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How council library services can support children and families in the earliest years

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In the spring of 2022, the Local Government Association commissioned consultant peers to review library services in eight councils, specifically with regard to how they worked to enhance the local early years offer and, in particular, support for speech, language and communication development.

Executive summary

Each council had access to peer consultants for between five and eight days. In this time, strategic meetings, user and non-user and partner focus groups were set up, as well as background reading to identify strengths and recommendations for how libraries could become more closely connected with early years services, health and partner agencies working towards the development and delivery of family hubs.

The work was supported by The Association of Senior Children’s and Education Librarians (ASCEL) and Libraries Connected.

It was identified that there is much work that already takes place within council library services to support children and families in the earliest years, as well as partnership working across council and health partners. It was identified that there are existing strengths in how libraries already work to support the following areas:

  • pre-literacy skills including speech, language and communication development
  • mental health support for adults and children
  • reducing social isolation and creating networks / friendships
  • access to information, skills development and learning for adults      
  • delivering area-wide messages and support from the council, health and social care partners 
  • engaging with ‘under-served’ communities, families and individuals    
  • libraries used as a community resource.

Examples are provided within the report about the current successful work taking place in the councils that were involved in the mini reviews. Each council provided a case study which appears in appendix 1. Additional case studies from different areas are included in appendix 2.

In addition to the successful current work, the peer consultants identified, for each council, areas that could be developed further. Across the eight councils, there were recurring themes that were then noted as recommendations for closer connections between library services, early years and family hubs. These included:

  • involving libraries in planning for the development for family hubs  
  • clarifying the library offer
  • communicating the offer to families        
  • aligning strategies with key partners.
  • responding to families’ needs
  • demonstrating impact       
  • recognising libraries as part of the local speech and language pathway  
  • considering library staff as part of the wider children’s workforce within the council.

The mini reviews and their associated reports were very much appreciated by the councils that took part in the process. Participants identified how the process helped shine a light on the successes of libraries and explore closer work with councils, health and other partners working towards the family hub agenda. Many opportunities arose during the mini reviews to start conversations with partners that had not taken place before.

In addition, network meetings were set up for those councils involved in the programme. These were found to be extremely beneficial for all taking part. They provided an opportunity to share good practice and to discuss and problem solve difficulties faced by individual or groups of councils.

General methodology and approach

Among other aspects of their important work, libraries are a key stakeholder in supporting children’s early language development, enabling strong pre-literacy skills. As part of the LGA’s Early Years Programme, funded by the Department for Education (DfE), the organisation delivered mini reviews into libraries’ work in early years across eight council areas from January to March 2022. The council areas were Bradford, Dorset, Leeds, Reading, St Helens, Swindon, Tameside and Wakefield.

The aim of the reviews was to identify key ways in which family hubs and library services can work together to develop a genuine integrated local offer to children and families. The reviews offered constructive support for each of the councils involved, and provided key insights about effective partnership between these two services.

The support consisted of five to eight days support from LGA consultant peers (depending on the area), during which meetings were held with key stakeholders and  focus groups were facilitated with service providers and users. The consultant peers also looked at key documents and data. They were asked to provide a written report to their area, highlighting strengths, areas for consideration and making recommendations. The peers, alongside each council, were also asked to write a case study of good or innovative practice (included in the appendix of this report).

The reviews focused on:

  • how children’s early speech, language and communication skills are developed through the library service
  • how library services’ partnership work with their council early years team can be enhanced
  • how libraries can be an integral part of the local family hub offer.

This report shares the findings from these eight areas. We have also worked with Cheshire East, Kent County Council, North Yorkshire and Stoke on Trent to develop new case studies highlighting good practice. These can be found in appendix two.

This programme of work was supported by Libraries Connected and ASCEL (the Association of Senior Children’s and Education Librarians). 


Public Libraries

According to the literature, public libraries began to appear in Britain in the mid-19th Century. The Free Library Movement was one of the many groups in the mid-Victorian period working for the “improvement of the public” through education.

Following a range of Government Acts, libraries came under the control of county councils at the beginning of the twentieth century, with the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 placing a duty on upper tier councils to provide a “comprehensive and efficient library service” overseen by central government. Forty years later, the Government was being advised about all issues relating to the library and information sector by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA).

In the early twenty first century, the role of the library came under increased scrutiny, with a drive to reduce government debt and consideration of the exact role of the public library in a new digital age.

With no statutory power over libraries, and replacing the MLA, Arts Council England assumed greater responsibility for supporting and developing public libraries in 2011. The following year, Arts Council England opened a ‘Grants for the Arts Libraries fund’, investing National Lottery money into projects delivered by public libraries.

“Libraries are places in which people develop a real love of books and can access information, but they are also at the very hearts of their communities. They can be exciting places in which you can encounter music, drama, sculpture, or any kind of art; somewhere that sparks an interest that might just become a real passion.”

– Alan Davey, Chief Executive, Arts Council England, 2012

In 2014, the Government commissioned an examination of the future of the libraries. ‘The Independent Library Report for England’ stressed the importance of libraries in local communities. It described libraries as, “modern, safe, non-judgemental, flexible spaces, where citizens of all ages can mine the knowledge of the world for free”. The Government subsequently set up a Libraries Taskforce to deliver the report’s recommendations.

