Thursday, 21 August 2008

Libraries and social engagement

A recent article in FUMSI - Secret Leeds: Share Your Secrets, Share Your City
by James Hill, Senior Arts Project Officer, Leeds City Council and Duncan Scobie, Marketing Executive, Marketing Leeds - looks at a community website developed as part of the Celebrate Leeds 2007 festival, the 800th anniversary of the signing of the town's first charter in 1207. The website is a public discussion forum, ‘a site dedicated to investigating quirky, unusual or mysterious aspects of the built environment of the city of Leeds, both past and present'. There is no editorial content, just contributions from members of the public. An example is given of a thread on the forum about locating two stone skulls which used to be on the wall of a pub in the city centre. A group gathered together at the Central Library and read articles from old Leeds newspapers that proved the skulls had been there in the 1960s, but had been moved, when that area of the city centre began to fall into disrepair. Eventually the skulls were found and will be displayed when the area is regenerated.

The authors make the point that Secret Leeds has become "an excellent example of how participatory, socially engaged practice via the internet can play a strong role in regeneration and community cohesion... Not only has the website allowed people to find others who share what they might previously have thought to be a very narrow interest (across the world as well as across the city), but it has also been the catalyst for the kind of ‘meaningful interaction' and ‘engagement with heritage' that are seen as being central drivers in the promotion of community cohesion".

Most authorities want to develop community engagement in this way. The Sheffield City Cultural Services Plan for example has the mission statement "More people, more culturally active, more often". Libraries have to be able to show that they are contributing to these plans so we might expect that they would show a great interest in and engagement with local community forums on the web. Most areas do have some sort of local internet forum. In South Yorkshire we have the Sheffield Forum; Rotherham, the Unofficial Website; Donny Online and Barnsley Links. In addition social network sites such as Facebook often have groups for towns and cities along the lines of "Rotherham might be shite, but it's still home!" ( but you have to be a member of Facebook).

I'm sure that most libraries would be able to direct users towards these sites if they were asked but the evidence from library websites I have looked at does not suggest that there is any special engagement by libraries with these sites. Although most libraries have sections on their websites for web links to local community groups I could not find any direct links from the four South Yorkshire libraries, or from Leeds Libraries, to their relevant community forum websites. I suggest that libraries should not just be signposting these sites but should be actively involved with them by providing information in response to queries raised on the forums. By doing this libraries would not only be promoting their services but would be demonstrating their role in community engagement.

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