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 (25 Sept 2015) setting out the role that public libraries play in welcoming refugees, and CILIP published a blogpost (by John Vincent) outlining the work that libraries do.

The Museums Association has, in Museums Practice, drawn together case-studies and other guidance - as at 5 Oct 2015, these are available to MA members only. In a Museums Practice post on 18 May 2016, Nicola Sullivan summarised some recent work by museums, with links to their sites. In a "Social Impact" post 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. There is a list of books about refugees for young people, compiled by Matt Imrie, 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.
  • "Newcastle Libraries were invited by the SMART Project to attend the Brunswick Methodist Church Drop-in for EU Migrants, Refugees and Asylum Seeking families to promote library facilities to service users. We provided information about what is available to families and children, activities available during the school holidays and term times, and information about our online 24 Hour Library plus reading schemes."
  • "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."
  • “Thimblemill Library in Smethwick has been recognised by the Birmingham City of Sanctuary movement for the work it does in welcoming refugees and migrants into the local community. The library acts as a focal point for refugee support work in the local community including playing host to Bearwood Action for Refugees, a local voluntary group which raises money for refugees in Europe and supports people seeking sanctuary in the local area. Thimblemill Library is also involved in a range of other local initiatives including: hosting fundraising events which raised more than £4,000 to support refugees; running training courses in befriending refugees and about asylum issues; bringing the local community together in solidarity with refugees in a symbolic 'Procession of Light' last autumn; holding a series of monthly community lunches to welcome people seeking sanctuary in the local area. Other services organised by the library include English as a Second Language (ESOL) classes, health walks and community tea-and-toast sessions.” (Taken from a Sandwell Council press release, March 2017)

Providing materials in community languages

  • Glasgow ran a successful project in 2017, funded by the Public Libraries Improvement Fund, which engaged with community-language-speakers in the city: "Essentially, we wanted to make sure we have the right materials in the right place at the right time. Importantly we needed to consult directly with library users and non-users who did not have English as a first language."

Events and activities

  • Organising events for Refugee Week
  • Nottingham Libraries run 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." Winner of a 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
  • "This is our home now" - Bedford Borough Libraries are hosting artist, Josepa Munoz, who "presents her new work, giving voice to displaced people throughout the world. She interweaves true events about the refugee struggle with a mountaineer’s story in diary form from The Pyrenees in modern times, and remembering 1940 interrupted with other tales of exile and displacement."
  • "Qisetna: Talking Syria" won the Community Archives and Heritage Group's annual Award for Excellence in 2017.

  Promoting resources

  • Promotion at targeted local events
  • The National Archives has developed a web resource on "How to look for records of Refugees"
  • The University of East London Library and Learning Services hosts a number of refugee archives (including the archives of the Refugee Council) and also produces a blog, "Refugee Archives @ UEL", with recent developments and news
  • Hampshire Libraries have, via their Bookstart programme, produced a list of children's books "about refugees [that] might help children new to this country to settle in. They may also help children meeting refugees for the first time to understand the difficulties new arrivals may face."

Working in partnership

  • The role of the Millennium Library in Norwich has just been 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
  • North Lanarkshire Archives and Glasgow City Archive are involved in a project with the Scottish Refugee Council called “Lest we forget”. "Lest We Forget" brings together both new and established Scots to discover and document the heritage of the arrival, reception and experiences of Belgian refugees in Scotland during the First World War from 1914-1918. As part of this, Glasgow Libraries has a register of Belgian Refugees arriving in the city 1914-1920. There is more info about the project on the Scottish Refugee Council website: "The Lest We Forget group includes people from Eritrea, North and South Sudan, Iran, Syria and Scotland. Together they are examining the many similarities between the resettlement of Belgian refugees during the First World War and the experiences of refugees and host communities in Scotland today." In addition, as outcomes from the project, there is now a documentary available, Lest We Forget: First World War - Refugees Then & Now which is available to screen at your event in return for a small, negotiable donation to the work of Scottish Refugee Council. Details: 24mins | Director: Lou McLoughlan | Commissioned by Scottish Refugee Council | Scotland | 2016 | Suitable for 12+ years; there is also an exhibition of archive and contemporary materials, photographs, objects and visual art work discovering the experiences of refugees then and now, which is available to tour. 

Exploring heritage

  • The BAM Sistahood project is run by the Angelou Centre in Newcastle; the Centre supports women in the BAM community (some may be refugees, others not). They have been supported by HLF to explore the women’s own heritage and how that interweaves with the heritage of the North-East. They have worked extensively with Tyne & Wear Museums and Archives, and Culture Lab at Newcastle University. Further info about their work on Facebook. “My Roots, My Culture” showed at Northumbria University in 2014, and offered a photographic insight into the first six months of the Angelou Centre’s BAM! Sistahood project.
  • Surrey Heritage’s work with the refugee community includes 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 …"

IBBY Library Cards

"Thousands of refugees are still arriving in Europe as they seek to escape from war, persecution and terrible hardship. We, as IBBY members and supporters, need to use our skills and expertise to help them settle in their new homes.

IBBY Canada has launched an initiative to give every refugee arriving a library card using an idea that the IBBY Foundation and REFORMA produced for the US/Mexican border refugees. The card has been made in Spanish/English, Arabic/English and Arabic/French.

If you are interested in creating IBBY library cards in your area, please do contact us -

Your local libraries would need to agree to give every child that presents such a card a free library membership.

IBBY can give you the text and typeface, and you could approach:

  • local publishers or newspapers to print the cards;
  • local libraries to welcome the children and give them the services they need;
  • local relief organizations or refugee centres."

Taken from the IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) website.

Examples of work from outside the UK

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 (and noted on the Public Libraries News website, also 1 Oct)
  • Public Libraries News 29 Sep 2015: "For me, one of the many strengths of public libraries is that they provide refuge for all, from the poorest to (if they choose to) the wealthiest. I remember when hundreds of Poles suddenly made their appearance. I also remember knowing about a community of East Timorese moving into the town before anyone else, simply because they joined the library first in order to gain online access. I am sure public libraries will have similarly important roles to play with the Syrians and others coming in and we should be very proud of it."
  • 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."