The struggle to ensure equal library rights for all: A challenge to librarians

BiS rättviseseminarium VII på Bok & Bibliotek 2004

Shiraz Durrani


De senaste tio åren har en företagsstyrd globalisering skapat en massiv förflyttning av kapital och arbete över världen. Det har fått viktiga sociala konsekvenser på nationell och lokal nivå. Det har också påverkat biblioteken, som måste se till att deras resurser och service görs tillgängliga för alla på ett socialt rättvist och jämlikt sätt.

Många bibliotek har, istället för att skapa nya modeller den nya situationen, accepterat mycket av den ojämlikhet som finns i den företagsstyrda globaliseringen; den ojämlikhet i fråga om ekonomiska tillgångar, resurser och makt som finns i samhället återfinns också på biblioteken när det gäller hur resurser utnyttjas och service tillhandahålls.

I London Borough of Merton har en innovativ biblioteksservice utvecklats, som har sin utgångspunkt i dess invånares behov. Målmedvetet har en service riktat in sig på ungdomars, äldres, flyktingars, asylsökandes, svartas och etniska minoritetsgruppers behov.

Shiraz Durrani är kenyansk bibliotekarie som lever i exil i Storbritannien har arbetat som Innovation and Development Manager för biblioteksservicen i Merton, där han haft möjlighet att genomföra idéer från forskningsprogrammet Open for All? The Public Library and Social Exclusion, i vilket han deltog

Introduktion av Lennart Wettmark, BiS.

Läs Shiraz anförande på Bok & Bibliotek 2004

Struggle to ensure equal library rights for all;

A challenge to librarians

Shiraz Durrani[1]

Talk at the ”fair library” seminar organised by BiS

Gothenberg Book and Library Fair, 23 – 26 Sept 2004


Struggle to ensure equal library rights for all;

A challenge to librarians


(bis seminar The Fair Library VII)

(12 March 2004)

Shiraz Durrani

Over the last ten years, the forces of corporate globalisation have created a massive movement of capital and labour across the world, which has had important social consequences at national and local levels.  One aspect of this challenge affects public libraries which need to ensure that their resources and services are made available to all on the principles of social justice and equality.

Many library services, instead of creating new models suitable for current requirements, have incorporated many aspects of inequality inherent in the concept of corporate globalisation.  At another level, inequalities in wealth, resources and power distribution in the society as a whole are reflected within libraries also on how resources are used and what services are delivered.

Merton has developed an innovative approach to establish a library service based on meeting the needs of its people. A targeted approach is taken to develop services to young people, older people, refugees and asylum seekers, sections of the Black and ethnic minority communities, etc

Shiraz Durrani is a Kenyan librarian in exile in Britain, working as the Innovations and Development Manager in the library services of London Borough of Merton, where he is implementing ideas from the research programme Open to All? The Public Library and Social Exclusion of which he was a member.


Introduction. 2

PART 1:  Public libraries and globalisation. 3

Librarians and their societies. 3

Globalisation and effects on libraries. 4

Democracy deficit in libraries. 8

Libraries and society in Britain. 9

Creating a people-orientated library service. 11

PART 2:  Public libraries in England. 12

PART 3:  The Merton Library approach. 15

Lavender Sure Start – Children’s Corners. 20

Lending Time project 20

Welcome to your library. 21

Commonside Open Learning Centre. 21

Youth projects. 21

Merton Sense leads the way. 22

Quality Leaders Project – Youth. 25

Services to older people. 27

Merton Library Drama Group. 27

Laptops@home. 28

Creative communities@ Pollards Hill & Mitcham Libraries. 29

Conclusion. 31

References. 32


I have made a small, but important, change in the title of my talk.  The conference programme gives the title as “The struggle to ensure…”  The “small” change I have made is to remove the word “the”, thereby placing an enormous burden on all of you.  You are no longer expected just to sit and listen to what I’m saying:  you have to become active participants in the struggle to ensure equal library rights.  But I expect all of you are active anyway, as otherwise you would not be here today.

An important aspect of life in a rapidly globalizing world is to ensure people have the information that will enable them to understand the global reality and make informed decisions that affect their lives.  This right is under challenge and is being curtailed as part of USA and UK’s war on “terrorism”.  A very simple example of what is really happening to the information world is this:  USA has officially admitted that 1,000 US soldiers have died in Iraq as part of their meaningless search for weapons of mass destruction.  What we do not get is the figure of Iraqis killed by these forces of official global terrorists.  Independent estimates indicate that 10,000 – 12,000 Iraqi’s have been killed, with thousands injured and thousands other facing the prospect of future illnesses and death as the use of all sorts of dangerous and illegal weapons, such as depleted uranium (DU)  – not to mention death from economic disruption and looting of the country. Yet this information is hidden and few people know about it.  It is the job of librarians to dig out and disseminate such information, yet few do this in practice. 

I will be challenged by some librarians that it is not the job of librarians to get involved in politics. The answer is simple: it is the duty of library and information workers to make sure that the people we serve get information such as the above.  Otherwise we are part of the conspiracy that seeks to deny people the information they need.  It is not our job to decide what people should believe in or should do – our job is to ensure that information from all sides and aspects of a given situation is freely available to all.  If we do not accept this proposition, then perhaps we are in the wrong profession.

PART 1:  Public libraries and globalisation

Librarians and their societies


The first, obvious, question we should consider is “what are libraries and information all about?” In an attempt to seek this answer, I would like to take an experience from Kenya.  A library attendant lived in an area that produces coffee.  When he went home for holidays one year, he was asked by a number of peasants a simple question:  “You work in a University library; you have information from the whole world around you.  We want you to answer a simple question for us:  we work from dawn to dusk growing coffee, right from tending little shoots, to weeding, to harvesting, to drying coffee beans, day after day, month after month, year after year.  We hear that our coffee sells for thousands of pounds in London, yet we do not earn enough from our labour to buy our own coffee in local shops let alone feed and clothe our families.  You tell us why not, you who have all the information at your finger tips, you tell us what happens to our coffee money?” 

It was not as if the University library did not have information about coffee.  It had one of the best agricultural libraries in Eastern Africa.  The library’s collection on coffee and other cash crops was rated world class, with researchers from all over the world queuing to find employment at this well resourced Faculty.  Yet the library was not equipped to answer these simple economic-political questions from local peasants.

Now the questions asked by the peasants are fundamental to the work of librarians.  The local library did have adequate resources to meet the needs of its users.  It is just that its services were not aimed at peasants and workers.  More important, the information that was available was depoliticised.  It took the agricultural world around it as a reality that could not be challenged.  It failed to see the difference between the natural world in which the coffee was grown and the social world, which had created social relations, and which decided on who owned the land, how labour was remunerated and where the profits went.  Nor was it considered necessary to understand and explain that reality, to examine its history and, perhaps, to see the need to change that unjust reality – as the Kenyan peasants were demanding.

Another example, which seeks the answer to the question “what are libraries and information for,” is taken from Britain.  In 1972, librarians and staff at the Institute of Race Relations found themselves in a similar situation as that of the Kenyan library attendant.  The Institute of Race Relations (IRR), established in 1950s, was funded by the corporations that profited from the exploitation of Africa and Asia’s resources and aimed at “understanding how to preserve colonial economic relationships”[2].   Kundnani (2004) records its transformation:

Caught in the revolutionary politics in Britain and abroad, the IRR was transformed in 1972 into the first anti-racist and anti-imperialist ‘think tank’ in Britain, after a rebellion by the staff.  It  was a unique victory in the war of knowledge, capturing for the black and Third World liberation movements of the day the resources of a key institution of neo-colonialism, including the old house-journal Race, which two years later was renamed Race and Class.

A key part in this liberation of IRR was played by a librarian, A. Sivanandan a political activist, writer, founding editor of Race & Class [3] and the director of the Institute of Race Relations.  His contribution to British librarianship and radical politics in Britain has been vastly underplayed by the establishment – and the library “profession”.  His example needs to be taken up as a model of what librarians should be doing. This is particularly relevant at a time when the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) in Britain is planning to close down its library to the public. Those who have decided to close the CRE library need to learn the lessons that Sivanandan and his colleagues have taught. [4]

Kundnani (2004) poses important questions which librarians need to answer urgently:

Today, there is a new spirit of questioning and rebellion afoot in the world. Scholarship that is not only on the people but for the people is once more an urgent demand. And with academia drawn increasingly into the nexus of commerce and state-sponsored ‘evaluation’ of policy, the questions that Race & Class first asked thirty years ago remain valid today: ‘What good is your knowledge to us? Do you in your analyses of our social realities tell us what we can do to transform them? Does your apprehension of our reality speak to our experience? Do you convey it in a language that we can understand? If you do none of these things, should we not only reject your ”knowledge” but, in the interests of our own liberation, consider you a friend to our enemies and a danger to our people?’

