Cultural Democracy in Practice – Cambridgeshire Libraries

Cambridgeshire Libraries – The Library Presents

It would be difficult to write a guide to Cultural Democracy, and certainly democratic use of space without mentioning libraries. Much of the main Cultural Democracy guide has indeed been written in an East London library, alongside young women studying for their GCSE’s, people looking for jobs, toddlers eating snacks and reading/throwing books and a volunteer-run knitting club.  The Society of Chief Librarians said ‘“No other public body has the same reach into and across the UK’s diverse local communities, or the economies of scale and flexibility to respond to local needs,” and this is probably true. Libraries by their very nature are central to the idea of open, civic space that is genuinely welcoming to all.


Now, several libraries are beginning to think about how they take the idea of democratic space further, and animate the spaces to make them more inviting, working alongside local residents. We spoke to Jo Gray of Cambridgeshire Libraries, which supports the running of The Library Presents, a series of creative and cultural activities in libraries that is programmed by volunteers based in the local community.  The project began as a pilot in 4 local libraries, but due to its success, rolled out to 8, then 10, and now aims to extend to 32 over the next 4 years programming arts performances, cinema screenings, workshops and community events.


The concept is simple, a group of local volunteers come together to programme events in libraries that, based on local knowledge, they feel the community will respond to. Examples in the pilot ranged from ghost stories, to lyric writing, to film showings and theatre productions. As well as ‘off the shelf’ programming, some libraries also commissioned new work, collaborating with local artists. Libraries such as Littleport even used the opportunity to run their first ever book festival. Across the libraries taking part there were a mixture of free events and paid for ticketed programmes and although attendance was sometimes mixed, it was generally high across the board.

The ethos of the programme places at its heart these 5 concepts:

  • active participation of volunteers in the development of the creative programme
  • openness to new ideas, methods and approaches
  • respect for each other and for the emerging creative ideas
  • creative relationships based upon respect and trust
  • inclusion and diversity.

Volunteers are involved in every aspect of programming and delivering events and work side by side with artists – a process that is not always without its challenges, but both parties report how much they have learned from each other and from the process. There has been great enthusiasm from the volunteers to continue and artists have learned a lot about how to adapt to new spaces and connect with an audience who may not have experienced live performance before, certainly not locally.  


65% of people attending the events were going into a library for the first time, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. The libraries are now used in the evenings where they weren’t before and the volunteers are keen to expand the range of events offered. The next phase of this work is to continue to engage these new audiences in the decision-making, ensuring that the pool of people who feel ownership of the programme expands and diversifies, rather than just creating a new version of organisational hierarchies.