The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent restrictions in 2020-21 meant that physical buildings were closed, but libraries switched to online delivery with many libraries  prioritising the continuation of events such as rhymetimes online and ensuring vulnerable people still had access to computers. The period lead to increasing electronic engagement with libraries through the Libraries from Home initiative. This saw an increase in the e-lending of books, magazines and audio as well as click and collect services.


The Association of Senior Children’s and Education Librarians (ASCEL) is the national network of senior managers in children’s public and schools library Services. In its Children’s Library Journey: Early Years, ASCEL identifies that public libraries welcome children from the very earliest months of life, helping parents and carers to support their child as they grow and learn. They state that libraries do this by supporting the development of:

  • children’s early learning and cultural development
  • children’s speaking, listening and early literacy
  • children’s social and emotional skills
  • parent/child bonding
  • school-ready children
  • improved mental wellbeing in parents and carers.

The latest revision of this page (January 2019) reinforces the research on the Word Gap which details how children from less advantaged backgrounds may hear 30 million fewer words spoken to them by the age of four, than their more advantaged peers, contributing to increased likelihood of language difficulties at the age of five. 

The page highlights that those five-year-olds with language difficulties are then:

  • four times more likely to have reading difficulties in adulthood
  • three times more likely to have mental health problems
  • twice as likely to be unemployed when they reach adulthood.

ASCEL, along with Libraries Connected has developed its Children and Young People’s Promise with an accompanying Self-Assessment Tool. This, and the Children's Library Journeys, have also been mapped to the Arts Council England’s 7 Quality Principles for working with children and young people.

Libraries Connected

Libraries Connected is a charity that is building on their previous work as Society of Chief Librarians (SCL). They are now partly funded by Arts Council England as the sector support organisation for libraries.

Libraries Connected believes in the power of libraries to change lives. They identify their vision as having

‘an inclusive, modern, sustainable and high quality public library service at the heart of every community in the UK. We work to promote the value of libraries, broker national partnerships, share best practice and drive innovation in the sector.’

As well as the children and young people’s promise (above), Libraries Connected encourages a range of programmes through offers focused on:

  • culture and creativity
  • health and well being
  • information and digital
  • reading
  • vision and print impaired people’s promise.

Through the ‘Universal Library Offer Framework’, Libraries Connected have worked with library services through national programmes that have developed the sector’s role in supporting reading, health and wellbeing, information and digital  skills, and culture and creativity.

Family hubs

According to Family Hubs Network UK, the origins of family hubs can be traced back to 1949, when ‘child welfare centres’ were proposed as a part of the original welfare state. In the 1980s, these first emerged as ‘family centres’, often run by the voluntary sector.

Family centres paved the way for the national Sure Start Children’s Centres (SSCC), in the 2000s, with the main differences from family centres being the focus on birth to five years and a tightly ringfenced budget. SSCC and associated budgets generated the social and physical infrastructure which exists today.

The 2007 Centre for Social Justice report ‘Breakthrough Britain’ sparked initial discussions about family hubs, with the government committing to ‘restor[ing] the role of Sure Start centres as Family Hubs…to shift from sticking plaster solutions to integrated early help.’

By 2019, family hubs were a part of the Conservative manifesto and, in 2020, the Government pledged an initial £2.5 million towards research. Over that year and the next, more funding was put towards family hubs, including £20 million from a fund rewarding public sector innovation (the Shared Outcomes Fund) and £82 million in the 2021 Autumn Budget to pilot hubs in 75 councils.

The National Centre for Family Hubs (NCFH) is a new national initiative, led by the Anna Freud Centre and funded by the Department for Education, to help ensure all babies, children and families have the support they need. This will be achieved through a network of family hubs across England.

The three key delivery principles for family hubs are:

  • Access
    • There is a clear, simple way for families with children of all ages to access help and support through a family hub building and a family hub approach.
  • Connection
    • Services work together for families, with a universal ‘front door’, shared outcomes and effective governance.
    • Professionals work together through co-location, data-sharing and a common approach to their work. Families only have to tell their story once, the service is more efficient, and families get more effective support.
    • Statutory services and Voluntary Community Sector (VCS) partners work together to get families the help they need.
  • Relationships
    • The family hub prioritises strengthening relationships and builds on family strengths.
    • Relationships are at the heart of everything that is delivered in family hubs.

The development of family hubs, as described on the NCFH website will include ‘work in partnership with organisations who already have relationships with the people you want to co-produce with, for instance schools, health visitors, libraries and local charities.’

The website goes on to describe locations for family hubs as follows:  

‘Hubs are not necessarily about creating new buildings but focus on bringing services together and changing the way family help and support is delivered locally. In practice, this will be a mix of using children’s centres and other council spaces, and repurposing other public buildings such as libraries, schools, even high street shops.’

Benefits of library services to families and young children

Public libraries have a very strong early years offer. In the mini reviews and case studies identified through this programme, we identified much good and innovative practice which presents significant benefits to families and contributes to a range of early years and wider strategic aims of the councils involved. The benefits have been summarised and illustrated with case studies in this chapter:

Pre-literacy skills including speech, language and communication development

Speech, language and communication skills are the fundamental skills required for learning, developing relationships, mental health and succeeding in life. View ‘The Cost to the Nation of Children’s Poor Communication’ for more information.

There is very little that takes place in the adult’s, or even in the child’s, world that doesn't rely on strong speech, language and communication skills. This applies to thinking, planning, learning, researching, getting help, following instructions etc.

