‘Libraries are Heterotopias’ – multiplicitous places of potential

You might have recently watched Ciara Eastell’s emotive TedEx talk on the power of libraries to transform and empower lives.

In her talk, the former CEO of Libraries Unlimited reveals an important finding from the Unlimited Value research.  We argue that libraries are ‘heterotopias’ – places of potential where there is opportunity for transformation.  They are places characterised by multiple meanings, which cater to diverse stakeholders with even more diverse needs. As one frontline member of staff put it:  ‘A library is a place where people can come to be themselves’.  A library is a place of possibility, which ‘opens up’ rather than closes down identities and social categories.

Ciara shows, in her talk, that libraries play a vital role in our social fabric.  They support people at the heart of communities and in the margins, work to maximise potential at individual and regional levels, and bring together people who might not otherwise encounter one another.  Libraries are ‘both/and’ places – they cater to children and the elderly, they can be a quiet refuge and a host of loud ‘bounce and rhyme’ activities.

The challenge from a ‘social value’ perspective, is with the difficulty of arriving at a single purpose definition associated with heterotopic places.  Which can make it difficult to calculate and create a coherent narrative around, the difference a library makes to its service users and surrounding community.  But whilst the ‘what’ of social value might vary depending on a library’s location, service users, and so on, perhaps we might arrive more precisely at the ‘how’ – the tools that library services can harness to develop a better understanding of a library’s unique contribution.

You can read more about heterotopias, and about our approach to social value in our project report here:  Unlimited Value Report.