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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 17. Developing a Needs Based Library Service

John Pateman

Public libraries are actively used by only 30% of the population. Of these two out of three are middle class. My definition of middle class is that used by market researchers who divide social class into six groups, based on occupation: groups A,B, C1 (professional, managerial, clerical) are boadly middle class; groups C2, D, E (Skilled, semi skilled, unemployed) are broadly working class. The public library service is massively under used by working class people, Black communities, Travellers and other socially excluded groups.

"You are made to feel like a second class citizen"

Libraries for all: Social Inclusion in Public Libraries identified four major barriers to public library use:

Insitutional - These are the barriers that authorities, libraries and library staff themselves may create, and which may discourage or restrict usage by certain people or sections of the community. They include inappropriate staff attitudes and behaviour, charging policies that disadvantage those on low incomes and lack of a sense of ownership and involvement by the community.

Perceptions and awareness - Perceptions that "libraries are not for us" exist both in individual and community terms. This perception causes difficulties for, among others, people who are educationally disadvantaged and people who live in isolation from wider society.

Environmental - Environmental barriers include difficult physical access into and within buildings, problem estates and urban decay, the isolation problems experienced by rural communities and poor transport links.

Personal and social - These barriers exist either in personal terms or because of cultural or community circumstances. They include lack of basic skills in reading, writing and communication, low income and poverty, direct and indirect discrimination and social class.

I would like to dwell at some length on this issue of social class because it is often denied that social class even exists any more and it is very rarely talked about, written about or discussed at professional events. The issue of class tends to make people feel uncomfortable and defensive. Issues of race, gender, sexuality and disability are still fashionable and often appear in journals and on seminar programmes. Social class is distinctive by its absence - it is the final taboo.

Social Class is not a professional issue because most professionals are middle class with all the power and benefits that comes with this. In the same way that Race is not an issue for many White people, Social Class is regarded as an anachronism, something that used to exist but which is no longer relevant. Research after research proves beyond reasonable doubt, not only that Social Class still exists, but that it is the key determinant in education, job prospects and almost every aspect of life. Here are just a few examples:

A socio-economic attainment gap is evident in children as young as 22 months. The Class divide, once set, then maintains itself with increasing rigidity throughout school life, with the gap growing for most children. Only 14% of young people from lower income backgrounds go to university, compared to 75% from more advantaged homes.

According to Mori , most repeat visits to museums are by the educated and cultured classes. 34% of repeat visitors are from the AB socio-economic group and 15% are from the DE group.

21m people use the Internet but there are significant differences in usage by geographical area, age and social class. The Internet is used by 69% of AB's, 56% of C1's, 36% of C2's, and only 19% of DE's.

This statistical evidence is compelling. It indicates that there is an imbalance in the use of public libraries by different social classes. The testimony of lapsed library users and non-users is also worth considering. This indicates that even when working class people do use public libraries they still encounter barriers. Here are some examples from recently published research:

"I feel when I think of going to the library that I am alienated and I don't feel comfortable in that environment. I would rather go to a shop because I felt comfortable there to pay for a book because of the environment."

"You feel intimidated to be honest with you ... where at the end of the day, the wording on the leaflet, some of the people I know wouldn't understand it. It's very intellectual; it's not from a ground level. It's just intimidating."

" can be scary, especially if you've never been introduced to books." This evidence suggests that using public libraries can be an intimidating and scary experience. They are not always the open, friendly and neutral spaces that they claim to be. In order to develop a truly inclusive library service the starting point has to be a focus on the needs of users and non-users.

From each according to their ability, to each according to their need"

"Some (libraries) are vital agents of change in their communities, reaching out to the people who need them most whether they are long standing users or not. Others are much more passive - they lend books and they respond to the demands of their regular public" So I think we need to define libraries' modern mission. The future success of libraries depends on their renewing and communicating a sense of mission which is relevant to the needs of society today ... What individual library authorities do must reflect the needs of their local communities" .

This speech by Baroness Blackstone, Minister for the Arts indicates that the government wishes public libraries, along with other public services, to take a needs based approach. This will require a radical transformation in the way that public library services are managed and delivered. What is needed is a new strategy, structure and culture for the public library service that is focused on the needs of existing and potential users. Allied to this is the requirement for a new visionary style of public library leadership and management.

In Merton we call this approach Communities Developing Communities. Community development is the process by which we provide opportunities for empowerment by enabling communities to access the information, knowledge and skills necessary to satisfy their needs. Although particular needs may vary from community to community we have identified several key needs that we think are common to all communities, particularly communities that could benefit from development. These are:

Information and knowledge - with knowledge and information communities are empowered to develop themselves. However, libraries need to broaden out their skills and focus in this area to include business information, benefits information, health information.

