Education by stealth

As a reminder of the power of books and literacy to change lives, the Islington Reads strategy takes some beating. Published by Islington Library and Heritage Services in 2012, it provides a blueprint for promoting both the contribution that reading makes to educational achievement and the value of reading for pleasure - all focussed on one of London’s most diversely-populated boroughs, where divisions behind rich and poor are less of a gap and more of a chasm.

The document is particularly compelling on the role of libraries, encouraging their transformation into ‘vibrant community hubs for reading, learning and volunteering’ able to host everything from author events and reading groups to baby bounce sessions and festivals.

“This range of creative activities,” it explains, “is reversing major trends and there is a growing evidence base for its impact on people’s sense of community, their reading range, literacy levels, confidence and self esteem”.

Certainly, for an organisation like Small Green Shoots that specialises in developing arts-based projects for young people at risk of social exclusion, libraries are currently at the heart of all we do.

There are many reasons for this.

First and foremost, as well as being lenders of books, the best libraries are also brilliant creative spaces, located at the heart of their communities. And, importantly, they remain public facilities. When we first work with a group of young people, the vast majority will not own a library card. However, entice them in for a creative workshop and the penny soon drops: these buildings, which also offer affordable internet access and a quiet haven for study, belong to them.   

Certainly, when we took a survey last year of 100 participants on Small Green Shoots’ projects only 15% said they had visited their library in the previous two years. But following the completion of their project or event - more than 70% stated they would now become regular visitors.  

Thankfully, we have forged many positive partnerships within the library sector to help promote such engagement. For example, Swiss Cottage, Archway and Homerton libraries were all flexible enough to extend their hours in order to allow stage rehearsals and per-formances; while in Blackbird Leys, alterations were made to create an exhibition space to showcase new youth work.

Working in partnership

And currently, with the help of Arts Council England funding, we are in the process of promoting a series of family-themed projects across the UK - all led by respected artists, all working in partnership with library services, and all encouraging young people not in education or training to gain an Arts Award qualification while creating original works based around different perspectives of family life.

As a result, we have young people in Hackney working with the poet Nick Makoha, drawing inspiration from texts like Lise Friedman’s Letters To Juliet as they compose a letter to a missing relative. In Nottingham and Leicester, groups are using Little Women and My Family & Other Animals as the springboard for performances about family values.

It is a classic example of education by stealth.  

In the music business, where I worked for more than a decade, the buzz word of the moment is “retention”. You see it associated with so-called “freemium” subscription services like Spotify, that tempt new users with the offer of free music before enticing them towards paid membership.

Maybe we should consider libraries in a similar way. The biggest effort comes with engagement, and communicating to disaffected young people what these buildings have to offer. That’s the difficult bit. Once you’ve got them inside (and a library card in their pocket) then a new relationship with books is often set for life.

Natalie Wade is the director of Small Green Shoots - a creative consultancy with a mission to change the lives of young people