Autism-friendly cities: making a world of difference

At this time of year, high streets and shops across the country are bustling, decked out with lights and colourful decorations, and of course, the familiar Christmas tunes.

For many, this is part and parcel of the exciting run up to Christmas.  However, for autistic people, the added crowds, lights and noise can turn an already challenging experience into a sensory nightmare.

Indeed, although more than 1 in 100 people in the UK are on the autism spectrum, many still struggle to access local shops and services.  Places that many neurotypical people may take for granted – shops, theatres, cinemas, cafes and restaurants, hairdressers, libraries and museums, public toilets, and public transport – can be particularly challenging environments for autistic people.

Unpredictable and unfamiliar noises, lights, smells, crowds, queues, and other events can be overwhelming, and may cause sensory distress – ultimately leading to a meltdown.  Meltdowns may present as crying, screaming, kicking, biting or lashing out.  A lack of understanding and awareness of autism among the public – including unfriendly looks, judgements and comments – can further enhance the distress experienced.

In 2015, a YouGov poll found that 99.5% of people in the UK had heard of autism. However, there remains a lack of public understanding about how it may present, and the associated challenges autistic people face.  This is perhaps best illustrated by the recent case of a young woman with Asperger’s being forcibly removed from a cinema for ‘laughing too loudly’.  Unfortunately, this experience is not unique.  Research has found that as many as 28% of people have been asked to leave a public space because of behaviour associated with autism.

Indeed, many autistic people and their families have changed their own behaviour to reduce the chance of experiencing intolerance from the public.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that social isolation is a common issue – 79% of autistic people and 70% of parents feel socially isolated.  Almost half (44%) sometimes don’t go out because they’re worried about how people will react.

Increasing public understanding

The recent Too Much Information (TMI) campaign, delivered by the National Autistic Society (NAS), aims to increase public understanding of the five core features of autism.

Those five core features are:

  • anxiety in social situations
  • anxiety with unexpected changes
  • sensory overload
  • meltdowns
  • processing time

Creating an autism friendly city

One response has been the drive towards the creation of ‘autism-friendly’ cities.

According to Autism Together and Autism Adventures, an autism-friendly city is one in which autistic people can ‘use public transport, shop for food and clothes, take part in sports and leisure activities, visit cultural and tourist institutions and eat in restaurants.’

The NAS have established an ‘Autism Friendly Award’, which aims to help businesses make the small changes that make the most difference to autistic people.  Their Autism Friendly Awards toolkit sets out a helpful five-point checklist:

  • customer information: providing appropriate information to help support autistic people and their families’ visitor or customer experience
  • staff understanding of autism: developing staff understanding
  • physical environment: making appropriate and reasonable adjustments within the limits of the physical environment
  • customer experience: a willingness to be flexible and providing a clear way for autistic people and their families to provide feedback
  • promoting understanding: committing to helping increase wider public understanding of autism

Examples of good practice

In Glasgow, the council have been working to make the city centre autism-friendly.  The plans have focused initially upon shopping centres, transport hubs, museums, cinemas and key operational staff across the city centre.

The Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT), Scotland’s oldest independent cinema, recently became the first cinema in the UK to achieve an Autism Friendly Award for their work with children and adults.  This includes monthly screenings for autistic adults and children, with the volume slightly lowered, stair lights remaining switched on, house lights dimmed and a chill out zone provided. Trained ‘autism facilitators’ also answer questions at the end of each film.

Other organisations have followed the GFT’s lead. Glasgow Science Centre, for example, has recently introduced autism friendly hours.

In the North East, Aberdeen has also announced its intention to work towards autism-friendly status.

As well as raising awareness and making key shopping locations more accessible for autistic people, Aberdeen also plans to introduce autism-friendly libraries, including pop up sensory sessions designed for autistic children.

Research has shown as many as 40% of people with autism never visit a library – however, 90% have said they would be more likely to visit their local library if some changes were made.

Such adjustments include staff training, increased tolerance of noise and understanding from the public.  Dimensions have released free online training and top tips for libraries looking to become autism-friendly. It notes that while many people with autism need a quiet environment, they may make noise themselves – for example, by talking to themselves or others, becoming excitable or moving around. They highlight the importance of making clear to the public that the library is autism-friendly, which includes a tolerance of certain levels of noise.

Other cities that have been working towards autism-friendly status include: Bristol –  whose airport has won an Autism Friendly Award; Liverpool – where autism champions are being supported to recognise and respond to autism; and Newcastle in Northern Ireland – which has been named as Northern Ireland’s first autism-friendly town. It is anticipated that being autism-friendly will help boost the local economy and tourism.

Other ways to make cities autism-friendly

As well as organisations themselves making adjustments and promoting autism understanding among staff and customers, there are a few other ways in which cities can be made more autism-friendly.

Making public transport more accessible is a key challenge.  More than half of autistic people avoid public transport due to fears of disruption.  There are many things that can be done to help make public transport less distressing for autistic people.

From an architecture and design perspective, there are also many other things that can help to make urban buildings and spaces more accessible, in regard to ventilation, acoustics, heating, lighting, layout and outdoor spaces.

From a town planning perspective – there is currently a lack of research and guidance on the design of places for autistic people per se, however, there may be some transferability of lessons from work on the creation of dementia-friendly and child-friendly spaces.

For example, the provision of clear signage and removal of street clutter may be beneficial for autistic people.  Edinburgh City Council has recently banned on-street advertising structures in order to make streets more accessible for people with disabilities.

