How can the cultural sector support refugees and other new arrivals?

The Society of Chief Librarians and ASCEL (the Association of Senior Children's and Education Librarians) produced a statement in 2015 setting out the role that public libraries play in welcoming refugees, and CILIP then published a blogpost (by John Vincent) outlining the work that libraries do.

In a "Social Impact" post in 2019 on the MuseumNext website, Charlotte Coates looks at ways in which museums fit into the narrative around the refugee and migrant crisis (in the US and UK), "Museums working with refugees and migrants"

Here are some practical examples of work that libraries, museums, archives, and the cultural & heritage sector in the UK have undertaken:

Re-thinking how we work

  • Re-create our spaces as welcoming, inclusive places
  • Develop consultation and outreach
  • Review procedures to ensure that they are welcoming and do not place barriers in the way of refugees engaging with our services (eg joining procedures, bookings, access)
  • Build sustainable work (as opposed to short-term projects)

Providing information

  • Through our collections, displays and activities, we can provide information both to the wider community about the realities of refugees' lives, and to support refugees themselves, celebrating their achievements, as well as helping with understanding of why they have become refugees. As part of this, we can buy and promote specific resources, such as the Letterbox Library "Refugees & Migration" packs (NB access to this website is charged-for). There is a list of books about refugees for young people, compiled by Matt Imrie (updated 2017), on the Teen Librarian website.
  • We can also provide information for refugees, for example signposting to local services, helping understand 'how things work' in the UK; in Coventry, for example, which has welcomed refugees from Syria, library staff talk to new arrivals about what the Library Service can offer. As part of the induction for refugees, they are inducted into the library and shown not only their local library but also Central Library (which has the broadest range of resources). Library staff can assist them in getting used to the City and in finding information for themselves about local services and activities. This is reinforced by holding as many activities for the refugees in libraries as possible, eg a regular social session every Friday afternoon in Central Library, and these are used to link to the resources in libraries.
  • "Bolton Libraries liaise with ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) providers who teach in the library meeting rooms, and the library provides lists of other ESOL providers & classes in Bolton. Bolton Libraries is supplying ACIS (formerly Starting Point) with dual language Bookstart books and meeting with the local Refugee Action in order to discuss tours of library for groups of their clients." (Taken from the SCL/ASCEL Statement)
  • "Oldham Libraries have been providing English classes in some capacity for seven years in conjunction with English My Way. My lesson plans are loosely based on the Learn my Way modules but have been expanded upon or consist of entirely new subjects after speaking with learners and asking what they would like to study, such as Life in the UK, Transport, Media, Job applications and interviews. As part of our Libraries of Sanctuary project, Oldham Library have begun offering an Arabic translation service operated by members of the community. We have three libraries in the Oldham borough offering classes (Chadderton, Northmoor, Oldham). We aim to have nine libraries across the Greater Manchester authority providing free classes by the end of the year and to promote learning and cooperation across the different branches. We are currently building a website where librarians from different boroughs will be able to share lesson plans and learning resources." (July 2019)
  • Suffolk's "Chat and Chill" sessions are "aimed at women who are newly arrived to Britain and whose English is very limited. It's not an ESOL course; it's a group to help women acclimatise to British culture and it equips them with everyday skills such as making doctors appointments, how to chat with your child's teacher, etc. There's a whole range of soft and hard skills gently taught through a really informal programme with brilliant resources on hand to support this. Also, it's about helping these ladies make friends as it's an isolating and lonely thing to come to a new country."
  • On 1 March 2017, Thimblemill Library in Sandwell was named as the United Kingdom’s first ever ‘Library of Sanctuary’ by the City of Sanctuary movement (there is a case study available on the City of Sanctuary website). This was followed in 2020 by Brighton & Hove LibrariesSouthampton Library Services, and Kittiwake Trust Multi-Lingual Trust.  