Skills - In communities needing development, there is often low educational attainment, low skill levels, lack of employability and high unemployment. The libraries approach to skills development should be broad by for example, enabling parents to help children with their homework and skills development for citizenship.

Empowerment - disadvantaged communities are often fragmented and experience feelings of mistrust, and of having no power over their future - a feeling that there is nothing they can do to change things. Libraries can give the communities the power to change their lives.

Capacity Building - In order to thrive the community needs to improve and develop its own capacity for growth and evolution. Libraries as part of the community also need to build their own capacity to work in partnership and to offer a service that responds to community needs.

How can this be achieved? In Merton we are using a combination of the following:

Outreach - This is a crucial part of how we meet needs. It is through outreach that we can connect with local communities and with those people who don't use libraries. Through outreach we can help to connect local people with the opportunities that libraries can offer.

Promoting Cultural Diversity - This is closely linked to the issue of empowerment. It is very disempowering to go into a library and find nothing there that reflects your culture. We would like to see cultural diversity broadened out to include promotion of diversity on a number of levels, for example, gender, sexuality, disability, class to ensure that libraries are relevant to a wide cross section of the community.

ICT - Information and communication technology is an increasingly important force in people's lives. With the arrival of the People's Network, libraries can connect the community with information, knowledge, skills development and e-government. More and more jobs require ICT skills - 60% of existing jobs and 90% of new jobs. The Internet provides access to cheaper goods and services and to more and more of the essential information we need to be active citizens.

Audience Development - This is a wider and more inclusive term than reader development. Not all existing or potential library users can or want to read. Audience development can include arts events in libraries which build a bridge between libraries and excluded communities. Working with youth services is another way of reaching new library users and widening the library audience.

Supporting Economic Wellbeing - Libraries can support economic wellbeing in a number of ways, for example, by providing business information, ICT classes for lone parents with creche facilities, a range of learning opportunities for parents at home with children, and benefits advice for those seeking work or unable to work.

Informal Learning - Many people are more comfortable with informal learning and find that it fits in much better with their lifestyle. Libraries are well placed to respond to this need. Informal learning opportunities can be wide ranging - from ICT classes to literacy classes to how to connect with your local MP. They can include sessions on health information, healthy eating on a budget, getting a residents group together.

There are certain guiding principles which must underpin all aspects of service delivery in a needs based service:

Partnerships - by working in partnerships with other agencies libraries can identify particular needs and work with others to address them. Partnerships should be based on shared objectives, power and resources.

Choice - We need to offer both a wide choice of services and a wide choice of how those services are accessed. This is often best achieved in partnership with others.

Consultation - Libraries cannot be relevant if they do not know what the needs of the community are. Half of Best Value Inspections have found that library services are not engaging with non-users and particularly not with hard to reach groups.

Planning - Service plans must be informed by the needs of the community as discovered via consultation. Users and non-users must be actively engaged in the planning, implementation and monitoring of service delivery.

Balancing Needs - Balancing the needs of potential users with those of actual users is not easy. It often requires a redirection of priorities and resources. As Baroness Blackstone has said "This means that you must try to find the resources for these changes by managing your existing budgets as effectively as you can, and by ruthless prioritising and reallocation to meet national priorities and local needs."

Equalities - This relates to balancing needs. It also encompasses issues of transparency and democracy. We need to be clear about the decisions we take and to impart this information to the community.

Community needs must be our focus if we are to respond to challenges to put libraries at the heart of communities. If we fail to focus on community needs, we will not be relevant and this will signal the death knell of the public library. Libraries must change to remain relevant. By focusing on community needs libraries can become a dynamic force for social change.


Libraries for all: Social Inclusion in Public Libraries, DCMS 1999

Kamal Ahmed, Britain's Class Divide Starts Even Before Nursery School, The Observer, 10 November 2002

Matthew Beard, Free Museums Fail to Attract Wider Audience, The Independent, 14 September 2002

Building Better Library Services, Audit Commission, 2002

Baroness Blackstone, A shared Mission, Public Library Journal, Vol 17, No 4, 2002

Jacquie Campbell & Greg Birdseye, Learning From Inspection, Public Library Journal, Vol 17, No 4, 2002


  1. Please note that versions of this article have already appeared in Public Library Journal (Volume 18 No.2, Summer 2003) and Adults Learning (May 2003).
  2. The "Communities Developing Communities" model used by Merton Libraries was originally developed by Liz Smallwood.

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