Librarians vs Loneliness, a collaborative day conference jointly organised between WCCEH, Egenis, and Libraries Unlimited, took place on Thursday 27th June. Funded by an Engaged Research Exploratory Award, the workshop was loosely structured around four thematic sessions, followed by an expert panel of library staff. The guiding principle was to draw academics and practising librarians together to build connections and share knowledge about loneliness and the psycho-social importance of libraries and reading.
The first session was led by Katie Snow, a PhD researcher in the English department. This part of the day centred on maternal loneliness and the need for libraries to engage with isolated mothers, using scenario work in small groups. Issues such as neurodiversity and social anxiety were brought to the fore, as well as the difficulty of getting mothers to the library in the first place and the importance of activities that are mother- rather than baby-focused.
The second session began with a discussion on student and youth loneliness initiated by WCCEH’s Fred Cooper, and took a historical look at the specific needs and challenges of younger library users. This resulted in some really constructive thoughts about making Exeter students aware of the library – and other non-university institutions – as infrastructures of belonging and community during their time in the city. It also sparked the beginning of a conversation on harnessing the University Library as an asset in student well-being, with the three University of Exeter librarians in attendance. The intention is that this re-imagining the library will be a vital part of the Centre’s Beacon Project on campus loneliness.
Capitalising on the donation to Devon Libraries of a touring collection of 51 books, the third session revolved around the impact of reading on loneliness, as opposed to the importance of library use. With a philosophical perspective on the goods of reading, led by Tom Roberts of Egenis, conversation turned on how books make us feel, how we identify with fictional characters, and how authors can craft fulfilling and familiar worlds in their work. There was a clamour to be the first library to take the collection. Dawlish scraped through narrowly, with Exmouth, Cullompton, and South Molton forced to form an orderly queue.
Finally, Harry West, an anthropologist, and Paul Cleave, a sociologist, spoke about their work on loneliness, memory, and food at Crediton library. This was followed by a panel of librarians, reflecting on the day and drawing out important themes which had gone unexplored – not least the issue of loneliness among librarians in small rural libraries.
The day had excellent feedback, and many attendees resolved to take action in their own libraries. It perhaps functioned best as a means of bringing librarians together and giving them space to think seriously about loneliness in a number of contexts and what they might do to alleviate it, and subsequently as a knowledge exchange for best practice and innovation. We are getting our heads together very soon to think about how we can build on this work in a lasting way.