Libraries After Dark: a public health pilot

Jane Cowell
Jun 29 · 6 min read

Libraries After Dark is the brain child of Darebin Council Councillor Susan Rennie and Moreland Council Social Policy Officer Judy Spokes. Funded by the State Government’s Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation this pilot project set out to determine a simple proposition. If Libraries offered a regular late night opening with activities and learning opportunities and a social get together this may divert people at risk of a loss spiral at the local pokies. In essence it was designed to encourage people to move from the local gambling lounge to their community lounge — their local library.

Four Councils, each with a public library, a high loss gambling venue and relative socio-economic disadvantages, and few accessible evening recreation options, came together to deliver the Libraries After Dark program. These were the City of Darabin (Preston Library), City of Hume (Broadmeadows Library), Moreland City Council (Glenroy Library) and the City of Whittlesea, Mill Park Library. These libraries focused on creating late night programs that were meaningful for their individual communities — that connected people to people and also to their local place, to instill a sense of belonging.

So what did they do. All four libraries opened one night a week till 10 pm. As social isolation was recognised as a major risk factor for the risk of falling into gambling addiction this was the principle driver the program tried to address. Gambling venues are appealing, warm and welcoming, open to singles without them feeling out of place or unsafe and of course they are also open late. Libraries After Dark created a welcoming, safe alternative welcoming space. As this was a pilot project we did have success measures to attempt to provide evidence that this type of social intervention could work to address the needs of those at most risk of gambling harm.

Each library offered a variety of options. The key success factors were that there was something to do, something to eat and drink, it was warm, and there was no pressure on those who were in the library to join in if they chose just to be there.

  1. Increase Awareness of the Local Library as an alternative social option to gambling venues

A total of 33,404 people attended the program across the four libraries — well over the expected audience. Evidence that the targeted audience as reached is provided in the feedback forms and that gambling awareness / support services pamphlets were taken. Some of the activities were designed with and in partnership with local gambling harm support services which increased awareness of the help available locally.

2. Increase Participation of the target group in library activities

Using comparative door count statistics between normal evening hours from 6pm — 8pm and activity audience statistics throughout the pilot project we were able to show an increase in visitation. Clearly those facing significant socio-economic difficulties, such as the homeless and addicted gamblers attended. This evidence is both anecdotal and from recorded observations from the staff who were delivering the late night program.

Due to the nature of the program we were not able to prove how many people from the pilot’s secondary prevention target — those at risk of gambling harm — were reached. There was an attempt to use a themed postcard to gather written feedback on the program with an added benefit of a Food voucher prize but ultimately the library staff could not maintain this manual marketing feature as it was difficult to distribute into the key areas and to collect.

3. Increased understanding of library staff about gambling harm and the potential for library staff to support the target group.

This was definitely achieved. Evidence also shows that library staff now have an in depth understanding of the services that exist to support community members. This is now part of staff knowledge that builds on their ability to support their community and to refer those in need to the correct services. It also showed library staff of a key issue in their local community that they were unaware of.

4. Increase linkages in the region of services working towards harm prevention, libraries, and social policy and public health functions within Councils

The establishment of a reference group for the project to continually evaluate the project as it was developed and being implemented was a core part of the methodology and allowed the libraries to continually adjust, improve, collaborate and share successes and failures. This group included library service managers, library staff involved in the actual delivery of the project, Council Officers, and representatives from the funding body, Responsible Gambling Foundation. This provided formal space for continuing evaluation and reflection as the pilot progressed.

These relationships were strengthened throughout the project and our connections within the region to the applicable service organisations were also legitimised and strengthened as they could see the impact of the work the library was doing which they had not been aware of prior to the pilot.

Key Learnings from the project

Food and Drink was very important to the program to reach a different library audience and also to compete with the Pokie venues. Cups of tea and coffee available and snacks were available for library visitors to make themselves and it proved to enhance the social aspect of the library programs.

Consistent High Profile Branding was essential. This was used by all four library services. The message was very simple: Libraries After Dark: we are open till 10 pm every Thursday. Posters, social media posts and all marketing carried this consistent branding with the images and colors really gaining traction in the community as the pilot matured throughout the 12 months of delivery.

Widening the Partnership base beyond the public library sector also provided a valuable approach when delivering a public health intervention program. It was important to realise that the Library did not have to do this alone and by collaborating with other providers we were able to amplify all partners impact throughout the program. There was a demonstrated benefit for all partners. This approach has the potential to expand to other public health issues and other social determinants of health issues affecting disadvantaged people and their communities. Libraries After Dark demonstrated that partnering with a library has a positive impact on a public health issue within the community.

Public Libraries can move from evidence based practice to a more proactive practice based evidence approach. Piloting projects to build evidence of library impact in areas of public health, literacy, digital inclusion, and critical thinking within communities. It does mean libraries being more comfortable to constantly iterate or prototype ideas /projects that address a critical issue within their communities. This approach means adopting a learning / doing model of constant research. We plan a project (and not plan it to a perfect level but plan it to learn) then action it while we observe, evaluate as we go. Then we review how we have gone in the middle of the project, not at the end. Then adjust as needed and finish the project building the evidence of impact.

In this type of approach we can really invite our communities, and our partners, to help plan the project and find co-created solutions. This is a very community empowering model. It does take a lot of different thinking for library staff though as our current go to model is to ‘Do To’ of ‘Do For’ the community because we know best. Imagine moving to a more empowering approach where we work with the community to design local solutions.

Jane Cowell

Written by

Librarian, interested in libraries, digital disruption, startups, Australian politics