Few librarians in Britain have answered these questions.

Globalisation and effects on libraries

The key issue then is to decide what the social role of librarians is.  Should they take the social, economic and political situation they find themselves in as “given” without understanding why and how we arrived at this situation?  Is it their role to dig deeper into “facts” that are given to them by their social environment?   Is it appropriate to see the role of librarians in the same light in which Marx saw the role of philosophers:  “The philosophers have interpreted the world in many ways.  What matters is changing it.”[5]

But before we consider the question of librarians trying to change the world, we need to question whether they even interpret their worlds.  A large number of professional libraries remain unconnected to the social and political reality around them.  Their model of a “global library” is much like McDonald restaurant outlets which serve the same product in every part of the world.  While this approach may be a useful one in ensuring a standard level of service, and a useful model for maximising profits for the McDonald chain, it is disastrous for libraries if they want to root themselves in their local communities.

Librarians trained to run such global libraries take professional pride in being “neutral” in the social divide all around them.  They thus become increasingly isolated from the majority of people in their local communities.  Forces of corporate globalisation then push them even further from their communities by offering to save staff time and mental effort by supplying pre-packaged “best sellers”, guaranteed to meet the wants of the 30%[6] of the population – and to boost the profit margins of transnational publishers and booksellers.  The success of their libraries is then judged by the number of such best sellers they manage to loan out.  No critical questions are asked or answered here:  what is a library all about?  What is its social role?   Who has the power to make key decisions, and on whose behalf are decisions made?

The “global library” then is a standard library service that can be located in any geographical, any social or political situation, in any historical period and still expect to function normally as a “library”.  The global librarians who run these global libraries take pride in their non-political stand, in their “neutrality” in the social struggles going on all around them.  They claim to be outside social struggles taking place in their societies, somehow uplifted to a loftier position by their “professional” training.  Their class position in their societies isolates them from the struggles of working people whose basic needs for information is ignored by their libraries.

Corporate globalisation can be described as the “process enabling financial and investment markets to operate internationally, largely as a result of deregulation and improved communications” (Collins).  I do not intend here to go into details of what globalisation is and how it affects libraries, as this has been dealt with adequately in a number of sources. [7]  However, a few points need to be made:

The first point that needs to be made is that globalisation is an aspect of capitalism in its imperialist phase.  This is often forgotten or ignored because it is so obvious or because some find it in the interest hide it.  It does not lead to clarity of thought if we gloss over the fact of the context of capitalism running the shown in every aspect of our lives, whether it is waging war on Iraqi people, or handing over parts of utilities, railways and other social assets to private companies for profit.  The worst effects of corporate globalisation have to date been felt in the so-called developing world.  But the working people in the industrialised countries are increasing being affected as public institutions are being privatised, industries are rushing off to places where exploitation of cheaper labour boosts profit margins and new technologies are used, not to improve living and leisure standards of working people, but again to boost corporate profits. 

These changes have had an impact on libraries too.  Not only are new technologies making it possible to rationalise tasks and work practices, but it makes it necessary to change at a faster rate as technological progress is changing the world around them.  At the same time, many traditional library tasks are increasing being handed over to private companies, rather than being done in-house.  As the whole local authority sector is redefined to become facilitators of service rather than direct providers, significant changes are on the way.  Other areas of local authority work are also changing.  For example, household waste collection is no longer done by local staff; schools and education are being removed from local authority control.  It is inconceivable that libraries will continue existing as they now are for very long. 

I am not arguing that all changes associated with globalisation are necessarily bad.  But I would like to see more librarians in Britain adopting the 10 point plan, proposed by Mark Rosenzweig, supporting “democratic globalism” as opposed to corporate globalisation:

We  shall oppose corporate globalization which, despite its claims, reinforces existing social, economic, cultural inequalities, and insist on a democratic globalism and internationalism which respects and cultivates cultural plurality,  which recognizes the sovereignty of peoples, which acknowledges the obligations of society to the individual and communities, and  which prioritizes human values and needs over profits.[8]

Other important changes coming our way are the rules courtesy of the World Trade Organisation, especially in the context of TRIPS (trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights).    IFLA has expressed its concerns over TRIPS in a number of areas such as “not for profit libraries”, intellectual property and cultural diversity.    Specific threats from these are mentioned by IFLA:

The GATS Agreement has the potential to open up all aspects of a national economy to foreign competition including public sector services such as libraries. Corporations can be set up in any Member State and compete against public services. In such instances, the foreign corporation can challenge government support for public sector service and could claim national treatment; i.e. the same level of subsidy received from the government by the public sector agency.[9]

Hunt (2001) shows the future of public libraries under WTO rules:

Public libraries are in the public domain, supported by public taxes. Imagine an information services company entering a market and demanding the same subsidies and tax support that public libraries get. It would be entitled to do so under national treatment rules, providing it can prove itself to be the same kind of operation. The government’s most likely response would be to cut back on or eliminate public funding to libraries so as to avoid similar claims in the future. Libraries could find themselves forced to generate income to survive. The worst case scenario is that, without public funding, libraries could disappear altogether. The public would then be required to buy their information from information companies or from libraries, if libraries could stay afloat by charging for their services. Either way, the public would find itself paying for information that was once in the public domain.

Iverson (1998/99) explains how the politics of globalisation affects libraries and their local communities.  The political role of librarians is clear:

As our global society becomes increasingly based on the commodity of information, power becomes increasingly focused and managed by those with access to information. Those without such access remain marginalized. Librarians have been trained in the management of information. Therefore, I see their role as inherently political. Unfortunately, all too often librarians have rejected the political nature of the work they do. In these times of increased commodification of information librarians have sought to play leading roles in the new ”information society.” In order to do so, they have uncritically accepted the ideals of professionalization and have embraced the principles of objectivity and neutrality.

Librarians tend to see themselves as neutral service providers, rejecting any stated political stance, and certainly their training encourages this position. As Henry Blanke maintains: ”librarianship’s reluctance to define its values in political terms and to cultivate a sense of social responsibility may allow it to drift into an uncritical accommodation with society’s dominant political and economic powers.” (Blanke, p.39 [10])

While librarians are trained to maintain an objective or neutral stance they are also expected to make decisions regarding ”good” and ”bad” materials. Librarians are often seen as ”experts” in determining the literature and other resources that their clientele needs. Unfortunately, they do not often recognize the inherent bias at work in making these decisions. Librarians generally regard the selection of materials as apolitical.

Faced with a situation where libraries are blind walking into extinction, it is important that those of us with conviction and commitment stand up for a new role of libraries in society – and actively practice this new role.  In the world ruled by corporate globalisation, it is too easy to drift along with the tide of “neutral” librarianship and do nothing to make libraries play a central role in liberating people, their cultures, and their economies from the privatised future that globalisation has planned for them.  A new approach in which real democracy and transparency flourishes is essential.

Democracy deficit in libraries

Thus the myth of a “neutral” librarian needs to be exploded.  There is no way that librarians are or can be neutral in the social struggles of their societies.  Every decision they make – how much to spend on books, which books to buy, what staff to appoint, how to manage the service – is a reflection of their class position and their world outlook, however much they deny this.  The power they have been given in running their libraries is supposed to be used to meet the needs of the majority of the local people.  But there is a basic lack of democracy in the world of libraries, which has created a type of library managers who cannot be directly challenged by the people whose needs the librarians are expected to serve.   

What librarians do – and don’t do – is not merely an academic question.  It affects our understanding of our natural and social environment, which, taken in its totality, affects our world outlook, affects what we think and what we do.  It influences the minds of the young generation and becomes the prevailing outlook of the adult world of tomorrow. 

Manipulation of information, whether conscious or unconscious, is an important matter, not only in local life, but in international relations as well.  Librarians can become tools in the hands of those seeking to manipulate whole populations to think along their lines – or stand firm to support the democratic rights of the people manipulated.  There is no third way here.

