Just as nearly every UK town has a high street, so most have (or had) a library. As high streets have been challenged and their role has changed, the pressures of changing consumer behaviour, budget cuts, and technology have also been changing libraries.

In many of our major cities our libraries have increased their role, extended their opening hours and engaged with wider communities. In other locations, this is yet to happen, but one of the key themes of last week’s annual seminar of Libraries Connected (above), the UK association that represents librarians, was the importance of libraries to placemaking. They are centres of social interaction and networks and hence social places.

Case studies from around the UK, including participative initiatives with young people, businesses, and the wider community as well as current library users, illustrated the role of librarians and libraries in placemaking. The conference heard of innovative initiatives to widen the role of libraries in Australia, including using public health funding to support evening opening with food to provide an alternative and friendly destination and of the work to remake public libraries in Singapore so they better serve their communities. It is clear that as libraries change they will have a wider community impact and potential beneficial impact on the place they are located.

Institute Director, Simon Quin, spoke to the conference about the changing high street and its far more diversified role. The changes that are happening to libraries are a perfect fit with the future high street, but there is a danger that this is an opportunity that will not be maximised. Discussions with librarians present found that many had little or no engagement with place management initiatives and did not feel they understood what was happening in their location. Some had tried to make contact and been discouraged, whilst others were unaware of whether there was a local partnership or BID in their town, but at the same time had ambitious plans for their library.

We are aware that many of our members spend time trying to explain the opportunities that exist for their place and why investors, users, and the community as a whole should value it. You may not have thought a lot about the role of a library in that place, but listen to a recent TED Talk from Ciara Eastell in Exeter and it may provide the incentive to get in touch with your local library and see what can be done. In the meantime, the Institute will work with Libraries Connected and library placemaking initiatives to make the most of the opportunities on offer.