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The Soul Of The City Launch Speech

15th March 2016

Opening speech at the launch of Soul of the City, the James Reckitt Library Trust’s manifesto for public libraries, by the Chair of the Trust, Dr Richard Heseltine at the University of Hull, 26 February 2016.

My name is Richard Heseltine, and I am the Chair of the James Reckitt Library Trust. I am also the Librarian of the University of Hull, and in that capacity I would like to welcome you very warmly to the University this morning, and to the Brynmor Jones Library. It’s always a pleasure to host events of this kind in the University, and the presence here of both our Vice-Chancellor, Professor Pistorius, and our Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Burgess, and of other colleagues, is testimony to the University’s commitment to playing a full part in the life of our city.

I will be saying something about this Library later on, and about the way in which it exemplifies the importance of libraries in the lives of communities. It stands as a great example of both their functional value and their symbolic power.

First, however, on behalf of fellow trustees, I want to say how tremendously grateful I am to you all for taking the time, early in the morning, to participate in this event. The number of people who have come here, and the range of organisations from which you have come, in both public and private sectors, is a real sign, I think, of the depth of interest that exists in the future of public libraries, and of the widespread concern about what is happening to them in many parts of this country.

Let me begin by telling you something about the James Reckitt Library Trust. As many of you will know, Sir James Reckitt, who was born in 1833 and died in 1924, was a pioneer industrialist and philanthropist, one of Hull’s greatest citizens. Reckitts is now of course Reckitt Benckiser, or RB, and it’s a great pleasure to welcome their representatives here today.

Libraries were among Sir James Reckitt’s many philanthropic passions. He campaigned tirelessly for the establishment by the City Corporation of public libraries in Hull, and at his own cost built the first free library in the City, the James Reckitt Library in east Hull. The opening of the Western Library in 1895, the first to be established from the public purse, was a direct result of his campaigning efforts.

The James Reckitt Library Endowment was established by Sir James in 1892. It was originally intended to support just the James Reckitt Library, but now it helps to develop public library provision throughout the City. Over the past six years the Trust has awarded almost £4 million to a wide variety of projects and activities. The Trust will be a major funder of the public library contribution to City of Culture 2017, it supports the Freedom Festival, and it is currently the largest single financial contributor to this year’s Amy Johnson Festival. The money we grant comes entirely from the income from the endowment – we are not a fund-raising charity.

Let me tell you about a few of our projects, partly to give you a flavour of what we as a Trust support, but, more importantly, to start to break down some popular misconceptions about what public libraries do.

Some of our investment is in physical infrastructure, and I should say immediately that our vision for the future of public libraries by no means excludes a network of physical libraries across the city. An outstanding example of how successful this can be is provided by the redevelopment of the Western Library on the Boulevard. What had been a very run-down building has been revived with the support of the Trust. Sympathetically refurbished, the heritage of the building shines through, but it now has IT facilities, and much used community meeting spaces, and even a garden, that has been brilliantly planted and maintained by a community group, and children in particular come to activities there and use library resources at the same time.

The Trust has funded the creation of a new music library. It contains not just music material in all formats, but also computers with composition and recording software, each with a music keyboard, two electric pianos, and flexible performance space. It has been turned into a place where music lovers can discover music, and musicians and music students can create and perform music.

We fund activities that encourage a love of reading. The annual Children’s Book Award see nationally known children’s writers visiting schools, and then brings hundreds of children together in the city centre to meet the authors of the shortlisted books, to vote for their favourites, and together to share a passion for good writing.

The libraries’ Under 5s programme aims to spark that love of reading from the earliest years, and encourages parents to read to their children, helping them with the skills to do so. The Summer Reading Challenge helps to keep children reading when school is out.

We fund oral history, encouraging people to recount and record their experiences of their lives in Hull. We fund storytelling, so the library service can be found at work in the parks and on the streets during the Freedom Festival, sharing stories.

We fund real innovation. The Shelf Life project, another partnership with Freedom, will see ten artists’ books commissioned from nationally recognised artists, to be exhibited in all our libraries. We promote publishing. It’s great to see Shane Rhodes from Wrecking Ball Press here – with our support, the Press is publishing ten original, innovative pieces of writing, with each writer holding workshops in Hull’s libraries with aspiring local writers. So not just reader development but writer development too. And we support entrepreneurship. European funding is matching the Trust’s funding to support work to assist access to information and advice for small businesses.

Anyone who thinks public libraries in Hull do nothing but lend light fiction to pensioners or give poor people access to computers couldn’t be more wrong.

