The British Library - Museums Association

The British Library

The project, funded by the British Library, was designed to demonstrate how object-based learning in a cultural setting can support skills development for adults with learning disabilities.

To that end the British Library in London tested a range of different uses of the building and exhibitions to support adults with learning disabilities. Support staff and service users at Ermine Road Day Opportunities, a Haringey-based day centre offering support to disabled people have been the main stakeholders in this project.
The aim was to develop a more long-term opportunity for this audience, share best practice and expertise, develop a long-term partnership with Ermine Road Day Opportunities, and raise the confidence of participants in visiting cultural institutions.

Feedback from Ermine Road’s first visit suggested that, like many museums and galleries, the British Library attempts to replicate workshops for primary age children and use them for adults with learning disabilities, and that this rarely works.
Following this feedback, members of the British Library Learning Team met with support workers to explore a collaborative way forward to open up the Library to a wider audience and ensure future visits were successful. This discussion led to Between the Lines, a tailor-made project developed in partnership with centre staff to meet the diverse and complex needs of participants.

The team created open-ended activities that could be done in any order, meaning that support workers and workshop leaders could respond to the interests and needs of the group. Each workshop included multi-sensory activities based around the themes of books and language, sound and movement, and shapes and space.
Collection areas which sessions particularly focussed on included maps, sound recordings and printed books; participants were also encouraged to engage with the fabric of the building itself.
Through multiple visits, participants began to develop an understanding of the Library and build relationships with each other and with Learning Team staff. Examples of specific activities included: examining a 3D model of the Library with magnifying glasses; sticking and stamping activities inspired by the Philatelic collection; using mirrors to reflect mouth shapes inspired by the audio recordings in the Treasures Gallery.
In all sessions the emphasis was on the process rather than the final product. It was important that the activities took place in the public spaces of the Library, as community presence is a key factor in representing people with disabilities positively.
There were three phases to the project. In each phase, up to six sessions were planned at the Library, with participants visiting once per month. Each workshop responded to previous sessions, emphasising the importance of building familiarity.

The British Library had two key contacts at the centre: a support worker and a staff member from Artscope, an arts programme for adults with learning difficulties – they promoted the project to staff and centre users at Ermine Road.

The support workers have given detailed feedback on individual changes in a person’s attitude, achievement, happiness, willingness to join in and sense of wellbeing as a result of the sessions at the library.

Material outcomes from the sessions have included collage, postcards, music, stamps, maps and songs. All participants have received certificates of achievement to record their involvement in the project.
Emotional outcomes were often less immediately obvious but have perhaps been more important and will last longer. For the participants, emotional outcomes have included a sense of empowerment, better access to the library’s spaces and collections, and engagement with each other.

Support workers spoke of their enjoyment in the interaction between group members and the increased confidence felt by all. A further positive outcome was in raising awareness among all library users.

Activities often took place in the library’s public spaces, which in the words of the group leader meant the participants “witnessed other educational groups using the library in the way that we were and vice-versa, thus demonstrating a good example of equal opportunity [and] this reinforces community presence and access”.

The British Library now offers Between the Lines to any adult group with learning difficulties. It is now a core session at the library, promoted on its website, and bookable by any centre catering for adults with learning disabilities.
The library has not yet been able to generate as much interest as it had hoped in the sessions and is keen to explore other ways of raising awareness about the free workshops, and using the recent Lemos and Crane report to identify ways of working in the future.