Let us take a few examples of how incorrect information affects our understanding of our societies and our lives, as this has a direct effect on the work of librarians.  Again, the first example comes from my “education” in Kenya.  I was taught in school that the route to India was “discovered” by a Portuguese adventurer called Vasco da Gama.  This was a “truth” recorded in print in history books and reinforced by respected teachers, so could not be challenged.  Moreover, quoting such “fact” got you top marks in exams, so it was THE truth.  But the reality, which I came to know much later, is that there had been trade between East Africa and India centuries before Vasco da Gama was even born.  In fact, it was a Mombasa-based Gujarati pilot called Canani who guided Vasco da Gama’s ships from Mombasa to India. The colonial education gave me the incorrect information that it was Vasco da Gama who discovered the route, thus reinforcing the impression given me by my colonial education about the superiority of Europeans.  The local libraries I used – public, school, and the colonial British Council – all reinforced this incorrect information which, no doubt, contributed to creating an inferiority feeling in me and other Kenyans.  This obviously affects people’s self worth and ability to reach higher levels of achievement.

Another example of manipulation of information can be given. The C.I.A. consistently used information manipulation as a weapon of cold war.  Zuckerman (2000) shows how the ending of film versions of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1948 were altered by the C.I.A. to discredit communism.  But the damage done by misinformation can be even more serious.  Moore (1997) says in his review of Walt’s book:[11]

Walt writes about how misperceptions and a lack of solid information can lead to overreaction, paranoia, and war when revolutionary states and outside states face one another across the Gulf of Ambiguity.

Recent events have shown how misinformation can be used to generate popular support for illegal and unjust wars, for example when USA and Britain invaded Iraq, killing thousands of people in the quest for non-existent “weapons of mass destruction” – in reality, seeking to gain easy access to cheap oil and in pursuit of other political and economic gains.

If librarians are involved in the business of information, then surely they have social responsibility to ensure that people get correct information.  It is a matter of ethics that they challenge misinformation, particularly when this is used by a small, powerful clique to wage wars and kill people on false pretexts.  But our “professional” librarians are too “neutral” – or too scared – to challenge the hand that feeds them.  At the very least, they need to make alternate views and opinions as freely available as they do the views of the ruling classes.  But this is not what the “globised librarian” is trained to do.

Two aspects of the job of a librarian can be seen to be to collect and then to disseminate information, in a relevant form and language, to all those who need the information.  This gives librarians tremendous power as it is they who decide what material to acquire and how and when to disseminate it.  The easy availability of information on the Internet is fast changing their monopolistic role as it democratises the flow of information. 

Libraries and society in Britain

There is usually a time gap between the emergence of a new social reality and that reality being accepted in people’s consciousness.  In the case of Britain, changes after the Second World War resulted in the loss of the economic power of Britain, a fact reflected in the loss of the British Empire.  However, at a larger social level, the British society has not fully absorbed this fundamental loss of economic and thus political power.  The fact that Britain officially honours its citizens with medals that hark back to days of colonial glory with awarding such anachronisms as “Order of the British Empire” and “Members of British Empire” indicates that over 50 years after the “loss” of the Empire such dreams of colonial might have not died.  Lessons and reality of history are shut out from social consciousness by denying the reality of a new world where Britain is no longer the superpower ruling the world, where China is flexing its muscles to become the most powerful nation in the world. Yet collections in most public libraries have very little material from China – a fact reflected in the lack of awareness about that part of the world in people as a whole.

In a society that has sought to shut out the reality of a new globalised world, it is not surprising that its libraries have shut themselves in a dream world of presumed superiority and “professional” might.  The fact that the library world has not come to grips with changes in British society is a reflection of the British society as a whole not coming to grips its new reality.  Jacques (2004) mentions how Britain has coped with the loss of the Empire: 

For well over 200 years, Britain was the centre of a huge empire, which at its peak covered a quarter of the world’s land surface. Overseas expansion and the ability to command the seas, to conquer other peoples and then to run colonies require a sophisticated knowledge of the world, an officer class that is well-versed in the ways of the world, newspapers that can inform, universities that can train, a culture that can sustain.

The hub of an empire has to be a cosmopolitan place. But as the empire contracted, as Britain’s role in the world diminished – at extraordinary speed, it must be said – the need for such knowledge and capacity declined. The great institutions of empire – Foreign Office, Navy, Indian civil service and the rest – either no longer exist or are a shadow of what they were. All we are left with is the memory, some of the hubris, the pomp without the circumstance.

Martin examines the effects of the loss of Empire on British consciousness and society – changes that are reflected in the library world too:

We still like to consider ourselves a global player, but in reality we are not: our pretensions are now more like pastiche, substance has been replaced by vacuity, grandeur has given way to self-absorption, historical destiny to an obsession with celebrity. Post-imperial Britain has become deeply parochial – yet we remain almost utterly oblivious of the fact (the liberal elite included).

The rise of globalisation has not been accompanied by a new cosmopolitanism. Britain is a more parochial and provincial place than it used to be. It would be reasonable to expect the opposite to be the case. How do we account for this?  One explanation is specifically British.

But the reasons for our provincialism are not only national. Perhaps the era of globalisation has itself engendered a more general kind of retreat from the world into the land of the familiar. The cold war was a world that we knew, that made sense – countries fitted into a pattern, we knew which side they were on, we were partisan about them, the historical narratives of left and right provided us with a sense of order and objective. The left, for its part, had a global mission: it was intimately interested in the world, it was cosmopolitan.

But the old order has been superseded by a world that is inchoate and chaotic, whose rules we no longer know, whose future seems complex and indeterminate. So we retreat into ourselves, we turn our backs on the unfamiliar, we become self-absorbed; parochialism dominates our psyche. Not only us but, one suspects, many other countries, not just in Europe – though, given its history, Europe especially. Parochialism, at least for now, is the flipside of globalisation.

Creating a people-orientated library service

There is an urgent need to develop a library service that helps to create a new consciousness among people about their real role in society and also about the position of their country in the context of the wider world.  Only on such wider awareness can a liberated library service be built.

If there is going to be a true liberated library service, it is necessary that there is a clear understanding of social forces within which a particular library service operates.  Librarians face a number of challenges today.  Let us look at some of them:

The first need is for all librarians to investigate our society and our communities.  Mao’s recommendation at a political level is equally valid in the information field: “no investigation, no right to speak”.  It is important to understand working people’s lives and struggles, be one of them, and then seek ways of creating a relevant library service.

In all societies with class divisions and class struggles, library services tend to be a service for elite by elite, providing a service to the dominating classes and their allies only.  In situations like these, the process of liberating the library service for those previously excluded is the key role of library workers and professionals. The challenge is to develop a service that is open to all irrespective of class, race, gender, ability, age, sexual orientation, political beliefs, etc.  The service needs to be an inclusive one which reaches out to all who are currently excluded.  Yet this task is not easy.  The very language of this struggle has been removed from the “mainstream” by Government action.  Thus class differences are not mentioned in Government reports and policies; racism is hidden under the bland term “social exclusion” thereby not only removing the reality of racism from public mention, but resistance to it is also disguised as criminal acts or as “terrorism”.  No society can be serious about addressing social oppression and economic exploitation when it chooses not to admit the very existence of such.

If librarians are to build truly liberated libraries, they will need to stop operating in isolation from the progressive forces that are already struggling for liberation.  It is thus important that we develop creative partnerships with progressive forces, such as trade unions, workers’ social, economic and political organisations, youth groups etc.  Alliances also need to be made with all those struggling against all forms of social oppression.

But before librarians reach that stage, they need to liberate their minds from the norms of a class-divided society, its social, cultural and political norms. Its information systems and education provides us with a one-sided view of life.  We will need to see the whole picture and not just the aspects we are shown.  In the library context, we will need to free ourselves from the commandments taught at traditional library schools.  We will need to learn not to be “neutral” but, instead, take sides on behalf of those previously excluded in everything we do in order to build an “equal” library service.

As is the case in all social revolutions, there are no specific guide books on how to create a liberated, “open” library service.  It is only the actual practice of learning from people that will provide a solution that is relevant to our particular social situation and will help us build libraries without walls. 

But just learning from people is not enough.  The next, and perhaps the most difficult, step is to turn our ideas into action.  This is best done by empowering the excluded so that is they who decide how our resources are to be used and how our energies are spent. People themselves will then be the best judges of our success or failure.  It is in putting these ideas into practice that a people-orientated, “open to all” service can be built.

PART 2:  Public libraries in England

It is not proposed to go over the developments in recent years in the British library world.  Some earlier developments were covered in Durrani (2002 and 2004).  It is proposed here to take an overall view of recent developments.

