Libraries as ‘Street Corner Universities’

09 Apr 2014 |Written by Holly Bagnall-Bell

Last week, I set off to visit Leeds Central Library. Prior to the visit, Jason had sent me over a packed itinerary for the day, and I was really excited to get going.

When I arrived I was swept up into the Information-Mobile. While Jason walked a learner through a lesson on computer folders, I had a chat to one of the volunteers from the Get IT Together project that works closely with the libraries. I especially enjoyed chatting to Chris who was very recently a job seeker at LS14 Trust, but is now volunteering to help others get back into employment.

Then Jason and I popped up to the main Library cafe for a chat about the work that Leeds Libraries do for the community. One of the library’s main projects is a digital inclusion programme funded by the Skills Funding Agency. It’s a very impressive project, and the prospectus Jason showed me is full of structured, engaging courses, underpinned by the highest quality teaching and focussing on practical outcomes for learners. They have 36 libraries across the Leeds area who all work to a communal goal; to expand digital inclusion, particularly in the deprived areas, and to help set the foundations for online-savvy communities.

As well as offering courses for those just starting out online, the library also offers sessions to those who have a little more experience or have specific skills they wish to progress. Jason showed me The Learning Suite, which started life thanks to UK online centres funding. It is a small but impressive IT suite that has many uses, ranging from IT sessions to PC clubs. Jason also took me to the top of the library where The Portal is hosted; a space used for a number of themed sessions including job searching, enterprise and inventors groups, how-to business start up and even a patents clinic for those who are looking to protect their work! I spoke to Ben, who was running one of the sessions, and he showed me how library attendees are sent away with Learn My Way guides to aid future learning.

In the afternoon, I headed up to Studio 12, which is an industry standard studio where people aged 16-30 can go to work on projects in all kinds of different media. I spoke with Jamie who was keen to show me some of the work that younger members had been working on, including a piece created with industry mentors due to be broadcast in Leeds over the coming weeks. I also spoke with some of the attendees; Aubin was working on a music video, Omair was putting some extra touches to his Yorkshire FC promo video and Odin was adding some extra flair to his piano piece using the recording software. Not only is Studio 12 a free alternative to other courses, it was clear that people here felt supported and respected, and were able to use their initiative to improve and build on their digital skills.

Before I left, I took some time to speak to Bev, who is the Head of Library and Information Service. We had a chat about the service the library provides and what is important to the staff; many people consider libraries like this one to be almost like ‘Street Corner Universities’. The library provides a path into digital learning, but also a framework and learning network for people to improve their digital skills and continue their IT journey.

I left the library with a great sense of the hard work and dedication the staff have inputted, and the significant way in which so many people across various Leeds communities have been helped. I thoroughly enjoyed my trip, and I might even pop back for a video editing session in Studio 12 soon!