Research states that vocabulary and language development at the age of five links directly with outcomes right up to the age of 34. However, there is concern that many children (particularly those in more disadvantaged areas) are getting to school without the speech language and communication skills they need. Government targets focused on reducing the word gap and increasing the good level of development as measured at the end of reception are high priorities.

We also know that literacy skills rely strongly on speech language and communication.

The first three years of life, when the brain is developing and maturing, is the most intensive period for acquiring speech and language skills. These skills develop best in a world that is rich with sounds, sights, and consistent exposure to the speech and language of others.

There appear to be critical periods for speech and language development in infants and young children when the brain is best able to absorb language. If these critical periods are allowed to pass without exposure to language, it will be more difficult to learn.

There is much that libraries can do and are already doing to support speech language and communication skills.

Examples of good practice identified through the LGA mini reviews

Bump Booster

Bump Booster is developed by ASCEL and incorporates a toolkit available to libraries. This programme focuses on sharing information and developing skills with parents relating to how babies in the womb can hear their parents’ voices and the world around them. By singing and talking to their child before birth, parents can have an impact on their baby’s development. The toolkit focuses on three simple messages:

  1. talk to your bump - your baby can hear you from 18 weeks (for the mother and 25 weeks for everyone else)
  2. read to your bump - your baby remembers noises from the womb
  3. bond with your bump - reading and singing to your baby helps you to bond with them.

Rhyme Time sessions

Taking part in Rhyme Time sessions with parents or carers means that children are spending time with other adults and children. Building their confidence in new surroundings, being in large groups and practising sharing and taking turns are all important skills for school and beyond.

As they sing rhymes together, children practice new sounds and explore the patterns and rhythm of language. They also develop their vocabulary, learning new words and complex phrases.

The rhymes and songs that adults learn during Rhyme Time sessions can easily be taken home to support the Home Learning Environment (HLE).

Case study Reading Rhymetimes

Rhyme times in Reading ‘took off’ pretty much straightaway as parents, carers and other family members identified benefits of attending. Rapid expansion to all libraries across Reading led to 19 Rhymetime sessions a week, at their peak.

Covid restrictions meant numbers were significantly reduced and booking became essential. Reading library staff ‘pivoted’, providing video recorded Story Time and Rhymetime sessions that were available on YouTube.

The move back from Covid restrictions provided an opportunity for Reading to review its Rhymetime work, link with other partners and make adjustments to increase quality and learning opportunities for both children and parents or carers.


The national charity the BookTrust has run a Bookstart programme for many years. Bookstart gives free books to every child in England and Wales at two key stages before school, as well as free packs for children with additional needs, tips and guidance on reading together, resources and activities, and much more.

In Swindon, Bookstart is promoted universally by health visitors at 6-8 weeks and 3-4 years and is strongly supported by the library service.

Case study Tameside Bookstart

The Bookstart programme delivery in Tameside is a strength: Tameside Council committed to funding a Bookstart officer who coordinates a full and outstanding programme. This dedicated role is held up as an example at regional networks as the ‘gold standard’ aspiration of the very supportive Regional Manager of Book Trust - “I use Tameside as an example of best practice in regional meetings and share the learning”. This post is supported by an operational working group and strategic steering group in Tameside. There is a clear vision of how Bookstart will be taken forward to the main areas of deprivation within the newly transformed Book Trust offer for targeted families.

The use of live Early Years Pupil Premium data enables targeted children to receive a gifted book pack in the preschool age group. Tameside are going beyond targeting those already in childcare provision and reaching out to those who do not yet take up childcare. The new targeted aspect of the Bookstart offer will be optional and it is hoped that Tameside will commit to this as part of their family hub prevention and early intervention journey.

Story time sessions for families with children from birth to five

Sharing stories with children is identified as a key mechanism for supporting communication and language development as well as an early interest in books. It helps children to develop close bonds with parents, also supporting attention and listening, and vocabulary. Children love the repetitive nature of the language used when looking together at a book and this ‘contingent interaction’ has been found to be significant in supporting language development.

Many parents feel self-conscious when they are sharing books with children and may focus on the text and the story rather than having a discussion with children about what's in the picture. Experienced children’s library staff are a useful asset in demonstrating how to share books with children. This, in turn, provides opportunities for parents to learn about book sharing and strengthens the HLE.

In Reading, the library staff specifically ensure that appropriate books for sharing with children are on display during Rhyme Times and story time sessions. In Swindon, Swindon Stories operates a range of good quality early years literacy support in areas of greatest disadvantage. Leeds City Council have two Story Buses which visit targeted communities and are exploring additional areas that the Story Buses can visit.

In Bradford, Story Time sessions are offered by library staff who are committed to working in their communities. The staff find the work rewarding and parents very much value the sessions.  They also provide an ideal opportunity to help identify and support parents to seek further advice and guidance around their child’s development.

Case study: Leeds- Reception Reading Stars

Reception Reading Stars is a reading activity to help foster a love of books and reading in Leeds. It is targeted at parents/carers of children about to enter reception class in September.

Leeds faces particular challenges around early reading experiences, with a significant gap to the national average in the percentage of children achieving the expected standard in reading at KS1. This project aims to support other projects and initiatives that are in place to ensure the city closes this gap.

Libraries being part of a local area speech, language and communication pathway

In 2020, the Government published its Best Start in Speech Language and Communication guidance to support public health and councils to develop speech language and communication pathways in the early years. Since then, many councils have started to work towards this multi-agency pathway to ensure strong speech language and communication skills are developed and to identify and support, as early as possible, those children who are struggling with speech language and communication needs (SLCN).

