Libraries Change Lives

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A couple of weeks ago I was at a fancy lunch event in Brussels – with an actual princess – (that’s how they do things there).

No, it wasn’t some corporate jolly, it was an event to publicise the role of the 65,000 public libraries in the lives of the 503 million inhabitants of the European Union.

Funded by the Gates Foundation and designed and delivered by the Reading and Writing Foundation, a Dutch thinktank for literacy development in Europe, it was a bit of a masterclass in lobbying for the relatively uninitiated (me).

LIbraries Change Lives event

I must admit that the majority of public library natives there were a bit bemused – this isn’t our natural habitat – we’re much more comfortable in community halls with cups of tea and biscuits.

But this event wasn’t aimed at us – it was aimed at some of the 751 MEPs who debate European Legislation and who could have influence over the perceived status, importance and role of public libraries in their countries of origin, and, of course, at European level.

I don’t know about other countries in Europe but in the UK this kind of lobbying just isn’t usually done. We don’t see the relevance of EU parliamentarians in our daily life, funding or strategic priorities. And we don’t often look to our closest neighbours (with the noble exception of the Scandinavians) for examples of innovative and inventive library service delivery – we’re far more likely to look to the anglophone countries overseas. Perhaps this is natural, but we might just be missing a trick.

LIbraries change lives book

(The book I helped write)

I must declare an interest here, I was involved in drafting some of the think piece articles in the publication presented to MEPs at the event, but I learnt a lot through this process:

  1. If you can convince an MEP that public libraries are relevant to their brief and worth talking about, then you can probably convince anyone
  2. You can be ambitious and shout about the difference your library can make to important political priorities, even if it’s not the shiniest, best funded library around
  3. The room lit up when ordinary library users, who were invited to the lunch, shared their stories of how libraries had changed their lives – from the migrant who learnt German at the library and was volunteering to help others, to the unemployed man who joined the job club and is now in full time employment
  4. There are models for community libraries out there in some of the least well off European countries that show just how much can be done with community involvement and good will (more on this in later posts)
  5. Building an amazing library is just the beginning of delivering excellent service – listening to Francine Houben describe her inspiration for the Library of Birmingham was breath-taking – but the way that vision has been demolished by funding cuts following its opening, equally so

Francine houben

(Francine Houben on the inspiration for the Library of Birmingham)

I also heard critiques of this event – that we were talking to the self-selected more ‘friendly’ MEPs and that this kind of lobbying feels too far removed from everyday service delivery.

These may be justified, but what the Reading and Writing Foundation have created is a bank of video case studies and testimonials on Youtube and a digital publication with many of the video protagonists’ stories. These publications focus on key messages and policy areas, which anyone can use or take as a template for their own lobbying activities.

The Reading and Writing Foundation want to start a Europe-wide debate about the value and contribution of public libraries, and that sounds like something worth doing to me.

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