Yet throughout this country, our public library system is being remorselessly destroyed. By the end of this year, it is reckoned that over 1,000 public libraries will have closed in the previous five years; that over 3,000 librarians will have lost their jobs. Only two weeks ago it was announced that Swindon Council is withdrawing funding from 14 of its 15 libraries.

This is often regarded as inevitable. Public libraries are caricatured as the declining purveyors of a dying technology – the printed book. And anyone who needs information can of course find it on the Internet. Public libraries are rendered obsolete by Google and the Kindle.

Even the defenders of public libraries all too often appear backward-looking and sentimental in outlook, relying on visions of a golden past of public libraries to argue their case.

In the James Reckitt Library Trust, we believe that the national plight of public libraries represents a colossal failure of will and imagination. Our Trust does not believe that public libraries face inevitable decline. What we do need is a new vision of their future; an aspirational, forward-looking vision; a vision that embraces technology; a vision that places public libraries at the heart of the success of their cities and their communities.

Today, therefore, we are launching a manifesto that sets out the elements of such a new vision. We are calling it the Soul of the City, because that’s how we see our public libraries, as vital institutions of knowledge, learning and culture.

Hull is a great place to launch such a manifesto. Precisely because here in Hull our libraries are not being destroyed as they are in so much of this country. Yes, they are under severe pressure as a result of cuts. Opening hours have been reduced. But the system remains intact, and no other library service in the country has the support of a major philanthropic trust that allows it to continue to invest in services, to experiment, to innovate. So in looking forward, we can build on the strengths we already have.

Our vision has four pillars. The first of these we call Civic Confidence. Sometimes we talk about Cultural Confidence. We believe that great cities build great libraries; Seattle, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Vancouver, Singapore.

These places recognise that libraries can make a vital contribution to the brand of a city. They do great things, but they have a symbolic power too. They represent how the city wants to be seen, they represent its soul, if you like. They become part of what makes people want to visit a city.

So one part of our vision calls for the creation of a new library, the Library of Hull, in an architecturally-inspiring building, in the heart of the city, maybe on the waterfront. Perhaps we could call it the Freedom Library of Hull. A Library grand in aspiration. Certainly a library of books, and of digital resources, but also a space for art and performance, a place for meetings and conferences, a place to encounter and use inspiring technology, a place of learning and education, a place to meet and socialise, a place where knowledge is formed, above all a place to be inspired. So a Library of Hull that meets genuine needs, but also speaks of the emerging brand of the city, a brand built around new technologies, creative industries, freedom, culture and education. Especially the last of these. This city needs a beacon for education, to add to its great university. The Freedom Library of Hull could be exactly that.

If you want an example of the transformative power of libraries, take the opportunity later to look around this building if you’ve not already done so. It has transformed the student experience of an academic library. It embraces technology. It has redefined the role of the library as a building, with its art gallery; this exhibition space; its social spaces. But beyond that it represents the brand of the university; quality, seriousness of academic purpose; students at the heart of what we do; respect for heritage; openness to the community. It stands as a powerful symbol of the University’s confidence in the future. That is what the Freedom Library of Hull could do for this city. A place with real functional value, founded on real needs, and, at the same time, an exemplar of everything we want to say about Hull. A place that tells the world about the greatness of Hull.

Here behind me you can see the new Library at Aarhus in Denmark, European City of Culture 2017. Opened last year. Perched dramatically on the waterfront. Here’s how they describe it: ‘a flexible and dynamic sanctuary for everyone in search of knowledge, inspiration, and personal development; an open and accessible learning environment supporting democracy and community; a space for contemplation and knowledge; an intelligent and interactive building, which supports the users’ desire to learn and experience.’

It’s a great example for us.

For the second pillar of our vision, we talk about citywide connectedness. Our Trust cannot envisage a library service that does not extend to every community in the city. We cannot follow the example of those cities that have concentrated everything on one central library and abandoned the periphery. Especially in Hull, where we understand the psychological distance that sometimes isolates communities and sets barriers between the centre of our city and its other parts. It would be unthinkable for our future vision not to strive for greater connectedness.

But we need to re-imagine the way in which library services are delivered locally. Yes, the traditional branch library has its place, and the Western Library is a brilliant example of how successful that can be. But we need to think beyond that. We already see new approaches at work in Hull. Library services are being delivered in open spaces at the Freedom Festival, or in the City Hall at the Children’s Book Awards, in Queens Gardens during National Play Day, at KC's IT Drop-In Centre, in job centres, in parks, in fact wherever there is an opportunity to connect with people.