Work that has taken place through the LGA mini review in Reading enabled conversations between library staff, children’s services and the Speech and Language Therapy department. A Reading-wide pathway for speech language and communication was being developed at the time and Rhyme Times in libraries have now been identified on the pathway as a possible targeted intervention for children with delayed speech, language and communication skills.

In Tameside, The Early Years team works with library staff to quality assure their Rhymetime sessions, and have provided training in signing and visual symbols to support some children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). The work across all Tameside partners within the Bookstart programme has helped to define how libraries fit within the Speech, Language and Communication pathway.

Mental health support for adults and children

There has been a significant increase in both children’s and adults’ poor mental health in recent years. This has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, as shown in the graph below.

A graph showing the rise in referrals to children and young people's mental health services showing a high in 2021.

Activities that support good mental health include connecting with others; mindfulness achieved through activities such as crafts, singing and reading; making connections; learning new things; and being part of something bigger. 

Libraries are well placed to provide many of these opportunities and Libraries Connected details a health and wellbeing offer, including books on prescription, a mental health offer for children and young people from early years through to teens, and resources to support libraries’ work in this area.

Maternal mental illness is estimated to affect one in five mothers aged 36 or younger. Rhyme Times in libraries often have a significant reach, for example research in Essex libraries highlighted a (pre-pandemic) reach of 4,000 to 5,000 mothers a year, many of whom attended regularly. This means that the reach to mothers experiencing mental health issues (from the figures above) was around 1,000 mothers a year. The research used mood charts (taken before and after each session) and highlighted a strong pattern of mothers, upon leaving the modified Rhyme Time sessions, saying they felt happier than when they arrived.

From the Essex focus group discussions, specific elements of the sessions stood out as contributing to an improvement in mood in the course of the 30-minute session:

  • the “warm welcome”
  • seeing their child enjoy themselves
  • and the act of singing.

The focus groups also talked about the immediate effect of the Rhyme Times, with benefits being:

  • feelings of achievement at making it there in the first place
  • enjoyment from social singing and stories
  • chance to interact with other mothers
  • structure to the day
  • seeing your child enjoy themselves
  • reassurance as a parent.

The research revealed that immediately after Rhyme Time, there was a very noticeable improvement in the mothers’ moods, with the percentage describing themselves as ‘very happy’ more than doubling from 25 per cent to 59 percent in 30 minutes. 

Research describing the benefits of singing aloud have recently been shared by the BBC.

Reducing social isolation and creating networks/friendships

The restrictions that were enforced during the COVID-19 pandemic have underlined the importance of individuals being part of larger networks, the value of friendships and the impact of isolation on individuals’ and families’ mental health, as well as on key aspects such as developing socialisation and communication skills in young children. Libraries are well placed to provide opportunities to reduce social isolation and create networks and friendships.

Research carried out by Shared Intelligence identified interesting socio-economic data about Rhyme Time attendees; the Rhyme Times studied had higher proportions of parents from 2nd and 4th most deprived deciles than library users overall. One of the areas involved in the mini reviews (Reading) also identified that this demographic understanding highlights an opportunity for partners to reach under-served communities (see below).

Access to information, skills development and learning for adults

Libraries have long been a hub for access to information and in many areas, stakeholders clearly respect and value the services, and libraries are considered to be ‘central’ to community working.

Libraries are also a useful place for parents and carers to pick up leaflets about what is on offer locally (including how to access two, three and four year old funding for early years education and childcare). Parents and carers can also access free Wifi for their mobile phones. This supports access to information in a way that may feel more comfortable for many. This is likely to become more widespread as the cost of living crisis hits harder and reaches more families.

Libraries Connected details a digital and information offer on its website.

Delivering area-wide messages and support from the council's health and social care partners

As a location for providing information, both digitally and in hard copy, many libraries are well placed to share cross agency information, specific to local areas. Closer partnership working will enable the development of area-wide messages supporting the council’s health and social care partners, as well as community and voluntary organisations. The caring, committed workforce, identified through the mini reviews, is highly valued by library users and, in many areas, they were able to provide useful information aimed to meet the wide-ranging needs of library users.

Library services, working in partnership with other local statutory and voluntary services, can often provide much needed support that other services are not able to provide for children and families. The remit of reaching all members of the community and the lack of being seen as ‘part of the care or education systems’ means that libraries are often in the best position to provide this type of support. For example, Libraries Connected identifies the experience of Books on Prescription, showing that arts and cultural organisations, such as libraries, can play an invaluable role in delivering public health services.

Case study - Designing Libraries – Essex opens Chelmsford families hub

The refurbishment project in Essex has put the library at the heart of family support services in the city, where library employees, health and social care workers, along with staff and volunteers from other support agencies have come together to create a one-stop shop for free family services.

Engaging with 'under-served' communities, families and individuals

There remain a number of misconceptions about how libraries work, some based on parents’ experiences from many years ago and many based on hearsay. This may be one reason why, in many areas, some communities use libraries less than others.   However, some of the areas taking part in the LGA mini reviews have been tackling this lack of diversity head on.

As Barack Obama stated:

At the moment we persuade a child, any child, to cross that magic threshold into a library, we change their lives forever, for the better.’