Providing materials in community languages

Events and activities

  • Organising events for Refugee Week
  • Prior to COVID-19, Nottingham Libraries ran Conversation Groups (for anyone who wants to improve their confidence in speaking English. They are aimed at people who speak English as a second language and help you build confidence by discussion, debate, exchanging ideas and through activities and tasks) and The Language Café (an informal language exchange and fun way to learn new languages or practice your teaching skills)
  • Wigan Libraries run the Welcome Group which "is a support, development and social group for young people for whom English is an additional language, in partnership with The Deanery High School. It came about as a result of a class visit to the library by some of the EAL students and their support teacher, as the young people felt comfortable in the space and could see the range of resources available to them. The group helps young people to develop their English conversation skills by engaging them through sharing books and social activities such as board games, creative writing, digital sessions, arts, crafts and even their own Film Club." Better World Books LEAP Grant, 2015
  • "Suffolk Libraries has a Chat and Chill group which meets weekly in Ipswich County Library, for women to meet and make new friends. Over 17 languages are spoken and staff help the women who come to learn English and acquire basic skills, using the medium of crafts and conversation. They have made bunting for special occasions, shared recipes and patterns. About 25 women come every time and it’s helped them build relationships and confidence." (Taken from the SCL/ASCEL Statement)
  • The Reader runs in settings including libraries around the UK – including Liverpool and Merseyside, Cheshire, North Wales, East Midlands, South West England and London. There is more information, including two case-studies, available to download.

  Promoting resources

Working in partnership

  • The role of the Millennium Library in Norwich was recognised in the Chief Social Worker for Adults Annual Report 2017-18 in which it states [see pp37-38]: "In October 2016, Norwich’s iconic Millennium Library became home to a new social work service for migrants and refugees in the form of the People from Abroad Team. The five-strong team delivers community-based social work in the heart of the city centre to people who face additional barriers to accessing traditional services because of their immigration status."

Social impact

  • We can offer spaces for dialogue and reflection, and can support work towards community cohesion
  • Working with refugees can form part of some museums' wider work exploring how they can have a greater role in bringing about change in society (in line with Museums Change Lives)
  • Oxford’s museums have been doing outreach for seven years with the city’s community of Arabic-speaking refugees. Inspired by Multaqa (the Berlin scheme where refugees are recruited and trained as museum guides to provide native-language tours for fellow refugees), the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Museum of the History of Science decided to run a similar project jointly, taking on the name with the Berlin team’s blessing.
  • "Swansea Libraries are using their spaces as donations centres, for the public to bring in much needed supplies for refugees, including tents, sleeping bags, clothing, shoes, soap and blankets." (Taken from the SCL/ASCEL Statement)

Marketing and promotion

Using historical information to reflect on today

  • Lancashire Libraries and Museums ran a series of library talks about prisoners, 'aliens' and Belgian refugees during World War One

Exploring heritage

  • Surrey Heritage’s work with the refugee communityincludes a variety of online stories reflecting refugee history in Surrey.
  • Coed Cadw, the Woodland Trust in Wales, welcomed a group of refugees on a visit to Cefn Ila - "The Woodland Trust has a part to play in showing those traumatised by war/economic failure/civil disturbance (and their subsequent journeys, fraught with hardship, danger and death) that they can connect with woods and trees and find peace amongst them. Then they can put down roots …"

