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Monday 09 December 2019
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Inclusive Libraries

The research for the Inclusive Libraries project was conducted by the University of Birmingham School of Education. BILD was involved in the promotion of the end of project recommendations and learning.

This information is taken from a report writtten by Penny Lacey and Penny Smith and first appeared in PMLD LINK magazine.

You can download the full report.



From previous research at the University of Birmingham, we know that there are ways in which children and young people with severe and profound learning disabilities can be involved in the world of books and literature.  We called this ‘inclusive literacy’ and it consists of a range of resources and activities from sensory stories and interactive games through to picture books and books with simple accessible texts (Lacey et al, 2007). 

inclusive libraries 1

Following this research, we felt that whilst children with LD can have their inclusive literacy needs met at home and at school, it was not clear how this could be achieved for adults with LD. It seemed as if public libraries could have an important role for that group.

We wanted to study good practice in inclusive literacy within public libraries but when we looked at the literature we were not convinced that we could find very much good practice to study. Libraries seemed to be slow to respond to the Disability Discrimination Act (Ineson and Morris, 2006) and even relatively well-known resources for those who cannot manage print are not universally available (AFB, 2005). Attitudes of staff to disabled library users are crucial and disability awareness training is essential but not always available (McAuley, 2005; Charles, 2005).

Because of the lack of widespread good practice to study, we felt that this was an opportune moment to contribute some of our own. We wanted to spread the ideas we had gleaned from studying inclusive literacy in schools to a more public environment and thus asked, and subsequently answered the question: ‘How can we develop the use of inclusive literacy in public libraries so they can meet the needs of children and adults with severe and profound learning disabilities?’

We used action research as an approach to the research. Action research enables you to identify a problem, imagine a solution, devise a plan of action and evaluate how well the plan worked, over and over again in cycles. It is a research approach that is specifically about making a series of changes and evaluating how well they have worked. We worked in a cyclical way with the two libraries in Birmingham for just over a year.

Firstly, we used a survey which enabled us to learn more about current strategies in public libraries. We telephoned representatives from 32 local authorities to ask them how they meet the needs of people with learning disabilities. We were also looking for examples of good practice which we then followed up with more telephone conversations and for some, a visit. We visited four libraries around the country: Bexley, Bradford, Leeds and Burnley and were able to share their innovative practice with the staff in the Birmingham libraries.

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As part of the action research, Our Way self advocacy group from Kidderminster were employed to carry out an evaluation of the libraries.  They visited twice: once before the changes had been effected and once after.  They wrote two accessible reports with support from a facilitator.

Staff at the Birmingham libraries were at the centre of all the research and nothing would have been achieved without their enthusiasm.  The researchers provided support, information and encouragement.  It took a while to find a leader for the project from the libraries but once one was identified activities followed each other quickly. 

From the data we collected in all the libraries we are able now to present the factors we feel can lead to an inclusive library.

Developing a strategy

Few local authorities have a strategy for specifically developing a response to the needs of children and adults with learning disabilities, although all had a general strategy relating to disability in general.  This usually referred to physical access such as lifts and ramps and access for those not able to use print such as those who have a visual difficulty or a specific literacy difficulty such as dyslexia.

A strategy that includes people with learning disabilities should also include ways of engaging with people for whom the library environment and most conventional books are cognitively inaccessible.  The few libraries that were specifically meeting the needs of people with LD had individuals who were leading the changes that needed to be made.  From our experience in the Birmingham libraries, very little happened until a leader was identified.  If no-one is responsible for developing the strategy and making the necessary changes, they are unlikely to occur.

Funding is also an issue and unless funding is set aside for this group their needs will be subsumed into other disability considerations. 


As part of the project Open Storytellers were engaged to provide training for the library staff.  The training included general learning disability training but also training in how to engage with storytelling at a level suitable for people with severe and profound learning disabilities.

As with many members of the general public, staff at public libraries should learn to understand the needs of children and adults with LD, especially those who do not communicate using words or who may have unconventional behaviour.  They require advice on how to approach people who come into the library and how to find out what their needs might be.  Staff from the Business Library in Birmingham went to a local day service for people with LD and got to know a group of people who then visited the library.  The visit to the library is described below in the section on ‘Activities’.



As can be seen from the previous section, building relationships between public libraries and people with LD is essential.  All of the successful libraries in the project had regular visits from particular groups or individuals with LD and this had led to increased commitment on both sides.  Once carers and supporters can see the benefits of visiting the library, the relationships can develop.


