Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

16 February 2022

Public libraries in the words of people who use, work in and run them

A unique new collection of oral histories has been accessioned, catalogued and archived by National Life Stories: Living Libraries: Public libraries in the words of people who use, work in and run them. Gathered during the last months of 2019 and the very early part of 2020 by Professor Shelley Trower and Dr Sarah Pyke at the University of Roehampton, this archive is the first to focus on the institution of the public library in the UK.

Drawn map of the UK with libraries highlighted and sketches of the library buildings in speech bubbles
Illustration by anne malewski |

The Living Libraries project collected oral histories from library workers at all levels, from security and janitorial staff to librarians to Heads of Service, as well as from library users and volunteers. We heard about the financial, material and ethical challenges that libraries and library workers have faced over the last decade, and how public libraries have continued to adapt and change to meet the diverse needs of their communities. In libraries across the country, you’ll find the very young and the very old; people searching for social connection, or for silence, or for dual-language picture books for their kids; people struggling with homelessness or money worries. Public libraries provide a warm, safe space that anyone can spend time in, for free.

In this clip, Jolyne Thomas discusses the importance of Storyhouse, in Chester, to the local community.

Jolyne Thomas on Storyhouse (C1868/21)

Download Jolyne Thomas transcript

We asked our interviewees about their first memories of libraries. What did they feel like? What did they smell like? We asked, too, what libraries are for, and what people’s hopes were for libraries of the future. The resulting 50 hours of audio ranges across childhood and young adult experiences with books and reading, career progression and non-traditional career paths, the ideal of the library as a shared, democratic space shaped by its users, and the changing role that libraries play in people’s lives as they age. These oral histories demonstrate the benefits of libraries to people’s health and wellbeing, their necessary provision of comfortable, open spaces and accurate information, and their vital contribution to a more sustainable, greener future.

Our primary intention in assembling this archive was to build up a picture of public libraries in the present day, tracing their evolution over the past 40 years, and the place they occupy in our social and emotional landscapes. Secondly, the archive is a valuable resource for other researchers. It suggests new and exciting directions for future work which might focus, for instance, on the impact of technology on libraries, the ways that civic architecture shapes behaviour and social interaction, or on cultures of work and the changing face of library careers. There is a wealth of material, too, on the impact of economic pressures, particularly over the last decade – a period in which many libraries have faced cuts or closures, or have transitioned to volunteer or ‘community-run’ models.

Victoria Henderson, from Peterborough, talks about how cuts to other public services have an impact on libraries:

Victoria Henderson on cuts to public services (C1868/07)

Download Victoria Henderson Transcript

We began interviewing for Living Libraries in late summer 2019, gathering nearly 50 interviews by the end of January 2020. To reflect on and listen back to these oral histories from the vantage point of 2022 is a dizzying experience. So much has changed. Just a few weeks after we completed our last interview, the Oral History Society recommended that all in-person interviewing be postponed.

Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, we are delighted that the Living Libraries archive is now accessible at the British Library. We would like once again to thank all those who participated in our interviews, from Falmouth Library in Cornwall, Colliers Wood Library in the London Borough of Merton, Newcastle City Library, Peterborough Central Library, and Storyhouse, in Chester, and those we spoke to from Libraries Connected, Arts Council England, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Libraries and CILIP, the national association for library and information professionals. Our hope is that the Living Libraries archive will prove a rich resource for future investigation. We would be delighted to hear from anyone who makes use of the archive, and to answer any questions about it, or the project more broadly.

To find interviews in the collection, search the Sound and Moving Image catalogue for the collection reference number C1868.

Blog by Dr Sarah Pyke, formerly Impact and Engagement Officer for the AHRC-funded Living Libraries project, University of Roehampton, which ran from 2019 to 2020. To find out more about the project, please visit