BLOG 15th August 2018

What the arts can learn from libraries

Libraries are in some ways very different to cultural venues and events - but they face many of the same challenges that we do. What makes libraries so popular with a much broader range of audiences than typically attend other cultural venues?

Reaching a wider audience

According to a 2016 NISRA report, 43% of people in NI identify themselves as library users. A quarter of adults use the public library service each and just over one in every ten of the adult population use libraries once a month or more. Research from Arts Council England highlights that during 2014 - 15 libraries across England received 224.6 million physical visits, which is more than visits to the top 10 UK tourist attractions, the cinema, and Premier League football games combined.

So, libraries are obviously well-used. But compared to other art forms libraries often reach a much wider range of age groups and social backgrounds.

In 2013/14 there were no statistical differences in library-use between those living in the 20% most and 20% least deprived areas of Northern Ireland. Libraries in England have a higher proportion of BAME users that engage than those from a white background, and people living in the most deprived areas visit more than those in the least deprived areas.


What can libraries and arts organisations learn from each other?

Creating a welcoming visitor experience

So, why are people who don’t normally go to arts venues comfortable visiting libraries? Libraries have positioned themselves as open, welcoming, free, public spaces which are accessible to all. In a previous post on venue experience, we argued that venues and organisations need to make an active effort to welcome visitors, through staff, signage, design, and facilities.

Although university reading room areas may be quiet and austere, in your average public library there is free wifi, comfy seats, a range of free activities, and no pressure to be actively reading or purchasing anything.

Biblo Toyen is a children's library in a deprived area of Oslo. It's aimed at 10 - 15 year olds, and adults are not allowed in. After consulting with focus groups of teens, the library was designed with fun reading spaces like an old Volvo truck, a tuk-tuk, and a ski gondola.


Re-engaging lapsed visitors

Libraries have a large proportion of lapsed users often due to visitors having a lack of time or being able to access the material from elsewhere. But a lot of the time these lapsed attendees re-engage when they have children, become unemployed, or retire.

By using audience research and insight you can build a picture of your own audiences - when are they likely to engage with you, when does attendance drop off, and are there any key life-stages where previous attendees are likely to engage again? Research shows that it costs between five to 25 times more to attract a new customer than to retain an existing one, so rewarding customer loyalty is a good way to build a healthy audience-base.

Responding to audience needs

With the rise of e-books and Amazon, libraries have changed massively to ensure they are relevant and meeting the needs of their communities. 

Libraries have managed to stay relevant by offering practical services that are not connected with their core product. In Northern Ireland, using the public library service to ‘borrow/return/renew books’ (61%) remains the most popular use among public library users, but it is closely followed by ‘use computers for personal use’ (23%) and ‘to look up information / do research’ (18%).

Many people use libraries for computers or meeting others – knit and natter groups, book clubs etc These people may never go on to borrow a book – but does that matter? People are engaging with the service and it is making a positive difference in people's lives. In the arts sector - is our engagement work too focused on getting people to buy tickets, or give away free ones, at the expense of other ways to meaningfully engage with new audiences?

Targeted approaches to reach specific audiences

While they offer a welcoming experience to all, libraries are not afraid to really listen to key target audiences, and develop specific products or services that fit their unique needs.

For Nottinghamshire Inspire Libraries, their catchment area has a much higher level of older people than in other counties. They also identified a much higher recorded diagnosis of dementia in the county compared with anywhere else in England. They ran a series of dementia-friendly film screenings (QFT in Belfast run a similar scheme), songs and scones sessions, and loaned out reminiscence activity packs. They worked closely with care homes and community groups to develop these events. Evaluation during the film screenings was done face-to-face, with library staff asking questions and filling out an evaluation form, instead of handing out forms for attendees to complete with a pen.

Developing new events and products with a specific audience in mind ensures that arts and cultural organisations can be relevant for the audiences they want to reach.

Forge a human connection online

Orkney library's twitter account is a great example of a welcoming, human voice online. They stay away from public service announcement-style posts, and instead use a lot of visuals and humour to show the warmth of the staff and library-users.

A tweet from Orkney library showing a Pual simon biography and a bok called 'Under the Skin', along with a comment 'Simon and Carbuncle'

Shared challenges 

However, audience development still remains a challenge for libraries, as it does for those in the arts sector. Here are some typical challenges that libraries face, which will be familiar to many in the arts sector: 

  • Inconsistent data. 
  • Information is fragmented across a number of different agencies.  
  • Understanding audiences who engage with library services but are not registered members. 
  • Understanding their audiences in a local context.
  • A lack of time to turn data into actionable insight. 
  • And the data they do use is for direct reporting to local authorities on footfall and borrowing levels. 

Working in partnership could help both sectors overcome the challenges around data and understanding audiences.

Working Collaboratively

Libraries can offer useful and exciting partnership opportunities to arts and cultural organisations who want to attract some of the audiences already engaged with libraries, as they are low risk, free and safe spaces for communities. 

If you're an arts organisation that's looking to talk to non users – libraries would be a great place to start.

A 2017 Carnegie UK report on library use, identified ‘Libraries as Cultural Centres’ as being one of four key areas of library use. Literature, music, participatory arts, and film have an established place in libraries though book clubs, author talks, film screenings, sheet music, arts and crafts classes, and instrument rental. 

Collaboration can have two-way benefits. A scheme offering free admission to cultural venues for library card holders in New York has seen nearly 23,000 passes booked, and library memberships soaring.

Many cultural organisations in Northern Ireland are already marketing through library leaflet drops, and extending their programming to libraries by offering author's talks and visual arts exhibitions. The idea of library as theatre has been explored too, but there is much more scope for libraries and the arts to work hand-in-hand.

Laura Cusick

Research Analyst

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