The Secretary of State, Tessa Jowell, poses a number of challenges to the profession:

This is a critical time for the future of public library services.  Although for over 150 years, libraries have given pleasure and provided opportunities to learn, it is now time to ensure that libraries are relevant and inviting to future generations… the challenge is to generate new users… it is important to learn lessons about why people do not use libraries – only one third do, so how do libraries attract the other two thirds? [12]

The Secretary of State made it clear that she wants change in public libraries.  She explained what needs to happen so that libraries “become, once again, central points in local communities”:

But they can only take back this role if they consult local people, and put them in the driving seat.  Not just once, but as a continuous dialogue.[13]

This challenge, however, is not reflected in the initiatives that the Department of Media, Culture and Sport has taken, primarily through the The Framework for Future, [14] (F4F) programme.   The key development since the publication of F4F has been a programme to put the key points of the Framework into practice, led by the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA). MLA explains what the Framework is all about:

Framework for the Future, published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in February 2003, is the Government’s ten-year vision for public libraries – how libraries can best serve their communities in the 21st century. It aims to promote public libraries, give them improved visibility, and to set out why libraries matter.

Framework for the Future identified three key areas for development.

Books, Reading and Learning

Knowledge, skills and information are at the heart of economic and social life. Libraries can provide access to virtually all books ever published and much more. In an informal, supportive and stimulating environment, libraries can encourage reading and provide access to learning for everyone.

Digital Citizenship

Libraries are providing access to vastly more information than ever before through the internet. They enable all citizens to have access to information and services and are central to the delivery of electronic government.

Community and Civic Values

Libraries are safe, welcoming, neutral spaces open to all the community. They are particularly well placed to engage hard to reach groups, working with education, social, health and leisure services[15].

My assessment of the Framework when it was published was that it was a “Framework of lost opportunities”.  While recent developments have attempted to overcome its failures, my fundamental criticism still remains. I see no evidence of concerns over issues around building a people-orientated library service that were mentioned earlier in this paper.  I wrote at the time:

The key question which history will ask the “Framework” (whatever happened to the “strategy”?) is whether it enabled public libraries to become, in practice, more open, relevant, and responsive to the needs of the people they are supposed to serve.  I think it will fail this crucial test.  The Framework is not a “blueprint with detailed targets”, but aims to provide libraries with a “shared sense of purpose”.  An opportunity has thus been lost to make the necessary fundamental changes in libraries.  It fails to give urgency to the need for change and implies that by making small changes, all will be well.  “Evolution” is the catch word, when 150 years’ of evolution has led to 17% less visits, and a fall of almost a quarter in visits from 1992/93.  It is a dangerous document that lulls us into complacency that a major surgery is not required that the use of a few bandages will cure the patient.  Carrying the seal of DCMS makes it even more damaging.  It is not even a consultation document – it is The Final Word.

Public libraries need a stronger planning process through a strengthened Annual Library Plan.  Instead, the Framework advocates a dumbing down of the Plans.  We  need a stronger regime of Public Library Standards.  The Framework offers:  “We now believe the time is right to move away from this mechanism”.  We need more outreach, more monitoring, performance management and target setting.  Instead we get a “strategy” for local authorities to “consider how they might translate these policies into a set of programmes”.  Consider, and then what?[16]

Recent developments led by Museum, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA)[17] are positive moves in the right direction and go some way to make up for the failures of the Framework. This includes the “Fulfilling their potential” (2004) programme which provides useful guide to developing services to young people.  Other developments include the redrafting of the Public Library Standards, focus on “impact measurement”.  It remains to be seen how far, taken as a whole; they will challenge and change the foundations of the public library structure in Britain to ensure they meet the new challenges faced by all actual and potential users of library service. 

At the same time, unless issues mentioned in Part 1 around commodification and globalisation of information, “neutrality” and politics of information services are addressed on a national level, any changes  that come about are likely to be partial and not able to address real problems. 

Iverson (1998/99) raises concerns about the role of libraries:  

We need to question our practices, and the underlying concepts that govern these practices. I grant that during this time of ”emerging national and global structures of information-capitalism” librarians do have a critical role to play. However, I would argue that their role should not be to act in ”collusion with the forces which perpetuate disadvantage” but to redefine their role to assist in the establishment of a truly equitable society.

British librarians have generally ignored the fundamental issues about the role of public libraries that Iverson raises.  The Department of Culture, Media and Sport, through its enthusiastic endorsement of the vision-less F4F, has failed to give leadership to a field desperate for change.

PART 3:  The Merton Library approach[18]

It is in the above national context that developments in Merton need to be seen.  It is not proposed here to cover developments in Merton libraries since 2000 as these have been covered in a number of publications.[19]  Change and development for a relevant service can only be made if a foundation for change has been created.  Merton Library & Heritage Service (MLHS) has been doing this for some years now. 

The following section updates earlier information and looks particularly at a number of innovations projects and new approaches to developing a new model of public library service.

Staffing structure

The staffing structure chart is reproduced in the accompanying file.  MLHS’s staffing structure is split into two distinct “wings”: Operations and Performance Management and Innovations and Development in such a way that an equalities approach can be mainstreamed and we can deliver more targeted services to key sections of our communities whose needs, hitherto, have not been fully met. The aim of having two wings is to ensure that we innovate and develop new services on the Innovations and Development wing of the staffing structure whilst allowing the day-to-day existing work of libraries to continue, managed by the Operations and Performance Management wing, where the majority of the staff and resources lie.

At the same time, a policy approach is expected to accompany all new developments, making clear what is needed at library sites in order to deliver such. Through this approach we seek to embed innovative ideas and new services through a clear process of performance managing library services in terms of the implementation of the policies guiding them.  A crucial aspect of such a policy and performance management approach is the mainstreaming of equalities. With the deletion of the Equal Access Services cost centre, it is clear that the responsibility for services to ethnic minority communities and other groups will lie firmly with individual library sites, the overall strategy being decided by the Libraries Senior Management Team. A Libraries Equalities Policy has been produced. This is based on the Council’s Equal Opportunities and Valuing Diversity Policy and seeks to ensure that the Council’s policy is implemented in a service-specific way in Libraries. Through this approach we seek to ensure that an equalities approach governs all aspects of MLHS work.

The staffing structure recognised the fact that public libraries are at a crossroads. The Audit Commission report, “Building Better Library Services” (2002) notes that while libraries have a place in people’s hearts, they “are losing their place in people’s lives.” Libraries thus need to change if they are to be relevant to the communities they serve. Merton Library and Heritage Service believes that, for public libraries to be relevant, they need to respond to needs within local communities and that they need to be well placed to respond quickly to changing needs. This will necessarily involve moving away from the traditional “books based” approach to embrace a closer focus on informal learning through a wide variety of activities, providing information through a variety of means that will help people in many different aspects of their lives. Additionally, it will mean the recruitment of people with the types of skills not traditionally found in libraries e.g. skills in working with youth etc.

In order to develop the needs-based approach, we have developed a number of strategic partnerships, enabling us to acquire new skills in our Service and enabling us to focus on what we feel are some of the key needs in Merton at the current time. The development of an innovations projects approach is thus a response to the need for change on several levels. It was recognised that the new staffing structure had to do the following:

  • Respond to community needs
  • Mainstream equalities
  • Develop new skills within our Service


The aim of the innovations projects approach, therefore, is to take a targeted approach to outreach, developing library services based on need, which can then be embedded into mainstream service delivery. Such an approach is a key part of the new staffing structure, which has policy and performance management very much at its core. Using this structure, it is MLHS’s aim to use a policy, performance management and innovations projects approach to mainstream equalities and provide a library service that is able to respond to current and changing needs.

The Innovations and Development wing was thus set up with key aims in mind:

  • To mainstream equalities through a policy approach (the implementation of which will be performance managed by the Operations and Performance Management wing)
  • To develop new services and reach out to marginalised groups of people via a programme of “Innovations projects” targeted at specific groups
  • To develop policies to support the mainstreaming of new services
  • To ensure that managers and staff at all levels and sites take ownership and responsibility for services to all groups and communities in the catchment area of their site.


Policy approach

MLHS has a deficit of written policies, resulting in uneven practices between sites. The aim of the policy approach that we are taking is to address this deficit through the provision of policies that will, through performance management, ensure that there is uniformity in service delivery and resource use.  MLHS has produced a Libraries Equalities Policy. Agreed policy areas for future development this year are: Stock/Media fund policy; Customer Care policy; and a policy for Services to Young People, both children and young people.



