Public libraries are a universal service and pride themselves on being the most accessible local authority and cultural service, with a vital role to connect people and help build communities. This guest blog from Isobel Hunter MBE, CEO, Libraries Connected covers what libraries are doing to ensure this rings true for people with disabilities, and how they’re thinking beyond physical access to their buildings to develop a digital offer and work in communities to ensure libraries are as inclusive as possible.
In this blog I am going to talk about “libraryness” that special quality or value that binds together the incredibly diverse range of services that modern libraries deliver, some of which are also delivered by other parts of councils or other agencies. What library staff have shown is how they do not lump people together under one label or condition, but take time to consider the needs and aspirations of individuals to craft an offer and an experience that works for them. It is a proactive approach, driven by understanding of the community and user needs, and often by relationships with individual users or community groups, and often works with a complex web of specialist partners. It is bespoke, personalised, empathetic and thoughtful.
As the baseline, all libraries strive to have physically accessible buildings, and many have jumped at the chance to install Changing Places facilities. Ensuring buildings are fully accessible is often a driver in library refurbishment or in moving from picturesque Carnegie buildings into modern accommodation. All of our work to develop library practice through the Universal Offers is underpinned by the Visual Impairment and Print Impairment Promise – to ensure they are accessible to people with visual and reading impairments, and libraries have accessible websites and eLending platforms. However, they go way beyond this sort of baseline passive access, and is far more than creaking open the doors and expecting people to cross the threshold.
In West Sussex the library service created a Communication Aid Library, to support people with a range of disabilities and additional needs to access specialist services that support everyday life. As they explained “we got involved by accident when families and support groups expressed dissatisfaction with the council and local health services for failing to provide a basic device lending service – it appeared to be an open goal” Firstly, I think it’s really striking that the library service was able to have this conversation with people – that they hadn’t felt able to have with the health and other support services that should have been there to support them. We often see this with libraries – and again it’s a key element of the libraryness – that they have a very open and trusted relationship with their communities, and indeed a Mori Poll last year showed that librarians were the second most trusted profession – with a 93% trust rating just 1% behind nurses.
At the core of library practice is selecting, organising and lending the best materials to meet user needs – so setting up a device lending library felt like a very natural extension of West Sussex’s traditional work. They drew on expert involvement and practical insights of speech therapists, special schools and SEND professionals to establish a collection of devices which are available from any local library in exactly the same way as any book. It’s not a case of having to travel to the central library or a depot to get what you need – in light of the added challenges many users will find over transport and mobility. And using the library card normalises the loan and does not set up a new complex lending process.
They also drew on the advice of a stakeholder group of disabled individuals, parents, carers and practitioners who came up with the name “Understand Me” for the service to express its key function in a positive and engaging way. The catalogue for the devices is far more than a list as it uses the librarian’s skill to describe the item in concise detail and to set out the possible uses for each device, encouraging individuals and families it give things a go and see if they are useful for them. So for example: The Talking Photo Album which can display up to 40 images with a range of possible uses: · Creating your own talking book by drawing pictures and recording the story to accompany each page · Creating a visual guide to a new experience for children or adults (e.g. starting school) · Creating a reminiscences book for people living with dementia. So a device with use to a wide range of people, but described in a way that allows people to make personalised choices in recognition that each person’s condition and experience is unique. West Sussex has since built on this work by also talking on responsibility for operating the local authority’s Disability Register. This means that the libraries will be the front door for families with children and young people with SEND, to manage census type data and to make it available to stakeholders, partners and service providers and linking it to the library offer to provide better wrapround support. Again – being trusted managers of information is a very core role for libraries, and here brought into play in a new context.
