I’m sitting in a library in a suburb of Manchester. It’s connected to a sport and leisure centre. There’s a ‘Kids Coding Club’ happening in the corner behind the bookshelves, young minds learning how to speak computer. They’ll create a future that we can’t yet imagine.
My more regular library hangouts are Exeter central library, and the small library in the Royal Society of Arts in London. Three very different libraries. And yet they contain a pulse and a rhythm that is unmistakable and distinct. Different organs operating to keep the same body alive.
That body is community, sanctuary, and escape. Wonder, knowledge and dreams. But library budgets are plummeting and so they are being handed from council to community, and if the community can’t take it on, they close down. And yet, at the same time, emerging organisations seek space and support for their ideas, and often have funds to invest. It got me wondering how libraries and these emerging organisations (which I’m referring to as ‘startups’) might better work together.
In my life, libraries have offered different things to me: places to learn about the world, to feel peace and quiet, to concentrate, to connect over coffee, to try on hundreds of imagined lives, to hear inspiring talks, to plan. My involvement in the social and entrepreneurial world has often sought out these same experiences. And yet these worlds can seem so far apart.
I admire so many of the start up companies I have encountered; they are aiming to achieve incredible things, and often are. And yet I have on more than one occasion felt exclusivity and unspoken rules that dictate who’s in and who’s not — often linked to having a Mac laptop, savings, self-assurance, and a good knowledge of artisan coffee haunts.
I’ve encountered far more diversity and have had new ideas sparked whilst in libraries than I have whilst involved in many of the startup offices I’ve been in.
Of course, library-haunters and startup colleagues are not entirely different tribes — I have met many passionate and talented creators and startups that rely on libraries, and I have met people from many walks of life in emerging organisations. But I wish I saw this more often. Here are a few observations and thoughts:
Funding and space
Being involved in a small community development charity (Arukah Network), I’ve noticed a rise in ‘crowdfunding’ bodies set up to give a leg up to small, start up ideas. These bodies are a great idea, but to me it partly demonstrates that new ideas are having a harder and harder time finding funds. Fundraising is the hardest part of my work, and the part I enjoy least. So I’m grateful that we are a small team and work remotely, and don’t need to pay to rent offices. We meet in shared public spaces regularly. But there are many small organisations searching for hard-to-find funds just to buy or rent offices. What if some of these startups, or teams within startups, could connect with local libraries and arrange co-working times and spaces? Money could be donated back to the library, which would in turn help maintain it.
Exeter library has had a facelift — it has a fantastic coffee shop, and the layout is well thought out: it includes reading spaces, business areas, quiet work areas, meeting rooms, presentation rooms and more. Thinking about layout and space could make all the difference when trying to attract users. In Exeter library, there is a dedicated business centre where emerging businesses can meet, get advice, test ideas and more. It attracts people who may otherwise not have stepped into a library, and so a vitality runs through the place. It brings with it ideas, encouragement, mentoring and more. And in return, business creators do not need to work in isolation — an energy of collaboration and community runs through their work. It infuses a value that cannot be taken for granted in our screen-focused, individually-obsessed world.
The startup created up by smart young people who often have access to savings and great connections will probably be brilliant. But — unless its purpose is to improve community cohesiveness — it won’t necessarily do much for the local area, or for disadvantaged people who struggle to get a job, or those who struggle to find any energy outside of their job. It could end up deepening existing division between rich and poor, privileged and not, well-connected and isolated. Choosing to root a new organisation in a library could improve community cohesiveness. I’ve come across lots of people with time to spare in libraries, looking for opportunities. A library is well-connected to job centres, volunteer bodies, and other local and national links. A library is a pulsing hub of people, connections and opportunities. Startups could benefit immensely from these connections, and the local community would be enriched.
Right now it’s after school and the library is full of shifting, searching life. There’s a young girl reading a book and sucking a lollipop sitting opposite me. The excitement in her eyes as she absorbs new ideas gives me a burst of energy that we’re told can only be found in that nice artisan coffee. A woman searches for a house to rent. We talk about our lives. A quiet man speaks in Arabic to a young boy who is misbehaving. The boy stops and listens.
Later this week I’ll be back in Exeter library, where I’ll choose books to read; work on the charity I co-lead; and probably meet people I wouldn’t have otherwise met. I’ll think about the future we could imagine and create together. A library is a good place to do that.