Developing community-led public libraries … a review by John Vincent

Published in February, this new title[1] from Ashgate looks at how community-led libraries have developed in the UK and in Canada since the publication of Open to all? in 2000.

I need to start with a declaration of interest, in that I was involved in this book (in commenting on and checking the text as it developed) and he also contributed a brief case study.

Just as a quick reminder, Open to all? was the result of an 18-month research project which looked at public library policy and social exclusion. It produced a final report with eight case studies of different types of library authority; a survey of UK public library authorities; and a series of working papers that reviewed aspects of social exclusion[2].

This work was one of the inspirations for the Working Together Project in Canada, which ran from 2004-2008.[3]

This book takes the learning from these two pieces of work, and applies it to nine critical areas:

  • Consultation
  • Needs assessment and research
  • Library image and identity
  • Outreach, community development and partnerships
  • ICT and social exclusion
  • Materials provision
  • Staffing, recruitment, training and education
  • Mainstreaming and resourcing for social exclusion
  • Standards and monitoring of services.

Each of these nine chapters follows broadly the same format:

  •  Open to all? recommendations
  • An overview of UK public library policy and practice in relation to social exclusion from 2000-2012
  • Findings from the Working Together Project
  • The development of a community-led service philosophy in public libraries in Vancouver, Regina, Halifax and Toronto between 2004 and 2008.
  • Each chapter also has some “Helpful Hints”, practical tips for ways of taking this work forwards.

The final two chapters provide a synthesis of the findings from this work in order to give “a blueprint and road map for developing needs-based and community-led public library services.” [p22]

At a time when many public libraries in the UK are under threat[4] and there is also something of a move away from community-based and community-led services (unless it is to give over parts of the service to the community to run entirely), this powerful book is a strong reminder of the importance of community-based work and of the role that libraries can play, and asks us to rethink the way we work. As just one example, in the chapter on ICT and social exclusion, it stresses:

“… it is important to view ICT as a means to develop relationships which can extend the breadth of library services in the community beyond technology.” [p118]

Reminding ourselves of the importance of focusing on community needs (rather than assuming that most people are online and ‘connected’ – or want to be) is emphasised too in the “Helpful Hints” for that chapter, eg:

“#2: Libraries should draw up ICT plans which include a strategy outlining how the needs of socially excluded communities are prioritized. ICT should be used as a means to tackle social exclusion rather than as an end in itself …

#4: ICT initiatives should be targeted more closely at excluded groups and communities in a proactive way. Appropriate levels of skilled staffing and support should be offered to users.” [p121]

Highly recommended.

[This review is an edited version of that which appeared in The Network Newsletter, June 2013,]

[1] John Pateman and Ken Williment. Developing community-led public libraries: evidence from the UK and Canada. Ashgate, 2013. Further information at: and at: An extract is available at:

[2] Dave Muddiman et al. Open to all? The public library and social exclusion. Volume 1: Overview and conclusions. Resource, 2000. Available to download from:

[3] For background, see: A major output from this Project is: Community-led libraries toolkit. Working Together Project, 2008. Available to download as a pdf (1060 kb) from:

[4] See, for example: Steve Davies. The public library service under attack: how cuts are putting individuals and communities at risk and damaging local businesses and economies. UNISON, 2013. Available to download as a pdf (1900 kb) from: