The Culture Universal Offer was formally launched in Hull, UK City of Culture, on 26 October. Michelle Alford, Library Services Director for Hull Culture and Leisure Ltd, welcomed more than 60 invited guests to the afternoon event in the city’s Central Library.
SCL President Neil MacInnes explained that SCL’s Universal Offers ‘articulated the purpose of the 21st century library service and our aspirations for the future’. Describing the sixth Universal Offer he said:
‘Culture takes many forms and means different things to different people. For libraries, culture means opening minds, offering new experiences and creative opportunities – not only related to books and literature, but to the arts in general. I like to think of libraries as places where ideas and ambitions grow – where people can learn and be inspired, places that help them to fulfil their dreams – and achieve their full potential.
‘Libraries are crucially important because they provide cultural nutrition to people of all ages, whatever their circumstances. For example, as part of SCL’s national Celebrating Shakespeare campaign last year, we ran arts-based events – including painting, poetry and rap – in prisons and young offenders’ institutions, with a great deal of success.
‘Libraries provide all kinds of opportunities for people to experience culture on their doorstep and mostly for free. They attract audiences who find theatres, concert halls and galleries a bit intimidating – or just too expensive.’
Neil outlined plans and ideas for the Culture Universal Offer over the next four years. These included digital arts, support for fundraising, staff development, marketing, annual and anniversary campaigns, partnerships with other cultural organisations, and co-production of a public version of the Culture Offer focused on children and young people.
Guest speaker Darren Henley, Chief Executive of Arts Council England, said he felt ‘among friends’ with the Society of Chief Librarians and thanked SCL for being ‘outstanding partners for the Arts Council since we took on our role for libraries development back in 2011.’ He said the successful relationship had taken another step forward with the inclusion of libraries in ACE’s National Portfolio from 2018 to 2022.
Darren said the new Culture Offer recognised the ‘active and increasing role libraries play as cultural and creative hubs’ reinforced, in recent years, by ‘increasing co-operation with the wider arts and cultural sector’. Looking to the future, he said:
‘We are all becoming much more aware of the social impact of investment in art and culture. Art and culture exerts a crucial influence on our education, on health and wellbeing, and on community life. This is becoming ever more relevant as we live longer, but often less communal lives, compared to the past.’
Darren talked about the negative impact of loneliness and isolation across a range of conditions including depression, dementia and obesity. He said being a regular library user was associated with a 1.4% increase in the likelihood of people reporting good general health. Across the library-using English population this translated to possible annual savings of £27.5 million for the NHS.
Darren went on to list some more impressive figures for physical and digital library visits. He said that every second, 24 people visit a library and 17 books are borrowed and 35% of the population visited a public library at least once a month. This was ‘an extraordinary network of influence’. Most importantly libraries were trusted ‘In these strange times, when so much else that we trust is turned upside down, and authority and integrity can sometimes seem to be estranged, that trust is of immeasurable value.’