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Libraries of Sanctuary Resource Pack: a Review

We thank Ralph Braunholtz for this review.  

This Resource Pack is a brilliant addition to City of Sanctuary’s impressive armoury of guides for those seeking to make their services more relevant to the needs of people seeking sanctuary in the UK. Although primarily aimed at serving the needs of those categorised as refugees and asylum seekers, the content of this Pack will be a useful aid for librarians looking to provide support for migrants and new arrivals of all kinds. The author of the Pack is a professional librarian with long experience of innovative practice and a deep knowledge of the practical issues facing libraries in these rapidly changing times. His understanding of the challenges facing sanctuary seekers is reflected in detailed recommendations, and the Pack draws on a wealth of examples of successful provision.

Fundamental to recognition as a Library of Sanctuary is commitment to  a process common to all City of Sanctuary’s ‘streams’, based on the three key stages of Learning, Embedding good practice, and Sharing what has been learned and achieved. This is a long term strategy, and has to be responsive to local situations and changing needs. In this sense it will never be complete. But on the evidence presented in this Pack much excellent practice is already well established in all parts of the UK, including localities as diverse as Norfolk, Argyll and Bute, Brighton and Hove, Greater Manchester, mid-Wales and the West Midlands.

As one who was involved in the recognition of Thimblemill Library, Sandwell, as the first Library of Sanctuary in 2017, I am impressed by the number and variety of innovative projects being undertaken by so many libraries in so many different parts of the country. The diversity of these locations must be an important corrective to any suggestion that this is only a matter of interest to libraries in major conurbations. So wide has been the diaspora of refugees and migrants in the past twenty-five years that there are few parts of the country where new arrivals are unknown. Of course, no two localities are identical in their demographic or cultural make-up, and a prerequisite for relevant provision must be a thorough understanding of the diversity of local communities.

But, as was immediately evident at Thimblemill, the first key element for success has to be the commitment and enthusiasm of librarians to serving and celebrating all sections of those communities. Recognising the presence and needs of sanctuary seekers is an essential part of this commitment, and may require some formal training. The contribution of sanctuary seekers themselves at this stage can be valuable, and this Pack rightly stresses the importance of engaging sanctuary seekers in developing and evaluating the support offered by libraries of sanctuary.

But perhaps the most significant and encouraging feature of all the examples cited is the active collaboration and partnership of libraries with other community-based bodies and voluntary groups. These include Action for Refugees (as at Thimblemill), ESOL providers, adult education services and recreational groups. In the post-corona-virus age we may anticipate that the importance of cooperative community activities will be more widely recognised, and libraries will be well placed to make a valuable contribution to this trend.

This Pack includes an outline of the minimum criteria for the award of ‘Library of Sanctuary’ status, and a wealth of practical advice for meeting these requirements. One key factor has to be support from funding authorities. Library services have suffered severely from recent austerity policies, and we must hope that future governments and local authorities will recognise the potential contribution of libraries to community cohesion and public welfare.

It is notable that many of the projects cited in thIs Pack are based on authority-wide and even cross-authority support. This development has to be encouraged by City of Sanctuary and by the Librarians’ associations. The Pack certainly provides a solid foundation for strategic planning, staff training and the development of exciting initiatives for any local authority looking to support the work of its libraries and enhance their recognition as Libraries of Sanctuary.

Ralph Braunholtz June 2020