Culture, Creativity, and Public Libraries in England: A Grass-Roots Transformation

It is encouraging that Arts Council England has embraced a vision of culture and the arts which is both welcoming and participatory.

Arts Council England (ACE) is a government-funded body dedicated to promoting the performing, visual, and literary arts in England. Funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the National Lottery, ACE is the national development agency for creativity and culture whose mission is to “champion, develop and invest in artistic and cultural experiences that enrich people's lives”. After an 18-month development process, ACE has recently published its new 10-year strategic plan, titled “Let’s Create”. This plan represents the culmination of a series of numerous workshops, consultations, and public conversations and represents a shift in strategy to make the arts in England more participatory in nature at a grass-roots level.

While ACE’s previous strategy (“Great Art and Culture for Everyone”) emphasized making the arts more accessible, “Let’s Create” aims to support communities and individuals as creators of local culture and the arts, enabling existing cultural institutions such as museums, archives, and libraries to help foster this new dynamic ecosystem of artistic creativity. “With this Strategy” the report says, “we hope to prepare the ground for a blossoming of creativity across the country – and to acknowledge that the surest way to fill the future with every variety of flower is to recognise that we can all be gardeners.” As community hubs and centers for local culture, public libraries in England can play a pivotal role in this transformation, helping people of all ages and backgrounds become active participants in the arts and find their voices as creators of culture. 

In outlining its Case for Change, ACE identifies several issues currently facing the English cultural sector. One of these issues is the public perception of art in the UK. Despite a 10-year focus on bringing the arts to a broader range of people, there is still a widespread notion that “the arts” exclusively refers to high art, such as sculpture or paintings, the ballet, or the opera. While some of this association is a result of actual funding decisions— for example, ACE recently came under fire for earmarking most of its funds to support the opera instead of jazz or pop music— there is nevertheless a persistent belief among the English public that participation in the arts, either as an audience member or a performer, is an elite activity. This is one of the reasons why the new 10-year plan prefers to use the term “culture” instead of the arts, so as to embrace a more all-encompassing approach.

Another challenge facing Arts Council England’s vision for the future is the inequality of access to and participation in the arts. Even though there is greater diversity in England’s cultural and arts sectors than ever before, a 2019 ACE report finds that people from a minority background are still under-represented both in the workforce and in leadership positions. Economic inequality in the UK also poses a challenge. Children and young people in economically-disadvantaged regions have fewer opportunities to experience creativity and culture in their schools or in their communities; at the same time, arts and cultural organizations in England have also seen a decline in public funding, which impacts their ability to help “fill the gap” in bringing cultural experiences to these regions. ACE’s new strategy outlines steps to ensure better representation of people from under-represented minorities and makes the economic case for investing public money in culture.

Given the scope of the transformation and its myriad challenges, how can public libraries in England help foster this national shift from artistic appreciation to creative cultural expression? Libraries are natural cultural hubs for the communities they serve— in fact libraries are often the first point of contact for children with the arts. Local arts and cultural organizations partner with public libraries on community programming, showcase local artists and invite the public to participate in the arts through hands-on classes, workshops, and learning activities for all ages. With a newfound emphasis on making and experiential learning, libraries help foster cultural creativity on the individual level. Not only do libraries supplement local schools in this respect, but they do so while creating an environment that encourages risk-taking and innovative thinking without the fear of failure or getting a bad grade.

As trusted community organizations public libraries can also help reframe the conversation around culture and the arts in England. Public libraries everywhere have always wrestled with striking a balance between maintaining “the classics” and collecting more popular authors in their stacks; similarly, libraries have learned to embrace new forms of media, such as CDs, DVDs, digital materials, and streaming audio/video. Professionally-trained librarians are experts in helping people discover books and other media which speak to their individual wants and needs and do not judge or shame people for their choice in materials. By curating library collections that showcase a variety of viewpoints and experiences, librarians reflect their commitment to serving everyone in their community and help champion diversity and inclusion when these values are currently being put to the test in English society. 

Perhaps most importantly of all is the fact that public libraries in England are open and welcoming to everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status. More people visit libraries than attend English Premier League soccer matches, the movies, and the top 10 UK tourist attractions combined! Libraries reflect their communities with respect to their collections, their programs, and their services. They also build relationships with the community and help drive local economic development and revitalization. Finally, public libraries not only listen to young and older people alike, under-represented minorities, and other marginalized populations but they give them voices as well through a dynamic range of programming which includes culture and the arts.

It is encouraging that Arts Council England has embraced a vision of culture and the arts which is both welcoming and participatory. Our colleagues who work in public libraries in the UK are the perfect allies in helping realize this vision precisely because this is the work that they already do every day: celebrating arts and culture, championing diversity, and building community through shared experience. “Let’s Create” may be the catch-phrase for ACE’s new strategic plan, but libraries have long since embraced the spirit of this motto and are ready to help other organizations do the same.