Innovations Projects

We recognise that library services need to develop and reach out to a wide range of people. At the same time, budget restrictions do not allow us to increase our establishment. Our response has been to develop a number of partnerships both within, and without, the Council, allowing us to target key groups of people, using dedicated staff, in developing new services to these groups. Staff are either wholly or partly paid for by our partners. Our innovations projects and partners are shown in the accompanying chart, “Service Development through innovation”.  These are:

  • Lending Time Project – focused on recruiting volunteers to add value to library services (externally funded project)
  • Welcome to Your Library Project – developing library and information service for refugees and asylum seekers (externally funded project)
  • Youth Library Development Project – increasing the use of libraries by youth (partnership with Merton Youth Service)
  • Opportunities for Older People – developing library services for older people (partnership with Chief Executive’s Department and Merton Association of Pensioners)
  • Quality Leaders Project – consulting with youth to provide new/better services for youth in Merton including refugee and asylum seeker youth (externally funded project)
  • SureStart – adding value to library services for children 0-just under 5 years in Donald Hope and Mitcham Libraries (partnership with SureStart Lavender)


Further details about these projects are given later in this paper.  You will note that, largely, our focus is on age. With a mainstreaming equalities approach the aim is to ensure that, within each age group, all equality aspects are addressed e.g. race, disability, gender etc. By adopting this approach, we feel that we are contributing to community cohesion and reducing the tensions that can exist when one community feels that resources are being directed away from its services to services for other communities in a narrow area. We are therefore taking a needs-based approach to ensure that our limited resources are targeted to meet the needs of current and potential users.


Equality Standard for Local Government

The adoption by Merton Council of the Equality Standard for Local Government means that we must consider a whole range of equalities issues including race, gender and disability in our service delivery and resource allocation. The Employers Organisation for Local Authority (2004) states:

The Standard recognises the importance of fair and equal treatment in local government services and employment and has been developed primarily as a tool to enable local authorities to mainstream gender, race and disability into council policy and practice at all levels…  The Standard is now included as a Best Value Performance Indicator for 2003/4. We are also awaiting the details of the criteria for the Comprehensive Performance Assessments (CPA’s) as outlined in the Local Government White Paper.

The policy and performance management focus adopted by Merton’s staffing structure is designed to achieve this mainstreaming of equalities in a uniform way across all sites and aspects of the Service, both in terms of policy and practice in service delivery and staffing issues.


Equality Impact Assessments

The Equality Impact Assessments that all parts of the Council are required to undertake mean that Libraries need to consult with all parts of the community in a very structured way on matters relating to service delivery, the media fund, service development etc. We wish to ensure that we have the active involvement of all sections of the community, including ethnic minorities. We see that services to ethnic minority communities go beyond the celebration of Eid or Diwali events in libraries and is about more fundamental issues e.g. how resources are used and reaching out to those not using our services at present.  In addition to the traditional consultation forum, such as the Public Library Users Surveys (PLUS), a number of initiatives are being taken to improve our consultation process to enable users and potential users to inform library policy and practice.  These initiatives include:

  • Setting up a Youth Library Forum
  • Exploring different ways of consulting older people
  • Setting up an electronic discussion forum which will have separate “pages” for young people, older people, ethnic minority communities and other target groups.


The Innovations projects approach

It was decided to use a project approach to bring about change and development in the service.  This approach has a number of positive aspects, for example:

  • Allow risk taking
  • Can be stopped if they do not meet requirements
  • Can be operationalised if successful, thus becoming part of the “mainstream”
  • Can develop new partnerships
  • Can generate new resources
  • Can help connect libraries to sections of the community not using the service before
  • Can develop new skills in staff


While a full evaluation of the innovations projects approach in Merton remains to be done later this year, valuable lessons have already been learnt.  At the same time, new forces have emerged which bring new challenges on the way to creating a more equal and relevant library service for all. 

At the time of the initial review in 2000, a “contradictions” chart was drawn up.  An important contradiction identified at that time was meeting needs of current users and potential users.  This contradiction still remains.  The task is to ensure that new services are developed for current and potential users while sustaining the level and quality of service to those who are current users. This has to be done in the context of diminishing resources.

The different approach used in different projects, in terms of management, funding and vision, has provided useful experience which is helping to decide on the best way of making and consolidating change.  Two of the projects listed in the “Service Development through innovation” chart – “Lending Time” and “Welcome to your library” – have now ended, with limited success in terms of mainstreaming these new services.  One difficulty has been with the management of such projects.  External managers have found it difficult to understand and respond to the approach Merton was taking.  There have also been differences in the goals that were aimed for, as the external managers and organisations had their own goals to meet, which did not necessarily meet Merton’s.  Since finances and management came from external sources, Merton had no ultimate control over these projects.  The overall assessment from this experience is that while such projects may bring about some improvement in services in the short period of their life, they can have no lasting impact in embedding these new services which remain unsustainable once the external funding comes to an end.

In contrast, the projects managed internally by the library service, even when funded by other Departments or external sources, have proved more successful in meeting local needs and in being better integrated with the service as a whole.  They also have a better prospect of being sustainable over a long period.  Another element in the success of these projects is the establishment of steering groups for each project.  The steering group, made of representatives from each funding body, sets out the overall direction of the project, and undertakes regular review of the work of the project.  It is thus possible to set the direction of the project, review its work and take corrective measures if required.  Performance management is then undertaken at two levels.  It is done, first, as part of the appraisal process in keeping with the overall Council programme.  The project leaders are set specific objectives to meet within an annual appraisal programme, with monthly “one to one” meetings with line/performance managers to ensure that the targets are being met and to address any developmental needs and challenges.  This aspect covers meeting financial and delivery targets set by the funding bodies.

The second level of performance management is through the operations and performance “wing” of the library structure. This aspect, which needs some strengthening, is expected to measure, monitor and take action in terms of ensuring that actual performance at the local library level meets library and funding requirements.  Thus local library managers are set specific targets to ensure that project delivery takes place at libraries, with specific staff members being give responsibility in specific tasks of the project.

A number of steps are being taken to embed the projects at sites.  These include “embedding projects” meetings, and visits to libraries by project leaders together with a senior member of staff from the Innovations and Development wing.  The visits help to explain to local managers and staff what the project is all about, and help to clarify roles and responsibilities of local managers and of project workers.  The visits also emphasises that service improvement is in the objectives of local managers and the projects can help them achieve their objectives.  This new feature was added this year in response to some shortcoming in the performance in the previous year.

The following section looks at the projects.

Lavender Sure Start – Children’s Corners

(Donald Hope and Mitcham Library)

Lavender Sure Start worked in collaboration with the Library service to create a children’s corner in both Donald Hope and Mitcham Library (the two libraries within our catchment area). Both areas received new colourful furnishings including comfortable child sized seating and large floor cushions, storage, child sized tables and chairs, picture, board, audio and storytelling books, art and craft materials and posters and wall hangings.

Lavender Sure Start’s aim of this project was to improve the attendance of children and their parents in the local libraries, to encourage parents/carers to read with their children and as an incentive to visit and join the library.

Each library received £5000 from Lavender Sure Start and after meetings with local managers, decisions were made over how the money would best be spent.  Donald Hope Library had its children’s corner opening on the 21st January 2004; Mitcham’s was on the 21st May 2004. Feedback from both libraries has been very positive both from staff, parents/carers and children.

Lavender Sure Start has been working in collaboration with both libraries during the school holidays to provide one fun session for the under fives in each library each week. Activities so far have included art and craft sessions and children’s entertainers. The sessions coincide with under 5’s story time.

Discussions are now going on to finalise a new project entitled “Sure Start Reach Out project”.

Lending Time project 

Merton was one of six authorities nationwide to be involved in the Lending Time Pilot Project. This project is funded by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and Active Community Unit of the Home Office and is managed by Community Service Volunteers (CSV). Its aim is to use volunteers to add value to library services and to help us deliver new and innovative services.  The key aim is to embed a culture of using volunteers to add value to library services.

Welcome to your library

MLHS was one of five London boroughs involved in Welcome to Your Library, a project funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and managed by the London Libraries Development Agency. The aim of this Project was to develop new, and improve any existing, services to refugees and asylum seekers. Merton has one part time Project Officer.  The Project is based on Merton’s earlier services for which it won the “Libraries Change Lives” Award in 2001.


Key aims

  • Setting up a refugee and asylum seeker information service at Donald Hope Library as per the Merton Libraries Change Lives award plans.
  • Provision of a strategy paper identifying the library and information needs of refugees and asylum seekers which will inform policy suggestion and mainstream services to the target group as part of the “normal” library service.
  • Implementation of policy on services to refugees and asylum seekers.


Commonside Open Learning Centre

Based at Pollards Hill Library, the Commonside Open Learning Centre, is funded by the New Opportunities Fund in its current second phase.  It aims to encourage adults from the local community into learning by ICT. Particular emphasis is placed upon improving access for disadvantaged people and those who, as a result of barriers, have not traditionally taken up learning opportunities. The target groups are lone parents, older people and the wider community.

During the previous phase of this project, lasting 2 years, the management of the project was given over to a private company.  While the Centre was run generally successfully, it nevertheless remained a bolted-on service and made a limited attempt to integrate itself with the library service and with its local community.  We have now changed this and the management is done in house. This has changed the project which is better managed and well integrated with the library service.  It is at the centre of the new community approach, Creative CommunITy, which we will look at later.

Youth projects

Recent reports on public libraries reveal declining usage of libraries by young people.  New and creative ways of reaching them need to be found to attract them to use the service.

Merton Libraries established closer links with Merton’s Youth Service in order to develop new joined-up services to young people.  This approach involves a number of strands.

  • the creation of a new post of Youth Library Development Officer;
  • the setting up of the Youth Library Forum;
  • the provision of a number of computers and software in libraries to develop new ICT-based youth services;
  • the creation of the “Youth Space” at as part of the “Innovations Unit”;
  • the production by young people themselves of the “Merton Sense” youth magazine. 
  • the development of youth activities in each library, starting with a pilot at Wimbledon Library
  • future plans include the establishment of a drama group based in libraries
  • “Creative connections” a QLP-Youth programme initiative to hold creative writing activities in libraries. (Details on QLP are given below).

Merton Sense leads the way

This was part of a new approach to reach young people who do not use the service.  A number of “audience development”[20] activities which young people themselves help to design have been started in the last few years.  One such is the Merton Sense youth project.

Merton Sense aims to connect young people, many of whom are from socially excluded groups, with their library service. This “connection” is being established in an innovative way in which young people themselves actively participate in designing the new service.  The magazine is then produced by them with financial and management support from the library service.

The first need was for to find a home for the magazine.  Thus was created the “Youth Space” in the newly established Innovations Unit based in one of our libraries, Mitcham Library.  The Youth Service provided computers which set the group going.  The young people themselves decided how they wanted the Space decorated and what furniture they wanted.

The youth group consists of over 50 young people aged between 14 and 24 years old. Group meetings are held on Monday evenings. The staff time that goes into the support of young people producing the magazine is very important to the project. Often, library staff spend additional time in the week working with group members on article writing and graphic design to make their pieces presentable for the magazine. Merton Sense works with some writers for whom English is a second language and believes that all young people have something to add, irrespective of their varying abilities. However, such young people benefit enormously from the input of staff who can advise them on writing in English. The qualitative nature of staff input enables young people eventually to write without any assistance and, as such, is highly empowering. The success of Merton Sense would thus not have been possible without the commitment and input of MLHS staff.

The group produced first issue of the quarterly Merton Sense in June 2003 with a print run of 1000 copies[21].  A network of writers has been set up with different young people from around the world. Writers from Australia, Spain and the USA have already printed articles and plans are in place to encourage writers from Kenya, Pakistan and Brazil to contribute articles. Merton Sense has empowered the young people of Merton to take action and put their views and ideas into a creative and enjoyable experience. The group has learned about writing styles, how to compile a magazine, cohesive teamwork and working to reach deadlines.

Many of the young people involved with Merton Sense had never used the library service; some had never even been inside a library!   As a result of MLHS initiating this project and introducing young, hitherto, non users, to the libraries they are all now members of the library service and much more aware of the diverse resources available to them. Libraries have also been an invaluable resource for the group in terms of background information for writing and composing articles electronically and in book form.

A retired journalist who has worked for the BBC is a volunteer through the Lending Time Project. He offers support and to advise, from a professional prospective, on how to compile a magazine and provides invaluable experience on writing styles and skills and on how to compose articles. His involvement is one example of how MLHS encourages inter-generational work. The magazine has developed in many areas the skills of the young people involved. These include ICT, writing styles and desktop publishing, thus improving their employability and further education options. The Welcome To Your Library Project, through its connections with Asylum Welcome, have provided the group with young people who are new to the country and are from an asylum seeker or refugee background. The magazine gives them the opportunity to interact with other young people who may, or may not be from a similar background, and for those not from a similar background to gain a greater understanding of refugee and asylum seeker issues. Merton Sense thus promotes social cohesion and the development of new skills.

Some outcomes

Perhaps Merton Sense’s greatest achievement is that it has empowered the local young community and has brought a tremendous sense of community amongst the team and its readers. The magazine has connected many young people, who had never used the library service before, to the libraries.  Some examples:

  • Two of Merton Sense’s writers have been picked up by national magazines to write articles in a freelance capacity.
  • Three young people are studying towards a career in the media, with Merton Sense forming an important part of their portfolios and increasing their employability options.
  • Merton Sense’s resident poet, Amie Russell, won a local poetry competition in which this project encouraged her to participate and her work will now be published by Xpress in a new Poetry Anthology book.
  • A number of young people have been awarded the Millennium Volunteer Award.


The library service has gained the respect of young people and is no longer seen as a “stuffy place where old people go”. The Merton Sense Editor recently commented:  “Merton Sense is grateful for the support shown by the Library and Heritage Service” (Merton Library and Heritage Newsletter, Issue 2, January 2004).  Among achievements of the magazine, the following can be listed:

  • Brings people together:  Merton sense has encouraged teamwork and cohesive working among young people, as well as with Library and Council workers.
  • Involves communities:  Wide range of youth from different groups are able to speak not only to youth but to the wider community of Merton through the pages of Merton Sense. The young people are now openly tackling maturely, difficult subjects that are of interest to a wide group of people.  Merton’s Cabinet Members have also actively supported this new development.
  • Encourages reading:  “Audience development” activities have been encouraged in all aspects of the work.  The use of the Internet and library resources to research articles is now commonplace among the young people involved in the Project.  Merton Sense itself is a literary product.
  • Encourages learning:  Participants have developed a wide range of new skills in a friendly, informal manner – these had not been provided by the formal educational sector.  Besides the “job specific” learning of publishing skills such as ICT, layout, design, DTP, writing styles, artwork, editorial work, etc, the young people have also developed a wide range of social and leaderships skills, such as team working, people skills, dealing with difficult issues in a mature manner,
  • Shares information:  Merton Sense speaks not only to young people, but to the whole community and keeps all informed of a wide range of issues from a youth perspective. 
  • Has the potential to be developed and adapted elsewhere:  The model developed in Merton can work anywhere, with appropriate management support, resources and quality staff input and a trust in young people. In fact, the approach can also be adapted for other projects.  This is in fact being done in developing similar music and drama groups for young people.  Similarly, the approach used in this Project is being used in developing services to older people.  The experience will also be transferred to the Quality Leaders Project – Youth which has just reached its implementation stage.


The Editor of Merton Sense, Duane Melius, recalls what working on the magazine has meant for him:


For the first time since I left school there was a valuable opportunity for me… From here Merton Sense began. It has been a joy to watch the birth of an idea and witness its refinement. Being part of Merton Sense gives me a sense of identity. It is heartening to realise there are agents in the community willing to give people like me a chance.  [22]

The magazine has gone from strength to strength and the young enthusiasts are busy preparing the 5th issue due out later this year.  The circulation has jumped to 5,000 copies and plans are in hand to have a Merton Sense website.

Sue Evans, Director of Education Leisure & Libraries in Merton sums up our approach in providing this innovative service:

Merton Council is committed to listening to the voice of young people in Merton and our support of young people in publishing the Merton Sense youth magazine is one way in which we demonstrate this. By allowing editorial control of Merton Sense to rest completely with young people, and through its extensive range of articles, subject matter, and wide circulation, the young people involved are empowered to speak directly to Merton’s communities on matters important to them.

Working on the magazine enables young people in Merton to develop invaluable transferable skills through the production of a high quality magazine of which they can, rightly, feel very proud. This is made possible through access to good youth work and to a forward-thinking library service, committed to making libraries more relevant for young people.

Merton Sense is perhaps the most innovative and successful of the projects to date. 

Quality Leaders Project – Youth

Merton is a partner with the Quality Leaders Project (QLP) Steering Group and Management Research Centre of the London Metropolitan University in this project which aims to provide “management development through service development”.  QLP was “highly commended” at the CILIP Diversity Awards on 21 November 2003.  Further details on the project are available at its website:  Durrani and Bartlett(2004) provides an update on this important national initiative.

The Paul Hamlyn Foundation has awarded £180,000, and the National Youth Agency £20,000, to Merton Library and Heritage Service and the Quality Leaders Project (QLP) Steering Group to develop innovative services to youth, with a special emphasis upon young refugees and asylum seekers. The QLP-Youth Project will refocus public library services so that young people themselves decide on the services they need. In this way services to young people will be mainstreamed. The QLP-Y model, which is based on the idea of ”management development through service development”, will provide new skills to library staff so that they can develop and deliver new and innovative services. Merton is one of seven authorities participating in the youth-orientated strand of the project (QLP-Y) which started in December 2003.