Libraries as a community resources

Case study - Kent playground project

In Kent libraries, the Playground project seeks to inspire disadvantaged young children and their families by immersing them and those who care for them in creative activity that is deeply engaging, transformative and of the highest quality.

Collaboration with other artists is key, and the artists are excited by the possibility of co-creating inspirational work, as well as developing their own creative practice with babies in the current phase, and older children and those with complex needs in subsequent phases.

By working collaboratively and with interdisciplinarity, it is the aspiration of the Playground artists that creative work with early years can not only become commonplace, but also beautiful and of the highest quality.

Library staff are also crucial to the success of the Playground project and work alongside the artists and mentors developing their own creative practice as appropriate, as well as growing confidence and greater understanding of effective engagement with children and their families.

As there is no spoken language during the session it attracts a more multi diverse community to engage. Participants find out about the programme through word of mouth and only need to commit to booking up for a session rather than a whole programme.  This programme has also been successful in engaging with fathers too.

Case study - Designing Libraries – Blakenall Library

Blakenall Village Centre is a £7.3 million multi-purpose building funded by New Deal for Communities and sited in a part of Walsall (which has a high level of multiple deprivation).

Walsall Council has taken a 10-year lease on the library area. In addition to the library, the building houses a health centre, pharmacy, complementary therapy centre, restaurant, youth offending service base and housing office.

In fitting out the library, the intention was to create a relaxed informal setting which would attract people from the local area who were not regular library users. Low-level ‘bookshop-style’ shelving provides maximum face-out display and the library is ‘zoned’ to accommodate different uses. The early years area was equipped in co-operation with the local Surestart Programme. The library opened on 1 August 2005.

Opportunities for development - common themes arising from the LGA mini reviews

The reports from the LGA mini reviews have now been provided to all councils who were involved in this programme.

The LGA mini reviews identified a number of cross-cutting themes that were common to many of the councils who took part. Some of these were discussed in network meetings and they are also reflected in the reports that were made available to each council.

Some of these opportunities for development are focussed specifically on library usage and some relate to how library services can work more closely with early years services and partner organisations as part of the transformation towards family hubs.

To date, government funding for the first 75 councils to develop family hubs has been identified.

Including libraries in planning for the development of family hubs

The information above demonstrates how libraries already contribute to the wider offer for children and families, recognising libraries’ strengths in reducing social isolation, providing access to information (including digitally) and developing the important pre literacy skills.

It clearly states how the work of libraries across a range of councils contributes to the strategic aims of the council, health commissioners and providers, and partner agencies.

Including library service managers and staff in planning for family hubs considering how library buildings can be used as part of the community offer; examining mechanisms that enable councils to ensure that library services are considered part of the planning for family hubs are imperative.

Like family hubs, libraries focus on a range of ages and levels of need. Libraries being given access to family hub branding which can be used on library promotional materials, will support libraries to communicate with wider partners the library role in supporting outcomes for children and families.

Clarifying the library offer

Discussions with non-user groups identified that there were still some misconceptions about libraries, what they had to offer, and the behaviour expected within them. Parents talked about their perceived need to be quiet, the concern they would feel if their baby cried, worries about children damaging books, caution about library fines.

One report identified ‘There remain some outdated views about libraries being simply a quiet place to read and borrow books, and many parents do not know that libraries also offer activities for babies and toddlers.’

One parent explained why they hadn’t been to the library, saying “you’d have to be quiet and what if my child cries?”.  

In another area, reasons that parents don’t use libraries included that they “wouldn’t be able to keep their children quiet” and that the library is “just for reading.”

There is a view that these misconceptions have been compounded for families with very young children by the pandemic. Babies and toddlers have been born during the pandemic when libraries were closed, and activities were only offered on line.

Opportunities to encourage potential users through the library doors, in some of the ways described above, are really important. However, it is also vital to clarify to all partners, including families with young children and the wider community, what libraries have to offer and how they contribute to key strategies within each local area.

Consideration should be given to how to provide this information to key stakeholders, both at a strategic and operational level. This is important as it is often the key stakeholders who then go on to provide information to families. Key stakeholders’ perceptions of libraries may also affect their planning and willingness to be involved in partnerships with library services.

During the mini reviews, it was clear that, as well as lending books, library services  contribute strongly to the development of pre literacy skills, health and wellbeing, information and digital access and reducing social isolation.

The reviews themselves opened up conversations between key partners that supported a greater understanding about how libraries can contribute to universal and targeted services across local areas.

Communicating the offer to families

Once the library offer is clearly defined, the next stage is to communicate this offer to families in the local area. Current mechanisms for parents and carers to find out about the library and its activities include information from partners (children’s centres, health visitors etc), social media, or word of mouth from other parents. Some areas have developed library buddies, neighbourhood wardens or parent champions/ambassadors to support particularly vulnerable parents to find out about and access activities that are held within libraries. Other areas promote library services through mobile library buses, some of which are decorated particularly for children and families.

The libraries taking part in these reviews highlighted the importance of getting children and families through the doors in the first place. They could then be encouraged to join the library and explore what it had to offer. Encouraging engagement through school and early years setting visits to libraries have been beneficial. In some areas, children’s centres and early years settings encourage parents to pick their children up from the library at the end of the library session, as a way to encourage parents into libraries as well.

Activities such as the rhyme time challenge, summer reading challenge and activities provided by other partners, such as birth registrations or baby weigh in clinics are another useful way of encouraging families into libraries.