Examples of work from outside the UK

  • In March 2018, WebJunction published an article on "Immigrant asset mapping at Halifax Public Libraries".
  • Toronto Public Library runs programmes in partnership with settlement agencies, offering advice and support to new arrivals. They have also produced a 'Welcome' flyer for Syrian refugees, in both English and Arabic
  • In 2015, EBLIDA (the European Bureau of Library, Information and Documentation Associations) issued a press release welcoming refugees, and the October 2015 issue of the EBLIDA Newsletter includes a round-up of work being undertaken in libraries in Europe
  • Also in 2015, the German Library Association issued a statement welcoming refugees to Germany
  • Also in Germany, the "Bibliotheksportal", (the Library Portal) - which is a cooperative information service offered by the Network of Excellence for Libraries - has produced a list of activities that German libraries are undertaking to support new arrivals. An article in The Guardian (Feb 2017), "Cologne library opens its doors to refugees: 'You fill this room with life'", describes the role of the public library as a social and educational space for the city’s refugees; also featured by Cities of Migration in June 2017. In July 2018, PRI published an article about a new development in Berlin: "At first glance, Baynatna - 'between us' in Arabic - looks like just a few hundred books, artfully arranged in a sunny room on the ground floor of Berlin’s public library. It’s much more than that. The small collection is the first Arabic-language public library in Berlin and, according to its founders, the first-of-its-kind Arabic-language literary and cultural center in the German capital, which is now home to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees."
  • In mid-2017, the Princh website published an article, "Public libraries and refugees: a German library perspective", which looks at some of the changes that have been made by German libraries in order to attract and provide services for refugees.
  • IFLA (the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions) has drawn together examples of work being done by libraries across Europe, Responding! Public libraries and refugees, and are also calling for more examples of activities
  • The US Library Journal published an article, "Public Libraries Support Refugees", on 29 Dec 2015, which summarised recent developments in the US and Canada
  • "Last October [2015], 19 refugees in Berlin were recruited and trained as museum guides to provide native-language tours for fellow refugees, with the aim of helping newly arrived people foster connections between Germany’s cultural heritage and their own. The project is called Multaqa, an Arabic word meaning 'meeting point'.” Taken from The Guardian, "Berlin museums' refugee guides scheme fosters meeting of minds"; also featured by Cities of Migration in June 2017
  • “Public LibrariesCollaborating with USCIS to Help Immigrants”, article which describes the links between some US public libraries and the US Citizenship and Immigration Service to support new arrivals.
  • On 31 March 2016, the IFLA Continuing Professional Development and Workplace Learning and the New Professionals SIG partnered with the American Library Association to present a one-hour webinar - recordings and links are available via notes of the session.
  • School Library Journal for 31 Oct 2016 included an article outlining some work being developed in US public libraries, "A path forward: how libraries support refugee children"
  • The Society of American Archivists has issued a statement (31 Jan 2017) which "strongly opposes the discriminatory executive order, issued by the Trump Administration on Friday, January 27, 2017, that restricts entry into the United States by individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen)."
  • "Libraries Serve Refugees" - subtitled "Resources by librarians - for everyone", this new website "is an effort to bring together resources and assets to help libraries serve refugees. This is a growing and developing resource and is an active space for developing services, programming, and resources. All input is welcome. We are particularly looking to build a body of experts in this area and connect them to libraries that are developing services to refugee populations."
  • "Migrate to Library!" New project that "seeks to highlight that libraries are institutions that raise confidence amongst the citizens. That they can be seen as active centres of culture and education for all, no matter what age, religion, nationality, disability or social condition."
  • "How can libraries support children and immigrant families? By doing what we do best", an article rounding-up some examples of US good practice, including developing outreach provision. 

Examples from other sectors

Responses to the SCL/ASCEL Statement and to the CILIP blogpost

  • "CILIP urges libraries to welcome refugees", The Bookseller, 1 Oct 2015
  • The October 2015 issue of the EBLIDA Newsletter includes a link to both, as well as to this posting. Some highlights of the EBLIDA info have also been published by Naple Sister Libraries on their website.
  • Public Libraries Online has published an article, "Refugees supported by public libraries in Europe", which picks up both the EBLIDA article and this post. Talking about her own reception in Skokie, the author - Julia Pyatetsky - concludes with: "We should be proud that our profession as a whole chooses to be so inclusive and open-minded, and we need to continue to find new ways to expand our patrons’ bubbles (as well as our own), and continue to look at new ways to stay inclusive and supportive of diversity."