The first phase of the QLP-Y programme took place from January to July, 2004.  Six authorities are taking part:  Birmingham, Gloucestershire, Haringey, Liverpool, Merton, and Swansea.  Liverpool’s Quality Leader is from their Youth Service, while the others are from Library Service.  The Quality Leaders presented their proposals on 26 July, and successful ones will be awarded a University diploma in work-based learning.

The next stage of QLP-Y is the implementation phase which will last for 2 years and will start in October, 2004.  The QLP Steering group, under the QLP co-ordinator, will discuss with each participating authority how the service development proposal developed by the Quality Leaders will be implemented in their authority.

The final shape of what activities take place will depend on the outcome of consultation with young people and what the service development plans recommend.  It is likely to take the form of various workshop activities that suit young people. These workshop sessions are perhaps the most innovative part of the application.  The sessions are programmed to reflect the specific aspects that the young people themselves decide meet their needs.  They thus will be flexible in order to be tailored to local requirements.  They will also enable young people themselves to be the providers of such sessions, rather than being merely passive recipients of a service provided by an “outsider”.  At the same time, the programme will enable outside skills, ideas and expertise to be brought into the local youth communities, thereby injecting new and different ideas on the local scene.

The proposal developed by Merton’s Quality Leader, Anthony Hopkins, is to entitled ‘Creative Connections.’  This will be a program of creative writing workshops to be held in each of the seven libraries within a 24 month period. Hopkins says:

The formation of the creative writing workshops was identified as a need within the youth community from an extensive consultation with over 500 young people. The target audience is young people aged between 11 and 24 years old.  Performance indicators to monitor participation in the workshops from all sections of the youth community will be developed. The project aims to:

  • Increase library reach to those who have traditionally not used libraries.
  • Promote social cohesion.
  • Encourage informal learning, participation and teamwork within the youth community.
  • Increase staff skills in working with young people.
  • Bring in staff with new skills (eg. youth workers, creative writing experts) that add value to the service.
  • Empower young people through the production of their work in magazines, displays, on the Internet and in book form.
  • Promote literacy and assist with government targets to increase the levels of literacy amongst young people.[23]


Services to older people

Following the completion of the Best Value Review of Opportunities for Older People, MLHS has joined forces with the Chief Executive’s Department and the Merton Association of Pensioners to create the post of an Officer for Services to Older People. The aim of the post is to spend 50% of time focused on developing library services to older people and 50% of time working on the review’s Action Plan for Services to Older People. Part of this work will involve working for the Merton Association of Pensioners several hours per week, supporting their work. The post is managed by MLHS.


Key aims

  • Implement action plan for libraries developed as part of extensive consultation with older people e.g. coffee/reminiscence mornings at each library/Heritage Centre.
  • Develop ICT skills sessions for older people
  • Connect with Council-wide initiatives following from the Best Value Review of Opportunities for Older People.
  • Apply for funds for a “laptop at home” project in partnership with the Merton Association of Pensioners (MAP).

Merton Library Drama Group

Learning and living through drama

Merton Library service is in the process of setting up an intergenerational drama group.  The proposal is to use drama as a fun activity which also provides opportunities for learning and skill development. It will involve all aspects of drama: reading, writing, and production in partnership with people with relevant skills.  Included will be activities connected with books, videos, music and films as a way of increasing awareness and widening horizons.

The project will include work with people from socially excluded sections of the community, for example, looked after children, people with disabilities, refugees and asylum seekers, young carers, children excluded from school, at risk children, travellers.

The need for such a library-based group was established as part of the consultation done for the “Quality Leaders Project – Youth” by Anthony.  Drama activities have also been requested by children at Mitcham Library.  It is proposed to expand the role of the project to take in the work of the two partnership projects run by the library service – youth library development and services to older people.  Once established, this will be an intergenerational project.

It is proposed to pilot the project at Mitcham and Pollards Hill libraries.  It will include all aspects of drama: reading, writing, and production with support from volunteers.  A former drama teacher (now a journalist) is part of the group as a volunteer.  The proposal is to use drama as a tool for learning, skills development, personal expression, creativity, leisure activity, and cross-community awareness and co-operation.  Intergenerational and inter-cultural work will be encouraged as a way of increasing social cohesion and exchange of skills and experiences.  Included will be audience/reader development activities and workshops connected with books, videos, and films as a way of increasing awareness and widening horizons.

Aims and Objectives

  • To deliver programme of drama workshops with regular workshops and presentations.
  • Audience development – creative use of library space. Working to engage non-users into using libraries and increase usage.
  • Imports new skills and ideas to the workforce through recruitment of new staff and volunteers.
  • Promotes an informal learning environment within a library context that incorporates core library resources (eg. books, computers, library space, videos, DVD’s, CD’s).
  • Develop a new model of connecting with the community through libraries, including new partnership working.
  • Empowering people to make decisions for themselves (including peer mentoring).
  • Changing minds and attitudes through running workshops centred on social issues relevant to people in Merton.
  • Encourages the development and training of library staff in working with community members.


The project is part of the “Creative CommunITy” model developed by the stakeholders group at Pollards Hill and Mitcham libraries. 


MLHS is planning to pilot a small ”laptops @ home” project which will be piloted at Pollards Hill and Mitcham Libraries and be targeted at older people, particularly those at risk of social exclusion/digital divide whose chances of employment are thus reduced.  Connections will be made with all community groups and individuals, particularly among traveller communities, refugees and asylum seekers, and other under-served communities.

The proposal is to use volunteers and run some ICT learning sessions in the library, and then lend laptops to participants so they can practice at home.  Another aspect would be for appropriately screened volunteers to go to older people’s homes, in partnership with social services, and our Home Visits Library Service to provide 1:1 ICT sessions in basic computer use.  The service would be based on a number of such services already provided by the Commonside Open Learning Centre (COLC) at the Pollards Hill Library.  The project is also part of the “Creative CommunITy” model.

Creative communities@ Pollards Hill & Mitcham Libraries

The project, “Creative CommunITy”, is being developed by a stakeholders group at Pollards Hill.  (See chart 2 in the attached file).  This is a proposal to develop a new library model, based on an integrated role for the library in the community.  It is a Council- community partnership led by the library service.  It addresses the needs of young and old people, and also encourages intergenerational work. 

Who is involved?

The start of the process was a meeting called by the library service when local community groups and Council services came together to establish what the local needs are.  In the process, the group worked out what library services the people need.  The Group decided to call the project Creative CommunITy model to indicate a totally new approach to planning and delivering the library service.

As far as the library service is concerned, all projects mentioned earlier have a role to play in this model.  This included the Innovations and Development wing, with its projects, including services to young people, services to older people, refugee and asylum services, and volunteering services.  Key part will also be played by the Merton Sense group which is fast establishing itself as the voice of young people in Merton.

Local community groups include the Pollards Hill Community Centre, Moat Housing Association, and Commonside Development Trust. Council services involved include Merton Adult Education, Youth Service.  Education and Social Services will also be represented.


The proposal looks at what needs in the local community can be fulfilled by a new type of library service.  The following needs were considered relevant ones for the library service:

  • Informal learning – including ESOL (English for speakers of other languages); health and civil rights; family learning, basic skills, literacy; informational and learning technology (ILT) etc
  • Skill development – including skills to gain employment, homework support; skills for life; information & communication technology (ICT)
  • A place to connect with people, ideas and knowledge: a place to think
  • A place for activities that give pleasure: reading, cultural activities, audience development activities, music, drama, creative writing, magazine production etc



The community members and individuals who will be target by the service would include current users as well as those who, for various reasons, have not been reached by the service in the past.  As needs vary along age divisions, it was decided to identify users and potential users by age, in keeping with the approach developed for innovations projects.

  • Young people: new and on-going activities, including: Merton Sense youth magazine; Creative Connections (new service being developed as part of the Quality Leaders Project –Youth) Merton Youth Radio Station; Raw Talents (cultural project run by the Commonside Development Trust).
  • Older people:  part of services being developed in the joint project with the Chief Executive’s department, the Merton Senior Action Support Group, and Merton Association of Pensioners.  Included will be new projects such as “laptops@home” and “computers connect club”
  • A number of intergenerational activities: will include drama, audience development workshops, arts and cultural activities etc.
  • At the same time, specific services will be targeted to communities and groups whose needs have not been met fully in the past.  The groups already identifies include lone parents and refugees and asylum seekers.  As local conditions and needs change, different groups can be targeted for delivering special services.


