‘Libraries are surely the ultimate community enabler’ – Miranda McKearney

VftL are pleased to share this speech, given today (Thursday 10 Feb) by Miranda McKearney OBE, director of The Reading Agency, the independent charity working to inspire more people to read more.   The speech is to be given at an RSA/ Arts Council England “State of the Arts” conference.

Reading Agency speech at Arts Council England/RSA conference

Miranda McKearney OBE

Director – The Reading Agency: 10 February 2011

My area is libraries, reading and people power, so it’s good to be here at the important point when libraries are about to move to the Arts Council when MLA shuts. Libraries and reading are often missed out of the picture when talking about the arts. Weird, because reading is our biggest participative art form and just think about what happens when you read – you’re instantly plunged into a deep and intimate connection with the writer; your imagination fuses with theirs to create new worlds and understanding.

So…if reading’s part of the arts that must apply to libraries too. Libraries are the way society ensures we can all access the personal power that comes when you’re a reader. Reading isn’t just a nice thing, it’s essential to being part of society. It’s an art form that needs to reach everyone.  But it doesn’t – one in six adults struggle with low literacy skills and libraries are key to tackling this. Libraries are surely the ultimate community enabler, a potent symbol of collective power and civic pride.  It would be hard to think of a more important part of our cultural fabric to an agenda that’s about community power and action, an agenda which of course predates the Big Society.

Libraries are changing. The way they support reading has become far more social and dynamic –everything from reading groups to whole city read ins. This creates an exciting  new creative platform for volunteering. Libraries lead one of the UK’s most important cultural opportunities for children – the Summer Reading Challenge which involves 760,000 4-12 year olds,  and makes a big impact on their enjoyment of reading and literacy attainment. This is starting to be supported by a brilliant volunteering programme with young people helping children get through the Challenge. Their input offers an important mixed economy model – it’s community involvement that adds capacity to, but doesn’t – and shouldn’t – replace, a professionally run library service.

As a charity specialising in helping libraries spread reading, we’re involved in lots of work to transform services by sharing power with users. In April we start work with Big Lottery funding in 20 disadvantaged communities from Sunderland to Hounslow. Our My Voice programme immerses young people in creative reading, drawing them in through artists like Akala of the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company. At the same time it involves them in making decisions about library services, taking on accredited volunteering roles and spending budgets.  They become activists and service shapers. Our experience is that they want and need support from library staff. As do most volunteers, so even though we’re huge champions of community power I am dubious about the likely long term success of libraries in disadvantaged areas being run wholly by volunteers.

Last year volunteering through libraries rose by 8%.  If we play it right, we’re at a stage of development where we could see a whole new wave of public involvement through joined up arts/library/reading work. But there’s also the terrifying possibility that we’re about to blow it, that we leave a library network unable to act. It’s more than the buildings, the library development staff are hugely at risk. Without their expertise, there can be no outreach, no informed support as people explore the world’s ideas, no reading activities to act as an inspiring springboard for volunteering.

There’s an urgent need for some joined up thinking. If we’re serious about creating more community activism, we surely have to be serious about having a dynamic library role at the heart of our communities. So I’ll finish with a call to the arts world  – please embrace libraries at this crucial time, and include reading and libraries every time you’re arguing for the value of the arts. Please use your fantastic lobbying skills on behalf of libraries, and at The Reading Agency we’ll do all we can to support you.

Guest bloggers are not affiliated with VftL, and all views and opinions are their own.

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