereas
  • 12% had Travellers as a service priority
  • 5% had homeless people as a service priority.

We were also particularly concerned that only 54% of authorities had racial and ethnic minorities as a service priority after the years in which library authorities had claimed to be providing good levels of service (3) .

Barriers to take-up of service

One of the keys to tackling social exclusion successfully is to identify and remove barriers to take-up of library use. The major barriers are listed in Libraries for all (4) and can be grouped under the four headings:

  • Institutional (eg charges; rules)
  • Personal and social (eg lack of confidence to ask for what you need; lack of basic skills)
  • Perceptions and awareness (eg 'the library's not for us'; 'you have to pay to join')
  • Environmental (eg location; physical access to and within the building)

Many libraries are successfully dismantling these barriers - some examples follow - yet, at the same time, many library workers are in the throes of creating new barriers, for example: "It's not our proper job" - do you recognise this comment? People in libraries seem to say it frequently now - it's as though they don't see the immense changes that are going on around us, and the exciting new directions that libraries are going in, but want to cling to some outdated notion of what libraries are for. Libraries are constantly changing, and we need to take hold of these opportunities and shape them.

"They're not our proper users" - one of the exciting by-products of having ICT developed via the People's Network is that libraries are suddenly being used by a whole new lot of people, refugees e-mailing home for example, yet library staff talk about them as not being 'proper' users. What are we for? We need to re-look urgently at the role and purpose of public libraries to ensure that we are encompassing these new users.

"This is nothing to do with us - it's a Government-driven, political agenda" - this is what some library workers seem to have argued about every development there's ever been! In this case, it is certainly true that work to tackle social exclusion is a core part of the Government agenda, but we would argue that it should also have been a core part of public libraries' agenda for years too - indeed, for some library services, of course, it has been. What is different now is that the Government is not just providing access to funding, it is also attaching 'strings', ensuring that money is not just frittered away on 'pet projects', but is targeted towards the socially excluded. This may also, of course, have a political undertone to it - see the next section.

A backlash against social inclusion - or just misunderstandings?

There is also, as I write, something of a small backlash against social exclusion work.

For example, in her recent letter to The Daily Telegraph (5) , library manager Heather Marsh says (apparently confusing social inclusion with consumer-orientated policies):

"As in the health and police services, those in charge have little contact with those at the sharp end. Members of the public using the libraries have also changed; far from issuing books to sweet little old ladies, staff now have to face daily abuse, aggression and demands from people who thanks to a government policy of 'social inclusion', are well aware of their rights, but not their responsibilities."

In her letter to CILIP Update about what she did not agree with in Merton, former library manager Philippa Cain writes: "Class, colour and shape make no difference to the quality of a person's need." No, perhaps they don't, but they do tend to determine who uses our services in the first place.

Finally, in a piece in The Independent (6) recently, Josie Appleton (author of Museums for "the people"? published by the Institute of Ideas) writes:

"Indeed, [museums] are even sneered at as being exclusive and intimidating. Increasingly money in local museums projects is not directed towards building up and preserving collections; it is going instead towards new social and political aims, such as social inclusion projects and neighbourhood renewal ... A report on social inclusion by the Group for Large Local Authority Museums shows just how much priorities have become distorted in many local museums".

What these three different pieces seem to me to have in common is a misunderstanding of what social exclusion is, of the role that we need to play to tackle it, and of the historical legacy of many public libraries' (and museums') lack of engagement with lapsed, potential and non-users. It is this lack of relevance of public libraries - and museums - to many people's lives that threatens our future, not the fact that some organisations are trying to create more welcoming and inclusive facilities.

Good practice - policy implementation

There is now a handful of public library authorities that have made major advances in developing - and most importantly - implementing policy. For example:

  • Gloucestershire have just produced their strategic plan for tackling social exclusion (7) , and, as part of this, have committed 20% of their resources to combating exclusion, as well as alerting Members (and other Council departments) that they need to deal with the tension between income-generation and social exclusion work.
  • Leicester City used a review of the library service to re-focus on tackling social exclusion, and, based on this, have made major changes to the delivery of the service, as well as obtaining a greater financial commitment from the Council. Their forward planning has just received praise from the Audit Commission as part of the Best Value Review process.
  • Merton has re-focused the service around three key objectives - lifelong learning, economic regeneration, community development - and is developing locally-based services in consultation with local people. In recognition of the pioneering work being undertaken to deliver services for refugees and asylum-seekers, Merton won the "Libraries Change Lives" Award in 2001. More about these developments can be found in John Pateman's recent article (8) .

Good practice - services for children and young people

A number of children's library services have been pioneering work in tackling social exclusion, and some important examples are show-cased in a recent YLG publication (9) : this includes not only descriptions and ideas for developing services, but also contains contact details for each piece of work described.

Good practice - mobile library services tackling social exclusion (10)

Clearly, good mobile library services are in the forefront of removing barriers and tackling social exclusion, for example:

  • Tackling rural isolation/transport problems
  • Bringing library services to suburban areas which are isolated/without good transport links
  • Providing library services in the inner cities.
  • However, tackling social exclusion has to involve more than just providing a mobile library service. It also needs to involve:
  • Mainstreaming service provision so that it is part of the whole library service, not seen as an 'add-on'
  • Outreach - not in the 1970s version, but as a way of ensuring dynamic links with the community in and out of libraries
  • Engagement with local communities
  • Partnership-building
  • Sustainability - projects are great for starting off a service and testing it, but, if it works, then it needs to become a funded, permanent feature.
  • Finally, there is great work being undertaken by mobile library services across the country. However, we also need to make absolutely sure that mobile libraries are not, in themselves, creating new barriers, such as:
  • Are mobile stops rather like a club, where a few people are known and welcomed, but many are not?
  • Is our staffing representative of the local community?
  • How reliable are our vehicles? We need only miss a few days, and people will stop looking out for the service
  • Are our vehicles really accessible?
  • Are there safety/security issues? Are there places where the mobile cannot stop? And how are we dealing successfully with these issues?
  • Is the stock relevant? Is it regularly changed to meet the needs of different parts of the community?
  • Let's remind ourselves that mobile libraries were invented to tackle social exclusion - and let's continue to develop high-quality, relevant services.
  • Good practice - other examples
  • The following recent examples have been taken from The Network's Newsletter, showing what Network member authorities have been developing:
  • Stoke-on-Trent Library Service has been developing their service provision for people with dyslexia, including developing staff training and mentors, holding drop-in sessions in 6 libraries, purchasing Kurzweil software, setting up listening booths in two libraries, creating publicity, holding a major event to tie in with Family Learners' Weekend (11) ;
  • Derbyshire has installed an ISDN in community buildings so that the mobile library service can plug in and deliver ICT to those without easy access to it otherwise (12) ;
  • East Dunbartonshire have been looking at ways of developing their services for Black and ethnic minority communities, and a brief outline - including some key questions for creating best practice - was included in a recent Newsletter (13) ;
  • Gloucestershire have built a Website (14) in partnership with other local organisations to provide information for refugees and asylum-seekers and those who work with them (15) .
  • The role of The Network

The Network ("The Network: tackling social exclusion in libraries, museums, archives and galleries", to give it its full title) was formed in 1999 (originally as the Social Exclusion Action Planning Network), and now has 85 institutional members, including public libraries, museums, archives and other organisations, as well as 15 individual members.

We produce a monthly Newsletter to keep members up-to-date with initiatives in the work to tackle social exclusion, and run courses and conferences, as well as contributing to national and regional developments.

We received a small seed-funding grant from the then Library and Information Commission in 1999, but, until this year, have received no funding apart from income from subscriptions and from courses and conferences. However, for this year, we are receiving a grant from Resource to enable The Network to:

  • Continue with our core work, with particular emphasis on strengthening and developing the work with museums and archives
  • Update and maintain the CSG Website, "inclusionandlibraries"
  • We are also receiving a grant from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation for a project to draw together good practice in library work with looked-after children and to develop and pilot a training programme, and I'll shortly be looking for partner library services to work with.

The Network - delivering training

Public libraries have had to make a major commitment to training over the last two years or so in order to equip staff for their role in the People's Network: this is crucial, but it is also critical that the same kind of commitment is made to training for other areas of service delivery, especially the skills, knowledge and awareness required to tackle social exclusion.

A major part of the Network's work is running training courses and conferences. Originally, these had been almost entirely the Network's own open courses, looking at the specific needs of particular socially excluded groups and individuals, but, more recently, the pattern has changed to:

  • In-house courses - more about this in a moment
  • Contributing to other people's courses (such as the Library + Information Show, the NIACE Conference at the V&A, the North-East CSG/CDG course on services for refugees and asylum-seekers)
  • Running courses for other people (eg courses for CILIP).