In some areas, systems are in place to automatically enrol parents with the library service when they register with children’s centres or register new births. Some parents have identified that the process to register their child as a library member is too complicated and it might be helpful to look at ways of streamlining this.

There is an opportunity to co-produce marketing and promotional materials with families and other partners. This will also be an opportunity to produce some myth-busting material or media about libraries. Reinforcing libraries’ role as a safe, warm and free place to spend time is likely to increase the number of people going through the library doors.

Consideration should be given to the methods of promoting the library offer. Some council websites are clunky and, in other councils, library services are not able to develop their own Facebook page. Many parents within the focus groups identified the benefits of posters and leaflets, including in places such as GP surgeries and supermarkets. This should be considered especially in light of those parents who struggle to access digital information. Developing more formal pathways between early years groups, community organisations and libraries may provide an opportunity to increase participation and encourage more families from the diverse communities to access library services.

One key message from a member of staff was ‘we always ask them to come to us’ when, in many cases, this may not be possible. Consideration can be given regarding ways for libraries to go out to communities.  

It would be beneficial to reflect on the use of data to encourage greater participation with libraries, identify those areas who may need libraries most and use libraries least. In addition, this use of data will allow libraries to be a hub to access and find out about other services.         

Aligning strategies with key partners

Across the councils that took part in the LGA mini reviews, there was a clear understanding by library services about how they contributed to the local areas’ corporate strategy. There was also understanding of the contribution that many of the activities make to health and wellbeing and speech, language and communication development priorities, among others. However, the contribution of library services was not always reflected in the wider partners’ strategies and wider reporting does not always regularly take place.

In some areas, there is a recognition from councillors that libraries are important in fulfilling council ambitions. However, there is not consistency in clearly defining the role that libraries have on improving outcomes for children, planning how these outcomes can be further supported and identifying how to measure the impact of what libraries do (see below). A system of annual reporting to councillors could enable local councillors to promote libraries to target groups in their divisions.

It is essential that there is clarity on how universal library services overlap with the offers such as school readiness and family support within children and young people’s plans. Libraries should be viewed as a key resource to deliver the council’s and other partners’ key priorities. It would be helpful if strategic planning and subsequent governance structures included representatives from children’s services in library strategy development and that there is reciprocal representation in children’s service planning to ensure alignment with other strategies, and enable wider accountability, reporting, and evaluation.

The role of libraries needs to be included within existing pathways, where they exist, such as speech, language and communication pathways, family journeys and the pathway for early help. Libraries should be nested in the essential universal services aligned to the family hub strategic outcomes. This will help to ensure libraries are considered as a useful early prevention service and provider of targeted support, as well as building clear referral routes between services.

For those areas who are working on developing early years strategies, consideration should be given to how libraries can support this work and how the library offer can be integrated into the early years strategy. Work can take place with organisations such as Unicef, who provide support to councils in developing their school readiness strategy.

Responding to families' needs

In many areas, there is close working with local communities - libraries are very much seen as part of the local community infrastructure. There is still a good deal of work that can be done to ensure that libraries respond to community needs, particularly focusing on under-served communities and children and families who are more vulnerable. Co-production work in all areas would enable a system for suggestions to be included in planning and delivery of services and agreed methods for responding to the priorities of local families.

During the LGA mini reviews, suggestions from parents included a phonics section to be included in the children’s library and the need to advertise the library offer more on social media. These suggestions were shared with staff as part of the mini review process.

Many families living in more disadvantaged areas have difficult and chaotic lives and visiting a library is not a priority when they are struggling to feed their family or heat their home. A library offer which includes food such as free sandwiches, taking place in a safe, warm library space is a potential incentive to explore in reaching out to families who do not yet access libraries. This is likely to be increasingly valuable as the current cost of living crisis takes hold. Parents in some local areas identified that an area to warm their baby’s bottle or to get a drink in a warm, safe space would be an incentive to use libraries. Plymouth  libraries have a long track record of providing food for families.              

Providing books and information in other languages were also identified as important by some non-users of libraries. There are also opportunities to widen participation through taking library activities and books into other community spaces. The virtual offer developed through the pandemic restriction periods also surfaced a need to ensure there is a blended approach to support families accessing library resources and events.

In some areas, parents talked positively about the holiday clubs for the family, for example, Reading Libraries are involved in the Government Funded Holiday Activities and Food programme. Expanding holiday activities would be a popular choice for many families.

Demonstrating impact

Although many library services measure footfall and registrations, there has been less work carried out to investigate the impact of the library offer on children, young people and their families in the councils that took part in the mini reviews.  

Some libraries have carried out qualitative evaluations. In Tameside, questionnaires to participants in the Story Makers project indicate that they are very happy with the libraries and the activities, and parents feel that the activities have had a demonstrable impact on their children’s speech and language skills, as well as their social development. In Wakefield, there is good take up of library services for under 5’s, particularly activities run on the library sites. Feedback from parents is strong with services being highly valued in their contribution to reducing social isolation, for children developing socially and emotionally and for developing a love of books and reading. Parents particularly valued having somewhere to go to talk to other parents.          

Libraries are very well placed to demonstrate added value against outcomes targeted by the council and partners, for example the rates of Good Level of Development in a particular council. These wider metrics can be included in library strategies.

Consideration can then be given as to how libraries could develop monitoring processes to better contribute to key performance indicators around outcomes for children and families. An example of this could be the number of two year olds with emerging language needs, as identified by Early Language Identification Measure (ELIM), becoming confident and active library users, then looking at the impact on the reviews of their speech and language skills.  