We also need to think more about the alignment of services to the needs of particular communities, and about targeting services. Can we think of public library services less as all the same thing and more as a series of modules, combined in different mixes to meet the needs of specific communities, and accessible in whatever ways and in whatever spaces seem most appropriate in specific cases?

We certainly need to free ourselves from a conception of branch libraries purely as fixed buildings that lend books. And in particular we need to start thinking seriously about how to deliver library services digitally. And I don’t just mean a few e-books or a conventional web site. Let’s be ambitious. Let’s see how we could build a fast, accessible, free, public broadband network. Let’s see how we could construct stunningly original virtual spaces, both personalised and social, the civic buildings of the 21st century. And let’s be the first people to do that, right here in Hull.

Our third pillar carries the label Collaboration. Libraries should not operate alone. Our vision sees them as an integrating force acting alongside a whole range of organisations and services promoting culture, learning, knowledge and information.

The City of Culture constitutes a catalyst for cultural excellence. It gives public libraries a unique platform on which to build lasting connections, and not just for a year, with our museums, theatres, performance venues, schools and colleges, the university, to create a network of interconnected, impactful openings for learning and cultural enrichment.

Just this past week we had a fantastic example of that. In the City of Culture offices, with leadership from Henrietta Duckworth, one of City of Culture’s Executive Producers, whom I’m delighted to see here this morning, the University and the Library Service shared their ideas for a literature programme in 2017 spanning both reader development and writer development, and there was such synergy, such overlap that we can now contemplate joint funding bids, and a mutually enriched programme. Could this then lead to a closer connection between public libraries and the University when it comes to raising educational aspirations and leading people on a path to university? That kind of collaboration must be a legacy of City of Culture and a defining feature of our public libraries of the future.

Our fourth and final pillar is the Creative Economy. In our vision we see libraries positioned as an essential component of Hull’s expanding creative and digital industries – industries that will be so important to the city’s economic growth. By taking forward the vision that the Trust is setting out, especially considering those pillars of the vision that stress the importance of the digital and the centrality of collaboration, we can open up new opportunities for the development of our creative economy, create jobs, and build the reputation of the City.

How do we even begin to make a reality of this vision in an age of austerity? Well, let me say first of all that I don’t think we should be beaten down by the bleakness of today’s financial environment. I don’t believe in giving up and letting the city die, and clearly none of you do either, or you wouldn’t be here. City of Culture wouldn’t have happened. We wouldn’t have Siemens here. We wouldn’t have a new confidence abroad in the city if we believed there was nothing we could do in the face of government cuts.

I want us to be aspirational about what we want to do, and when we are clearer about that, we can start to figure out how we pay for things. What we have set out today is no more than a vision. I think it’s a compelling vision, but what we need to do now, I believe, is move from a vision to a more complex map, and from that to a blueprint of what the future might look like. Something with real substance and detail.

And I think we should be highly aspirational about how we do that. The more people we involve, from different backgrounds, with different interests, the more creative and innovative about the future we can be. And we should engage with people outside of Hull as well. Let’s talk to the progressive voices that do exist in this country when it comes to thinking about public libraries. Let’s think globally. Let’s talk to Microsoft and Google, both of them companies that have strong interests in libraries and content. Let’s talk to the people in Denmark. Let’s actually position Hull as a leading progressive voice in the national debate about the future of public libraries. That seems to me to be right in line with one of the ambitions of City of Culture, for Hull to be a leader in debating some of the major issues of the day. In that way, too, libraries can be part of the legacy of City of Culture.

Once we have an aspirational consensus and a blueprint of what our public library services could look like in the future, then we can start to think about how to build it. Some of the building blocks would be large and expensive. Others need not be. Some might involve private investment. Some might involve charities and foundations. The James Reckitt Trust will play its part. We can’t just look to the Council. We need to be as imaginative about funding as about the future of the service itself.

So the next steps are about debate and design, and the application of as much imagination from as many people as we can manage. This is the first of a series of meetings the Trust intends to hold with interested groups. You may just want to be kept informed. I hope you will want to contribute your own ideas as we start to organise a series of round table discussions to develop our blueprint. We need your help to achieve anything.

We can take great pride in the public library service we enjoy in Hull, and in its leadership too. And we are the only public library service in the country with a major philanthropic endowment to support it. On that solid foundation, we have a huge opportunity to do great things here in Hull, and to let the world know that this is a great city where libraries flourish.

Thank you very much.

Richard Heseltine