The in-house courses we run are tailored to meet the specific needs of the authority, and include:

  • Awareness sessions for senior and middle managers (including work on definitions, the 'bigger picture' - the Government/Resource/CILIP agenda, identifying and removing barriers). Resource are working with The Network, the RCMG at Leicester University, the National Council on Archives and Society of Archivists to develop an awareness course for managers across the three domains (16) .
    • Awareness and practical sessions for front-line staff
    • Work on meeting the needs of specific socially excluded groups (eg refugees and asylum-seekers; lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgendered people; children and young people who are socially excluded)
    • A particularly interesting development recently has been for the Network to work with a library service in more depth, for example:
    • Wandsworth - following a training session for managers (and a follow-up session 6 months later to help them review progress), I am now running courses for their Children's Librarians, Librarians and Senior Library Assistants
    • Bristol - I have run a course for 7 different groups of managers, looking at the 'bigger picture' for public libraries - not just social exclusion - and helping them to assess how they were succeeding in meeting these new priorities and plan for future developments
    • Glasgow - I have spoken at three staff development days about social exclusion and how to tackle it, worked twice with groups of managers and front-line staff, and facilitated a discussion on social exclusion with some of the Community Learning Team.

    These programmes of training have demonstrated the obvious commitment of many library workers to try to break down barriers and deliver a socially-inclusive service. However, at the same time, it is also clear that many managers are themselves not 'up-to-speed' with developments at a national level - I'm still amazed by the number who have only a shadowy grasp of the role and work of Resource, for example - and therefore cannot be in a position to keep their staff on track.

    In addition, whilst, as I noted above, many library workers are keen to develop this work, there are obviously many who are not. Some of these will be people who don't understand what tackling social exclusion is all about; some will be people who think that social exclusion doesn't apply to their area/service; some will be people whose views form part of the new barriers identified above; and some, presumably, will be people who do not agree politically with tackling social exclusion - see below.

    What, if anything, is the 'key' that will turn them on to this kind of work? That's the area that interests me as a trainer most - and why, after nearly 30 years of running courses, I still get a kick out of it! I'm still searching for the answer. Our open17 autumn programme includes the following:

    • A one-day course on managing public libraries to tackle social exclusion, Preston, 17 September
    • A Conference to look at rural social exclusion issues, Norwich, 25 September
    • A Conference to disseminate the good practice developed during Kent Arts & Libraries' reading development project with refugees and asylum-seekers, "Words without Frontiers", London, 26 September
    • A cross-domain course (looking at tackling social exclusion in libraries, museums and archives) for NEMLAC, 31 October.

    Further information about The Network can be obtained from:

    John Vincent, Wisteria Cottage, Nadderwater, Exeter EX4 2JQ

    Tel/fax: 01392 256045
    E-mail: johnat


    (1) The research team consisted of: Shiraz Durrani (Merton), Martin Dutch (Sheffield), Rebecca Linley (then Leeds Metropolitan University, now Resource), Dave Muddiman (Leeds Metropolitan University), John Pateman (Merton), John Vincent.

    (2) Open to all? The public library and social exclusion. Volume 1: Overview and conclusions. Resource, 2000.

    (3) This bears out the findings of the work by Patrick Roach and Marlene Morrison

    (4) Libraries for all: social inclusion in public libraries - policy guidance for local authorities in England. DCMS, 1999

    (5) The Daily Telegraph "Comment" 20 May 2002, p19.

    (6) Josie Appleton "Distorted priorities are destroying local museums", The Independent 29 May 2002, p16.


    (8) John Pateman "Cultural revolution" Update, April 2002, pp42-3.

    (9) All our children: social inclusion and children's libraries. Youth Libraries Group, 2001.

    (10) The section on mobile library services is taken from a talk given by John Vincent to the Mobilemeet in Essex, 18 May 2002.

    (11) Newsletter 28, Aug 2001, pp8-12.

    (12) Newsletter 26, June 2001, pp8-9.

    (13) Newsletter 27, July 2001, pp3-4.


    (15) Newsletter 27, July 2001, pp7-8.

    (16) Libraries, archives, and museums/galleries.

    (17) As noted above, The Network also runs in-house training courses: during the autumn, we'll be running courses for Poole, Norfolk, the CIPFA Benchmarking Club.


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