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Libraries, children, arts and culture

What does it mean for children to have a cultural experience? It means inspiring creativity, developing skills, building knowledge, discovering their heritage and celebrating differences. It is about self-expression, well-being and freedom.

When Arts Council England assumed responsibility for libraries in 2012, it stimulated library leaders to reflect on the role libraries play in supporting children and young people’s cultural awakening.

Public libraries contribute to a sense of place within a local community. Indeed there are library buildings that are cultural experiences in themselves. In the ROH Bridge region we have some beautiful libraries - Braintree and Saffron Walden in Essex, the Forum in Southend and Ipswich Library are just four that spring to mind.

Once inside the library, children will of course, find the huge range of authors and illustrators who give us some a rich reading heritage and I will return to that, but there are also opportunities to experience quality performance and exhibitions, to showcase work, to build skills, try out new art forms and explore cultural heritage. Libraries have really benefitted from new relationships through the Bridge Organisations and Arts Council England, for example in the Eastern region  our Grants for Arts funded ImagiNation project acted as a catalyst for libraries work with artists and co-production with young people.

So far it’s been a great year for celebrating arts and culture in libraries and it’s not over yet. One of my highlights has been celebrating Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary. On 23rd April (“Shakespeare Selfie Day”) 6000 adults and children across the country visited their local library to take a picture with their favourite Shakespeare quote.  

The fun continues this autumn with artists offering Shakespeare themed workshops and events in libraries across the region.  In the spring Librarian Theatre toured libraries across the eastern region with their production of Hamlet and we are hoping to welcome them back for a Dickensian Christmas production.

In terms of audiences I have to mention Library rhyme times for babies and toddlers. These magical weekly sessions help the youngest children and their families learn songs and rhymes passed down through generations from a range of cultural traditions. And, as a perceptive member of staff said to me, a rhyme time is, for many children their first experience of being in an audience, learning to watch, listen, join in and clap together.

In Essex we are gearing up for Fun Palace Weekend on the 1st/2nd October. We were introduced to the Fun Palace concept by the inspirational Stella Duffy and can't wait to give them a go. They really fit in with our ethos of enabling communities to share their skills and make their communities better.

Digital creativity and making are a growing area of library business, - there is a brilliant Makerspace in Ipswich Library and Code Clubs are burgeoning. We are really excited about providing children and young people with opportunities to create via code, digital music making and film production.

At the heart of our work is reading - a creative act in itself, which builds a child's ability to think and write creatively, to understand different lives and possibilities and develop empathy. As I write this blog, libraries across the country are running the annual Summer Reading Challenge, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Roald Dahl. When we have big reading events like this it is wonderful how the whole community gets involved. When we celebrated National Bookstart Week for babies and toddlers in June with its undersea theme, the knit and natter group at Rochford Library in Essex knitted us a whole seascape.

Reading and crafting uniting generations!  Our BBC partners are passionate about books too and we have supported their reading campaign throughout 2016. We are looking forward to a #LovetoRead celebration weekend 5th/6th November.

There are challenges - we need to ensure we are reaching our whole community and that we are celebrating diversity through our activities. We need to make sure our activities are fully accessible to all children. Libraries need to be defining their role in Cultural Education Partnerships and consider the most effective way to contribute to Arts Awards programmes. But we also have new opportunities. The work of public libraries is shaped by a series of Universal Offers and the Children’s Promise which sets out our expectations of a 21st Century library service. In 2017 a public library Cultural Offer will be developed, articulating our belief in the power of public libraries to contribute to the wider cultural landscape and  ensuring that children, young people  and adults wherever they are, have the cultural opportunities they deserve and that will make a real difference to their lives.

Sarah Mears, Libraries Services Manager: Essex Libraries and national Chair ASCEL (The Association of Senior Children’s and Education Librarians)