Changing the environment

So once a leader has been identified and funding set aside, what can libraries do to meet the needs of people with LD, particularly for children and adults with severe and profound learning disabilities?  One of the most important considerations is the environment. 

Our Way self advocates had the job of considering the environment in terms of their less able peers.  They were very complimentary about the Centre for the Child in the central library, approving of the bright colours and interactive displays.  They liked the amount of physical space to move around and the height of the books; accessible to people in wheelchairs.  They approved of the changes made in the adult lending library where new display shelves enabled books to be set up with their front covers visible.  It is much easier to see if the book is right for you if you can see the pictures on the front. 

The staff had chosen accessible books to place on this shelving and had labeled it ‘Easy Reads’.  They are considering whether to have a spine sticker for the ordinary shelves that denotes an accessible book.  Stickers on spines with symbols for different genres can be seen at most libraries and an accessible sticker would fit in with this system.

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Although there are some accessible symbols already used in public libraries, Our Way felt that there could be more and they should be clearly visible, especially when negotiating a large central library.  Staff at Birmingham Central Library plan to increase the symbols and pictures to help users find their way around.  They are also planning to produce a pictorial guide to the library which will be available at the front desk.  Quinton library only contains one room and so much easier to negotiate once the different areas have been located.

The favourite area of the library for the Our Way self advocates was the music library.  They found that very accessible with CDs and DVDs easy to find.  They liked the ‘listening post’ where they could try CDs and appreciated the few that were selected on a particular theme.  They thought their less able peers would find it easier to choose music from a small set of suggestions.  They spent a long time in this department!


Purchasing resources

£5000 was available to each library for the purchase of new resources and this money was spent on the display shelving, accessible books and a touch screen computer with accessible software.  Both libraries already had some accessible books but most were related to dyslexia or adult literacy and thus were cognitively too demanding for people with severe learning difficulties.  The Central Library had some Bag Books but these were not available for lending to families.  From their purchases they are now able to lend some out. 

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The computer was very popular with Our Way and they spent some time playing simple games specifically designed for people with LD.  They thought the touch screen would be very useful for their less able peers.  The computer is still rather limited in software, especially for people with PMLD but they can access simple cause and effect games from the internet.  This is an aspect that requires more training. 

Although the libraries did not need to buy more CDs and DVDs as they already had a large collection, these resources are very important.  Small community libraries do not always have CDs and DVDs but if they are to be able to meet the needs of people with LD then they need to have at least a small selection.  The collection could be shared between a group of community libraries and rotated.


Developing activities

The survey libraries gave several examples of activities that they have undertaken with individuals and groups of people with LD.  In one library a group of able people with LD run a café for library users and in another they provide a welcome and directions for users.  One group uses the Wii in the library to play games and another had sensory story sessions.

In Birmingham central library there were two specific activities set up as part of the project.  The first was a sensory story in the music library.  The staff chose the Tempest as the stimulus and they devised a range of sensory experiences for a group of people with LD, especially music.  The group contained people with PMLD and they seemed really to enjoy the session.  The librarians were very pleased with the result and were intending to put together a Tempest pack for other staff to use.

The other activity was carried out by the Business Library and was related to shopping.  The group consisted of people with severe learning disabilities and they were involved in quizzes and games about buying a birthday present.  Both the staff and the library users with LD enjoyed the session. 



We feel we can say that everyone involved in the Inclusive Libraries project really enjoyed the experience.  Library staff built up understanding of the needs of people with LD, engaged with children and adults with severe and profound learning disabilities and felt that their efforts were successful and worthwhile. 

There were difficulties in the project, particularly with the lack of a leader at the beginning and with changes in staff at Quinton.  There were also delays with ordering resources and with getting the computer set up.  All the changes took longer to achieve than was anticipated and we all know that this is only the beginning of a whole new strategy for including people with LD.

Perhaps readers can help to spread the ideas and encourage changes in public libraries?  You could go to your library and talk about sensory stories  and a touchscreen computer with interactive stories and cause and effect games.  They probably do not know such things exist.  Try to enthuse one person.  That’s how things got started in one of the survey libraries. 

Hopefully the changes experienced by pubic libraries at the moment will be encouraging librarians to look for new ways in which they can engage their users.  This could be the project they have been looking for!


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