15 Minutes with… Ciara Eastell of Libraries Unlimited

The sheer volume of information and entertainment available to us via our computers and mobile devices grows larger each day. So with everything that we think we need available without leaving the house, do we still need the traditional library? One Magazine’s Jake Tucker meets the Chief Executive of Libraries Unlimited to find out how Devon’s libraries adapt to work alongside our digital world through events, activities and increased community support.

Q: First of all, what is Libraries Unlimited and what is your mission?
Libraries Unlimited is a registered charity which spun out of Devon County Council to become an independent organisation. We now run both Devon Libraries and Torbay Libraries on behalf of Devon County Council (DCC) and Torbay Council. This includes 50 libraries and four mobile libraries in Devon, plus four libraries in Torbay. The mission we all share within Libraries Unlimited is our belief in the importance of high quality library services to support and improve people’s lives.

Q: It seems that libraries across the country are facing significant challenges, and there is a lot of talk of closures. Why do you think this is?
It’s a challenging time, and libraries are not only facing the financial pressure but also the pressure to stay relevant to people’s changing needs. Sustained budget pressures across the public sector continue to have an impact on many public services, including libraries. We’re fortunate that in Devon, DCC took the bold decision to establish Libraries Unlimited after a public consultation that clearly demonstrated that the people of Devon value their libraries and wanted all 50 to stay open and run by paid staff.

Q: Young people increasingly living in a digital world thanks to the rise in technology clearly have a huge impact. How can/are libraries adapting to meet these changes?
Our libraries, as with other services, need to evolve and adapt and look at new ways of delivering our mission. In Devon, we have introduced a number of new services over the years and continue to look at new and exciting things to try. All of our libraries have free WiFi and computers that are free to use too, so anyone can use our space to simply check their emails or browse the web. We also have a large online catalogue of eBooks, eAudiobooks and digital magazines that library members can login and read in their own home in their own time. Our online catalogue is available 24/7, allowing users to reserve a book online and pick it up from their library at their convenience.

Q: Is it difficult to adapt to a digital world while still staying true to the values of the traditional library?
Finding the right balance between modern and traditional library services is key. We know that a large percentage of our users come to the library purely to find and enjoy books and reading material, and that remains at the heart of all that we do. On the flip side, we’re working hard to provide complementary services that will attract new users into libraries too, without detracting from our core offerings. All the elements of traditional library services remain in Devon and Torbay, but what we’re doing is adding value, appealing to more people and offering a more diverse service that still has books, reading, literature and learning at its core.

Q: What more do libraries offer to combat being able to just download an e-book or research information online at home?
Libraries act as community hubs, they bring people together every single day. They are one of the few remaining free public spaces where absolutely everyone is welcome. Our library staff offer a terrific service to their users and local communities – they are knowledgeable, helpful, friendly and welcoming, and will do all that they can to help everyone that walks through their doors. Whether it’s help finding a job, choosing a good book, help using an IT device, accessing family history or business resources or simply a friendly and understanding smile, library staff will go above and beyond and that’s what makes them so special.

Q: It’s not all books though. Your annual ‘Active Life Active Mind’ project helps people to focus on health and wellbeing through planned events and activities, including yoga, walking, lego and colouring clubs and more. Can you tell us more about the aim for this project?
Active Life Active Mind is a month long programme of events and activities designed to bring people together and promote healthy lifestyles and positive wellbeing. Across the county, libraries host a variety of events that connect people, give them the chance to try something new and encourage and support people to make positive life choices. Last year we held laughter yoga for isolated and vulnerable people, as well as walking groups, pop-up health information sessions, knitting, memory groups, blood pressure checks and much more. Our next Active Life Active Mind programme will take place during January 2019, and we will be publishing event details towards the end of this year.

Q: What can people of the community do to help support their local library?
There are plenty of opportunities for people to support their local library. Using it is the first and most obvious answer, but for those that want to get more hands on, we have lots of volunteering opportunities for people of all ages, to help at events, help behind the scenes or help out in one of our FabLabs. As a registered charity we also accept donations that go towards enhancing our core library offering. If anyone is interested in getting involved in any way, they can find out more or donate online at www.librariesunlimited.org.uk

Ciara will be in conversation with BBC programme-maker and acclaimed nature writer Mary Colwell at Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival on 20th September, debating the importance of libraries as places of inspiration and creativity. For more information, visit www.budlitfest.org.uk

Author: Jake

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