Focus on the needs of people with learning disabilities is a major focus for many libraries., and in South Tyneside they have shifted the offer to central stage by celebrating Adult Learning Week in June as a showcase of all the activities and tailored services that have on offer. The festival has very high level commitment in the council, is opened by the Mayor and endorsed by the lead cabinet member. Highlights of the week include an employer engagement event at the Central library, a pop-up café hosted by members of Autismable, and daily creative workshops in libraries across the Borough: card making, collage and printing, sewing and fabric painting. The festival is very much a showcase – rather than a one-off and intended to highlight the year round offer from the library.
For example, the library runs a reading group for adults with learning disabilities using Books Without Words. These are books where the narrative is carried by the illustration, and – like books with words – the narrative can be interpreted on many levels and from different perspectives. So the group is really inclusive to people with a range of conditions and allows them to enjoy the full book group experience of sharing ideas, listening to and understanding others, and forging new connections and friendships. It’s also a great way for the library to gather feedback on its specialist book stock so it can keep evolving and improving it.
There has been some really interesting approaches libraries have deployed to gather feedback from their users, moving beyond the sterile survey form to develop more meaningful ways to get under the bonnet and find out what people think. In Staffordshire they brilliantly combined a solid evaluation methodology with an enjoyable creative performance by working with an integrated dance company called FrontlineDance to offer a programme of activity in libraries that would allow the library to actively consult with families. The events were designed for children with learning disabilities and their families – to help develop literacy skills and inspire a love of stories and reading. FrontlineDance presented a multi-sensory interactive story adventure where the audience joined in with movement and dance. The events were a platform for the library to get to know the children and families and to engage them in conversation about how they found the experience in the library, how things could be improved and what they would like to see more of. Feedback was enormously positive, as the events were so well designed and utterly enjoyable! What also came across really strongly was the approach of the staff at the library and attendee after attendee commented that “the library staff were friendly and smiley”. Friendly and smiley – that’s definitely the libraryness!
Another feature of the library offer is technology. Libraries bring new technologies to people – stuff they would not be able to afford, might not have the confidence to use or simply never come across. We’ve had some brilliant experiences with VR in libraries – with a tour in partnership with the BBC taking people on space walks and along the ancient Nile. It’s really interesting to see the emerging therapeutic uses of VR for people with physical and other disabilities – being able to travel to places they could not reach or used to stimulate memory and rehabilitative movement. These are all areas that libraries are really interested in as part of their evolving role, and how they can bring VR experiences to existing activities such as dementia groups or carer sessions.
Several libraries have invested in immersive and interactive spaces. In Stockton Libraries the immersive room was designed to support people with a variety of health needs. It’s basically a small white room with sophisticated image projection on all four walls and sound projection and aromas to transport you into the sea, through the clouds or other beautiful environments. Warwickshire Library has just installed an Omi Vista projector which creates an interactive projection where the images respond to peoples’ movement and touch. The projectors have been developed for use as a therapeutic and learning tool for small children, people with communications difficulties and people with dementia and are often used in settings such as care homes, respite centres and pre-school centres. They are also a massive amount of fun!
Finally, I also want to celebrate a really traditional library service that came into its own during lockdown and is of particular benefit to people with disabilities – especially those with limited mobility. This is of course the Home Library Service. Most libraries offer this, sometimes in partnership with voluntary organisations – where a selection of library resources are delivered to people at home. What makes this so special is that it is incredibly bespoke. The service takes time to get to know each person and to tailor things to their interests – and many libraries offer books, magazines, music, jigsaws and games. It ensures these library users have an equality of choice – the same as if they were able to get to the library buildings. It was incredible to see how libraries kept services running in lockdown, by shifting to doorstep delivery rather than into the home – and the feedback from the service users was overwhelming. People were grateful for the books and resources – but what they appreciated more than anything was the human contact and the friendly chat with someone they had built a relationship with. In St Helens, the library developed a letter writing project to provide an extra connection with HLS customers many of whom were shielding so had extremely limited social contact.
I hope this insight into libraries’ work gives a sense of how they deploy the libraryness to think deeply about people’s needs and to craft bespoke services.