Libraries should review and confirm processes for collecting family feedback on their journey through the system. Case studies could be used to demonstrate how more integrated working can improve families’ experiences. 

There is currently a need for a shared approach across libraries, the council and partners to evidence use and service design. It would be useful for library services to be part of the partnership discussions around evidence-based practice and to contribute to the evidence base regarding the value of services currently delivered, also to explore research and evidence nationally around what works.

Examples of good practice include Measuring our impact: Independent research into our social value | Suffolk Libraries which shows how libraries can consider how to measure social impact of library function. This report demonstrates the impact that libraries can have on the communities that engage with offered activities, particularly around social and emotional support that service users gain from being part of the offered programmes.

Resources for looking at the impact of rhyme times are described in this Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Blog  

The Early Intervention Foundation’s 2022 report Leading and delivering early childhood services: 10 insights from 20 places across England and Wales describes the different types of evidence that can be used to demonstrate impact. It details how early childhood services can make the most of evidenced interventions and how local areas are understanding impact and using and generating evidence.

Recognising libraries as part of the local speech and language pathway

Many libraries offer Rhyme Time sessions that enable parents and carers to join in and teach their children nursery rhymes and songs. This is one of the activities that is known to support early language development and can therefore be made available to parents who are seeking support for their child’s early language development, as an opportunity either at the universal or at the targeted level.

Services could refer families on the waiting list for assessment and therapy to the library Rhyme Time activities to increase their exposure to language-based activities and to support the HLE.

Closer working with children’s services and partners, such as speech and language therapy, would support the library offer being part of the local speech and language pathway. Specific training to staff from the council or speech and language therapy service would support them to model positive interaction techniques.

Detailed information of how families can access speech and language assessments and intervention can also be made available to libraries so that they can signpost these to the wide range of families who use their services.

Considering library staff as part of the wider children's workforce within the council

Across many of the mini review areas, reports describe the library service as having a strong and highly dedicated staff team, with their work underpinned by good relationships and partnership working across local services.

In Tameside, parents who attend the library activities were noted as having universal praise for the staff team, with one parent encapsulating the views of the others, saying “The library staff are totally amazing, I owe them so much.”

Councillors described the library staff as “helpful, passionate, non-judgemental”, and “great ambassadors for their service”.

They see an empowered team who are “brave and innovative, and prepared to try things out”.

Library staff’s work with children can be further supported by clear strategic direction and defined pathways between libraries and other support services for children and families.

In Leeds, the movement to family hubs enables library staff to be shared across services. Some are frontline community hub staff, and some have retained librarian expertise. A Skills Development Plan is in place to make sure that these multidisciplinary staff have the right skills and knowledge in place to support across a range of provision, including Rhyme Times and Story Times. Training is provided against Arts Council England’s (ACE) seven quality principles to ensure what is delivered meets the aims and goals of the programme. The community hub staff, because of their role, have knowledge of other council services.

Library staff who offer groups for new parents would benefit from having additional training around mental health first aid, child development and useful techniques to support speech, language and communication. Other staff in partner agencies would also benefit from this type of training and there are advantages to carrying out training jointly. 

Sharing skills and expertise across library staff and staff in partner services provides benefits for all parties. It Is important to ensure that library staff have correct knowledge and expertise to provide signposting for families and that staff in partner services are familiar with the library offer and how it can benefit the children and families that they are working with. Joint training with libraries and other partner services provides an opportunity to share information, get to know each other and enable myth busting.

Suggestions for how to include library services as part of the children's workforce include joint training, regular information sharing, children’s service skills frameworks, attendance at early years conferences, involvement in quality assurance visits.

Contribution of the LGA mini reviews

The value of contact with other council areas

From early on in the process, at the request of councils, regular network meetings were offered. These took the form of online meetings with specific councils presenting around a particular theme. There was then time for general discussion and any questions. The presentations were shared after the meetings.

Feedback included:

‘In addition to the information in the sessions, colleagues have been helpful when approached in the follow ups. As we were all at different stages of the review, perhaps a fourth session to share the learning would be helpful. I understand that there are plans for a national seminar to share with other councils.

The value of the LGA mini reviews

The mini reviews were highly valued by the libraries, councils and partners taking part. The feedback included how the process had helped different groups to understand each other better and to plan more joined up activities and approaches.

One council identified:

‘Your reports and findings will fundamentally support our future strategic thinking and ultimately improve how we work with others including children services, health and as a future thinking library service…. This is a really valuable piece of work for us, as an evolving organisation, and as services that wish to engage more widely and transform for the benefit of our communities.’

Other feedback included:

‘[We] Re-engaged with [Head of Service] for Early Years/ Early Help who is leading on a family hub model in [our area]. As a direct result, libraries are now included in the model, and we are working together to further develop partnership working, referral pathways, and looking to develop library input to early help provision in the borough. Our profile has also been significantly raised amongst senior leadership; strategically we will continue with the progress initiated. Final thought, it has been extremely motivating to learn that we are developing and delivering some innovative projects - we just need to do more evaluation of impact and ensure the right people know about our work.’

‘Hard work, intense, but extremely worthwhile. I would not hesitate to take part in something similar again.’

‘The programme afforded us the space to explore and have the conversations with partners about the role that libraries play and can potentially play in their service delivery for families/early years. The conversations have started, and the work will now focus on agreeing priorities and delivery timelines. We also now have the opportunity to strengthen our strategic representation at key meetings.’