There is an essential element that runs through all the above activities: the use of ICT.  This will be an extension of the Commonside Open Learning Centre which is run by the library service for over 4 years.  It is felt that libraries have an essential role in making ICT skills and opportunities available to local people.  The approach to be used will be the provision of ICT skills in its own right, but more important, as essential part of all the other activities taking place.

The whole picture then gets completed when the “traditional” library service is added to the above scene.   While the Pollards Hill Library has generally developed a community approach in the last few years, the above approach is likely to give a qualitative leap and the resulting service will be like no other library service.  It has also been decided to include Mitcham Library, which shares many of local features of the Pollards Hill area, so that all services will be tried out from two libraries. 

The new approach will be closely monitored and assessed to see if lessons (from successes and failures) can be learned for other libraries in Merton – possibly beyond.

A key requirement for developing this project successfully is the development of staff and managers to take on new roles and responsibilities.  The new stiffaffing structure has already allowed for this by creating a number of staff development proposals:

  • The Ideas Forum (“a place to think”) – regular meetings of managers and staff to introduce new ideas and practices from within and outside Merton.
  • Staff Development Unit (SDU).  Planned to be developed at the same time as the new Innovations Unit.  While the latter has been completed, the development of the SDU has been delayed because of various operational issues.  This will be stared now as a matter of urgency.


The above give a general overview of how changes are being brought in the library service in Merton.  It is too early to say whether this approach will work or not.  But we have accepted the need and challenge to change.  Long term success cannot be generated with total commitment and resources.


The conclusion is that there is no conclusion to development and change in the library field.  As societies changes, as new technologies bring even greater rate of change,  the communications and information field needs to keep changing in keeping with major changes in the society.  These forces of change bring people of the whole world into ever closer contact – not always to mutual benefit.  Under corporate globalisation, the benefits and disadvantages from these changes are unevenly spread between different classes, countries and communities. 

Libraries can be at the centre of this vastly changing world.   Effective leadership in the information field can make libraries places where different social, political and economic forces in conflict can deposit their various views, experiences, knowledge and world outlooks.  By ensuring that these contradictory forces have an equal chance to be acquired, stored, heard and understood, librarians and libraries can, perhaps, find a new social role for themselves.  They will then have played a meaningful social role in creating more just and “equal” societies.   The alternative to this is the “solution” that USA and UK have imposed on the people of Iraq – pre-emptive strikes and destruction of the very fabric of society.

Abdul Kalam, the President of India, has pinpointed the root cause of social and political conflicts in the world today:

… [the] world over, poverty, illiteracy and un-employment are driving forward the forces of anger and violence…But, societies, which includes you and me, have to address themselves to the root causes of such phenomena which are poverty, illiteracy and unemployment. [24]

Librarians everywhere have a role to play in eliminating the root causes of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and inequality.  It is no longer acceptable for libraries and librarians to refuse to take this social responsibility seriously.  The choice is simple: if the information profession does not take its social responsibility seriously, it will no longer have a social role. People will then develop alternative models of information and knowledge communication which do meet their needs.  There will then be no libraries as we know them today. The choice is ours to make – today.



Audit Commission (2002):  Building better libraries. London.

DCMS (2003): “Framework for the future: libraries, learning and information in the next decade”.  London: DCMS. Available at:

Durrani, Shiraz (2000):  “Returning a stare; people’s struggles for political and social inclusion.” Open to All?  The Public library and social exclusion.  (2000) Vol. 3: Working Paper no. 6,  pp.87-110.  London:Resource: [now: MLA]. Also published in  Progressive Librarian.  No. 17, Summer, 2000 (3-34).

Durrani, Shiraz (2001):  “Social and racial exclusion handbook for libraries, archives, museums, and galleries”. Nadderwater, Exeter (UK). 2nd edition, August 2001.  Social Exclusion Action Planning Network.

Durrani, Shiraz and Smallwood, Elizabeth (2003): “Mainstreaming Equality, Meeting Needs; the Merton Library approach”.  Library Management. 24 (6)pp. 348-359.

Durrani, Shiraz (2004):  “Changing world of public service” Presentation at the QLP-Youth session. 8th January 2004. Available at:

Durrani, Shiraz and Bartlett, Dean (2004):  “Young people in control”.  Public Library Journal.  Autumn 2004.  pp. 22-25.

Durrani, Shiraz. and Smallwood, Elizabeth (2004) “Building libraries without walls”.  bis (Bibliotek I Samhalle: Sweden). 2004 (2) pp. 18-22. ISSN 0345-1135.

Employers Organisation for Local Authority (2004): Equality Standard for local government.

Fulfilling their potential: A National Development Programme for Young People’s Library Services (2004). Prepared by The Reading Agency as part of the Framework for the Future Action Plan.  June 2004.

Hunt, Fiona (2001): “The WTO and the Threat to Libraries.” Progressive Librarian 18 (2001) 29-39.

Iverson, Sandy (1998/99): “Librarianship and resistance”.  Progressive Librarian.  15, pp.14-20.

Jacques, Martin (2004):  “Our problem with abroad; Britain has become a deeply parochial place in the era of globalisation”.  The Guardian. August 21, 2004. Available at:,,1287822,00.html.

Jowell, Tessa (2004): “DCMS public libraries seminar, 21 June, 2004”.  Quotes taken from notes by Alison Bramley for SCL members.

Kalam, Abdul (2004):  “Dynamics of terrorism and violence”. Philosophy and social action. Vol. 30 (2) April-June, 2004. [cover quote].

Kundnani, Arun (2004):  “Fighting writing”.  September 2004.  Available at:

“Lend it like Peckham!” (2004):  Library and Information Update. 3(7-8) July-August.

Melius, Duane (2003): “Best thing I ever did”.  Young People Now.  13 August, 2003. Available at:

Merton Library and Heritage Service (2004):  “Equality Policy” (2004).

Moore, Mike (1997):  “Don’t panic” – review of Stephen M. Walt (1996) “Revolution and war”.  Philosophy and Social Action 23(2) p. 54.

Muela, Zapopan (2004):  “U.K protest: no to the racist closure of the library of the Commission for Racial Equality”. Indymedia London. (16-08-2004).

Zuckerman, Laurence (2000):  “How the C.I.A. played dirty tricks with U.S. culture.  The Los Angeles Times.  March 18, 2000.

[1] The section on the approach in Merton is co-authored with Elizabeth Smallwood.

[2] Kundnani (2004). 

[4] See Muela, Zapopan (2004) for details on the proposed closure of the CRE library.

[5] Karl Marx in his Theses on Feuerbach.

[6] “Almost 30 per cent of the population use libraries for borrowing books or other items”. Audit Commission (2002).

[7] The politics of globalisation is covered admirably by A. Sivanandan in his article “Globalism’s imperial war” (12 March 2003), available at  The library aspects are covered by IFLA at:; see also Durrani (2000), especially pp.89-94.

[8] Ten point programme presented to the groups which met at the Vienna Conference of progressive librarians sponsored by KRIBIBIE (2000) Available at:

[9] The IFLA Position on The World Trade Organization (2001). Available at:

[10] Blanke, Henry T. (1989) Librarianship and political values: Neutrality or commitment? Library Journal (July), 39-43.

[11] Walt, Stephen M (1996): “Revolution and war”. Cornell University Press.

[12] Jowell (2004).

[13] Lend it like Peckham! (2004).

[14] DCMS, 2003.

[15] Taken from the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council website:  Accessed 09 September, 2004.

[16] Library & Information Update March 2003.

[17] See MLA website for further details:

[18] This section is co-authored with Elizabeth Smallwood.

[19] See particularly Durrani and Smallwood (2003 and 2004). 

[20] The Merton approach identifies 2 aspects under the term “audience development”: The first aspect is to increase the reach of libraries and youth services to meet the needs of all young people, particularly those who have not been reached before.  The second aspect expands on what has come to be known as “reader development”.  “Audience development” is a more inclusive term: it includes people who may have visual impairment and meets the needs of disabled people generally.  It includes people who may not be literate either in English or in their own languages.  It also allows for connecting people to the “reading experience” through non print media, such as arts, cinema, music, drama and other cultural activities.  It involves all the senses, rather than being restricted to the use of just one. 

   The “audience development” approach to library and youth work develops new areas of service provision which a “traditional” library may not have provided as mainstream activities.  Over a period of time, this approach will help to develop a new model of joined-up library-youth service. Besides magazine production, other activities will include a music group, a drama group, a film group, and a radio station group, among others.

[21] This was covered in Library & Information Update 2(8) August 2003, p. 17.

[22] Melius, Duane (2003).

[23] Taken from Durrani & Bartlett (2004).

[24] Kalam, Abdul (2004). 


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