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Social exclusion – do collections matter?

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Professor G.E. Gorman, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Public use of libraries

The concept of "social exclusion" highlights something we have long known – that only certain portions of the public make use of libraries. This is a common phenomenon around the world, from Brighton in Sussex to Brighton in Melbourne. It partly reflects the demographics of the community, and partly the fact that libraries are more attractive to the middle and professional classes than to other groups. It is these people who are educated in the ways of libraries and therefore feel comfortable in them, who can afford to spend time in libraries, who have easy means of transport to get to and from the library.

Suaiden (2003) reports the findings of American and British research on this issue – essentially, "...highly educated middle class people are the most frequent users of libraries...". The higher a community's education level, the more it uses a library; level of education is linked to social class and economic group, so the lower the social class and economic group, the lower is library use (Suaiden, 2003) .

It then follows that ethnic minorities in many countries, who tend to represent the immigrant and less well-off segments of society, use libraries less than the dominant population groups. Women use libraries more than men; children use libraries more than adults. Little wonder, then, that in our visits to the library we most often see "people like us", and when this is not the case we actually notice the difference!

Tackling social exclusion

Why do we seem to find it so difficult to tackle the problem of social exclusion? To start with, on the whole libraries are managed by the educated middle classes; when you were in library school, were there many classmates outside this category? And if there were, did they go on to employment in the library service? Not often, in my experience.

Middle class librarians know best how to serve "their own kind", and so perhaps by default provide services that middle class users most appreciate. Second, there is a golden rule of inclusion in library service that most of us have been educated to accept in principle, but we have not been given the skills to put into practice. This makes us feel somewhat uneasy when it is pointed out that we are not fulfilling this professional imperative. This feeling is compounded by over-the-top political correctness in some countries, though this sort of pressure waxes and wanes, depending on the political climate. So here is one reason for the tension that emerges in the phrase "social exclusion", and the oft heard comment, "we can't be expected to serve non-users when we don't even know who they are".


What do people expect of a library? Well, if we're talking about middle class users, then "the service that is used most is the book-lending service and the main complaint in that regard concerns the quality of collections and availability"(Suaiden, 2003). It might follow that other groups also would regard collection quality as a key factor in their use/non-use of the library. But we do not actually know, and this raises a principal concern about our reaction to social exclusion. Too many libraries exhibit a knee-jerk reaction to this phenomenon and introduce all sorts of new features and services in the hope that they will attract different kinds of people to the library.

A classic example of this is described in Durrani and Smallwood (2003), who report a less than successful early phase in revamping Merton Library's service profile – initially " was mainly a quantitative change in services to marginalized communities, not a qualitative one" (Durrani and Smallwood, 2003). That is, the initial attempt at social inclusion consisted mainly of a few staffing changes, and little else. But, as a proactive and reflective library service, Merton soon realized that this was not the solution, and they moved on to develop a new approach, "Communities developing communities".

A new approach to social exclusion

To facilitate this new approach to inclusion, Merton placed community needs at the centre of all library activities. "We have identified several key needs that we think are common to all communities...These are information and knowledge; skills; empowerment and capacity building" (Durrani and Smallwood, 2003). Their article goes on to describe the revamped service structure that they hope allows community needs to be met more effectively, but in the present context it is significant that Merton identified information and knowledge as a key need for every community.

So, do collections matter when we consider social exclusion? Beyond a doubt! As ever, the collection, whether physical or virtual, whether accessed in-house or remotely, remains the engine room of every library. Unfortunately, too many managers forget this in their rush to follow the latest management fad. Nothing can replace the hard slog of understanding a library's client base through needs assessment, and of building collections of resources that best meet those needs. If a library has quality information to offer its clients, information that is packaged in ways that appeal to the various demographic groups, that is pitched to the appropriate level of interest and understanding, then it is reasonable to ask the question, how can we get more diverse groups into the library? This is a marketing and public relations question, and we never want to answer this until we have created the most socially inclusive collections and atmosphere so that, once we succeed in getting diverse people into the library, they will feel welcome and intrigued by what they find.

The right information for the right client at the right time

It all comes back to the principle articulated so clearly by the great Ranganathan, which we might paraphrase as "the right information for the right client at the right time". This is easy to say, but oh so difficult to achieve if effective collection building and collection management are not taking place behind the scenes, if selectors are not matching materials to a clearly understood profile of community needs. So much emphasis in so many libraries is placed on the service component, and so many see this as the only work worth doing, that the essential groundwork of collection building is overlooked or played down. This begins in the library schools, and I no longer have any time, if indeed I ever did, for those narrow-minded colleagues who say that collection development/management can be "taught" in a few weeks, or that it need not be part of the core curriculum. Perhaps one problem is that collection building/development is one of the few intellectually challenging areas of information work, in a profession which exhibits many characteristics of anti-intellectualism (the subject of a future column).

Never forget this simple principle: "libraries now, as always, provide organized access to worthwhile information, and they do this in order to meet the needs of those they serve" (Clayton and Gorman, 2001). It is the needs of our communities that are at the centre of service provision, and it is appropriate, worthwhile collections that are at the centre of meeting community needs. If we continue as at present, in the public library sphere at least, we will continue to serve primarily the leisure needs of middle class women and their children, and that is simply not good enough.

References and further reading

Clayton, P. and Gorman, G.E. (2001), Managing Information Resources in Libraries: Collection Management in Theory and Practice, Library Association Publishing, London, UK.

Durrani, S. and Smallwood, E. (2003), "Mainstreaming equality, meeting needs: the Merton Library approach", Library Management, Vol. 24 Nos 6/7, pp. 348-359.

Suaiden, E.J. (2003), "The social impact of public libraries", Library Review, Vol. 52 No. 8, pp. 379-387.