From Book Banks to Warm Banks

Check out how UK libraries are responding to the needs of their communities this winter season.

In every library, staff does their utmost to make users welcome and help them find the information they need. This is often against a backdrop of constrained resources, whether that applies to financial, staff, or operational pressures — we’re all having to work out ways to do more with less.

And whatever subject area your library specializes in, staff and volunteers will almost certainly have been asked to help with inquiries on a whole host of topics. This often involves signposting users to non-library agencies and sources of help wherever possible.

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The Cost of Living is Increasing

Over the decades, libraries have always tried to respond to the needs of their community — and this winter, that’s going to be more important than ever. The cost of living is increasing everywhere, and in the UK, heating and domestic fuel bills have doubled since January 2022, with no sign of falling. Several news outlets have run stories featuring “heat or eat”, with some citizens worrying about how they will afford to do both.

Although the summer of 2022 was unusually hot and dry in many parts of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, the British climate is generally known for being damp and a bit chilly at the best of times. (You can often blame that on the fact that we’re an island.) In addition, a lot of the housing stock is old and not well insulated, so if the cost of heating is an issue, things can get extremely uncomfortable, even dangerous to health, very quickly.

So What Does This Have To Do With Libraries?

Well, that’s where ‘warm banks’ or ‘warm spaces’ come in. This winter, libraries are amongst the places that will be opening their doors to offer a place of warmth and safety to their communities. The idea of a warm bank is that it’s a safe, secure, and, most crucially, warm place for people to go. Local councils, libraries and museums, and some National Health Service (NHS) organizations are in the vanguard of providing the service.

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Warm Banks

Different warm banks will have different facilities. The details are still being finalized, although all will offer warmth and safety. Some will provide hot drinks or may even offer food, along with a place to charge electronic devices. There’s likely to be assistance with and signposting to health or welfare-related matters; and, of course, welcoming, helpful staff.

It’s currently anticipated that warm banks will (hopefully) be a temporary measure. Still, there is some concern that they may, like food banks before them, become absorbed into the fabric of support for those without the means to support themselves.

The UK-based library and information managers’ professional membership organisation, CILIP, has recently been working with one of the UK’s leading cost-of-living experts to compile a guide to setting up warm banks. Martin Lewis has been something of a national hero to many. He runs a well-established website offering advice and crowd-sourced information on all kinds of aspects of everyday life, from old-style recipes to suggestions on how to reduce debt.

Although the advice offered on Mr. Lewis’ well-established money-saving website is targeted towards the English system, many of the tips are relevant to help stretch personal and family budgets no matter where you are in the world.

The guide has case studies, mathematical formulae to help work out the cost of providing a warm bank, ways to make users feel welcome and minimise any stigma, and even a risk assessment example.

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Concerns About How to Best Help Those in the Community

Both the English county I’ve just left behind (Somerset) and my new home region (Bolton in Greater Manchester, just under 200 miles to the north) will be involved in setting up warm banks in at least some of their libraries. Although Somerset is generally several degrees warmer than Greater Manchester, the climate is still generally very damp. There are many parts of the county where the residents are elderly and may be very worried about heating their homes. Others are now looking very seriously at what they can afford in terms of groceries and how to cook them.

The Greater Manchester area's demographic makeup is slightly different from Somerset's. There are higher levels of ethnic diversity and a slightly younger age profile overall, but what remains the same is concern about how to best help those in the community.

All of this is taking place against a backdrop of political uncertainty and systemic reorganization at a national and local level. In the NHS, there’s a move towards what is being described as integrated care systems, where different parts of the healthcare system will work with greater synergy. In Greater Manchester, “locality” is a term that’s regularly heard. The NHS library service I now work for is looking at how we can establish partnerships to replicate or adapt some of the health-related work carried out in Somerset.

One thing’s for sure — the next few months (if not years) are certainly going to be interesting for library services and users alike across the whole of the UK.