The work carried out within the mini peer reviews by the LGA peer consultants highlighted excellent practice and close working between many library services and early years services. This is extremely beneficial in the development and delivery of family hubs and can be developed further going forwards.

A range of cross cutting themes were identified through the mini reviews and they have been described in detail. The funding of 75 councils to develop family hubs provides an opportunity to work more closely with libraries, councils, health and voluntary sector partners for the benefit of children and families across the country.

The interest in the May 2022 webinar provided by the LGA regarding this work (nearly 300 participants signed up) demonstrates that there is a thirst for knowledge, good practice sharing and planning the way forward for closer connections between these important services.


Thanks go to the Department for Education for providing funding for this programme, the parents, families, staff, managers, senior leaders and councillors who took part in our focus groups and planning  network meetings in the eight councils taking part in the LGA mini reviews, the LGA associates and members of staff who supported this programme.

Appendix 1

Case studies from the mini review areas

Bradford Libraries Rhyme Challenge

Bradford Libraries Rhyme Challenge started in 2017 from an idea originating from BookTrust, the UK’s largest children’s reading charity. The challenge is simple. Parents and children are asked to five rhymes together to receive a certificate. In Bradford, the library service produces the challenge and encourages take up with childcare settings, toddler groups and libraries across the district. Rhymes are chosen in collaboration with early years groups and then packs are designed, printed and distributed usually from Sept-March. The challenge is currently funded by Children’s Services Early Help & Prevention.

Bradford School Readiness Plan

The Bradford Libraries School Readiness Plan was produced in July 2021. It was developed to meet the needs of the Joint Strategic Needs Assessment 2019 which is aimed at ensuring children arrive at school, ready to learn, flourish and achieve, in order to get the most benefit from education the plan will be implemented by Bradford Library Services on a yearly basis. The plan sets out the libraries services for Universal, 1001 Critical Days Targeted and Pre-School and Beyond Targeted offers.

Dorset - Toddler Time and Talk

Libraries across Dorset host a range of early years programmes such as Rhyme Times, Library Gets Lively and Story Times to support early language development and a love of books and reading. Following a Rhyme Time session at Portland Library, staff identified a need to develop their sessions in response to the requirements of some of their families. The isolation of some parents who found it difficult to break into established groups, or who were new to the area and had not developed relationships with other parents. The solution was to introduce Toddler Time and Talk, commencing with a Rhyme Time session families could stay to have refreshments, make friends and engage with professionals in information sharing and chat sessions. 

Leeds - Story Bus

The Story Buses were initially launched in January 2020. The buses arose from the need to replace the library vehicle fleet and resulted in two Story Buses, named Sam and Nelly by the children, with exciting exterior designs by illustrator Nick Sharratt and interiors with well-designed spaces to sit and read.

Leeds - Reception Reading Stars

Reception Reading Stars is a reading activity to help foster a love of books and reading targeted at parents/carers of children about to enter reception class in September.

Reading - Rhymetimes

Rhymetimes in Reading ‘took off’ pretty much straightaway as parents, carers and other family members identified benefits of attending. Rapid expansion to all libraries across Reading led to 17 Rhyme Time sessions a week at their peak.

St Helens – Start well wheel

The Start Well Wheel is a tool for parents and carers to track all appointments and key milestones in their child’s life. It is a visual record that covers all key partners, from health visitors to education to community provision such as library services. It enables a family to see what is coming next or access something they have missed. It is easy to use. Parents and carers can highlight sections that indicate the services the child has received.

Swindon – Little Troopers

Little Troopers is a cross-agency partnership between Swindon Libraries and Information Service, Family Nurse Partnership, Housing, and Care Leavers teams to support young, vulnerable families. The open, drop-in group is for parents up to 25 years, with the average age around 20, and their children up to age three. Some parents are care-leavers, single parents, or have vulnerabilities. The group meet weekly for 90 minutes at the Everleigh Centre, Penhill, Swindon. The play and stay group includes sensory-based craft activities, messy play, Rhyme Time, and a free snack and drink. An average of 10 families attend, with about eight attending regularly.

Tameside - Story makers

Tameside Story Makers began in 2017 with weekly interactive, performance-based storytelling sessions targeted at preschool-aged children. An annual theme is chosen and developed with a professional storyteller for up to 28 weeks and supplemented by an author and illustrator working with participants to create a themed picture book. This is then published and gifted to all participants and partner organisations and, is also made available in all Tameside libraries. The Story Makers project, originally funded by the Arts Council England, is currently funded by the Tameside Community Safety Partnership.

Wakefield: Family hubs and libraries working in partnership to pilot BookTrust’s Storytime Prize

Library and family hub staff engaged families in the impact of storytelling and books with young children by modelling storytelling and discussion of the new books. Parents began to acknowledge and show pleasure in seeing theirs and others babies and children respond, sit and listen to stories and books.

Appendix 2

Appendix 3

Useful reading

In addition to the range of references within this report, readers may find the following useful:

Suffolk Libraries A Predictive Impact Analysis September 2019

For every £1 invested into the Suffolk Libraries programmes, £8.04 is returned in social value created. That is to say that after investment costs are taken away the social value return is over eight times the amount of investment. This is an impressive level of return and indicates that Suffolk Libraries is creating substantial impact in its local community for a wide range of stakeholders.