There have also been concerns raised that shared spaces – including the removal of road signs, traffic crossings and delineation between roads/walkways – may negatively impact upon autistic people, who may struggle with the uncertainty such schemes deliberately create.  This is an area where more research and guidance is needed.

The way forward

Creating a city that is autism-friendly requires a multi-faceted approach that includes both raising public awareness and understanding, and creating towns and places that allow for the specific challenges that are faced by autistic people and their families.

Many steps that can be taken are low cost and easy to implement – and support is available from a range of national and local autism organisations, such as the NAS.

Even just reacting with kindness and compassion when witnessing a possible autistic meltdown – perhaps offering some solution such as a quiet space – is significant.  The sum of these small changes can make a world of difference to autistic people and their families.

I wouldn’t change my son for the world but I will change the world for my son.” Julie Simpson, Founder of Autism Adventures


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Feel better with a book … why bibliotherapy may be just the medicine we’re looking for

By Morwen Johnson

It’s not just dedicated bookworms or librarians who get excited that Christmas means piles of book-shaped parcels under the Christmas tree (and time to read them too!). Books are the second most popular Christmas gift for adults in the UK, behind chocolate. But now we’re into the New Year it’s worth remembering that books are for life, not just for Christmas. And the benefits of books go much further than keeping your brain active and passing the time.

Reading involves ‘emotional thinking’ and in the words of The Reader, books “are full of the stuff that makes us human”. That means that they can be a powerful resource for improving mental health.

“I felt better than before … I felt understood”

We’ve written a couple of times on our blog about social prescribing – and how the NHS is recognising that non-medical treatments such as arts activities or gardening can improve mental and physical health. The use of bibliotherapy and self-help reading is part of this focus on holistic health and self-management of long-term or chronic health conditions. And a recent systematic review has added to the evidence base, finding that bibliotherapy is effective in reducing adults’ depressive symptoms in the long-term, “providing an affordable prompt treatment that could reduce further medications”.

The Reading Agency’s Books on Prescription scheme has been running nationally in England since 2013 and since it started has been expanded to cover Books on Prescription for common mental health conditions, Books on Prescription for dementia, Reading Well for young people and Reading Well for long term conditions. 635,000 people are estimated to have benefited from the schemes.

Books can be recommended by GPs or other health professionals but are also available on self-referral for anyone to borrow, as part of public libraries’ health offer. Similar schemes can be accessed in other parts of the UK.

And the social enterprise The Reader has many years’ experience of how shared reading groups and reading aloud projects can be used to increase health and wellbeing.

The healing power of imagination and creativity

It’s not just self-help books which can help improve health – reading fiction and poetry can also help. The author Philip Pullman recently said that comfort can be found in books, and the familiar act of reading, in an uncertain world. And Blake Morrison, writing back in 2008 on fledgling bibliotherapy initiatives, quoted Hector, in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, as saying how, in the presence of great literature, “it’s as if a hand has reached out and taken our own”.

The unique value of fiction is that we can recognise aspects of our own lives in the characters and imaginary worlds of books and in many cases, narratives of change, of transformation, of recovery, can provide comfort or hope. In other situations, books can literally put into words, difficult experiences which people struggle to admit or talk about. They can also promote understanding of other people’s situations, very different to our own.

This is true not just in literary works –acclaimed graphic novels and memoirs have shone a light on topics such as the experience of psychosis (Look Straight Ahead), cancer (When David Lost His Voice; and Probably Nothing); eating disorders (Lighter Than My Shadow); OCD (The Bad Doctor); childhood anxiety (Everything is Teeth) and grief (The End).

And children’s publishing is also a medium for helping children process difficult emotions or experiences –for example Duck, Death and the Tulip is visually beautiful and heartfelt. For anyone interested in how books can help children’s mental health, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has a useful online resource list of books for children and also for teenagers.

A lifeline and a consolation

It’s worth remembering the important role that libraries play in supporting wellbeing. As well as supporting bibliotherapy initiatives, public libraries are safe spaces which people who are isolated, lonely or ill can come to for support and to make connections. Research for the Arts Council estimated that these improvements to health save the NHS around £27.5million a year.

Reading is not just a leisure activity. For many people, the information and stories found in books – whether bought, borrowed from libraries, or shared between friends – can provide a lifeline.

In the words of Daisy Goodwin, introducing her book 101 Poems That Could Save Your Life, “there may not be a cure, but there is always a consolation”.


The Knowledge Exchange are a team of researchers and librarians based in Glasgow, who comment on and curate information on social policy.

You can follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. There may also be a few book-related quotes occasionally!

Getting to grips with planning law and with neighbourhood planning … New books in our library

Anyone who reads our blog will know that our research team care about supporting the use of evidence in practice, whether that’s in social services, in housing, or in planning. And one of the unique resources we have to help do this is our very own library!

Created over forty years, there are more than 60,000 books and reports in the library collection, as well as hundreds of different journal titles. Our members can borrow any book from our collection via a postal loan service – offered free as part of the organisational membership subscription to our Idox Information Service.

While quick reads – such as the briefings written by our own team – will always be popular given the pressures on people’s time, there’s still a place for real books. Many organisations use membership of our service as a way to support their staff’s CPD – whether that’s informal personal development or supplementary support for staff doing formal courses or degrees.

Supporting professional CPD

We’re regularly adding new books to our collection and two that caught my eye recently are in the field of planning. We’ve a lot of members who work in planning across the UK, including the RTPI (Royal Town Planning Institute) themselves, and as a profession, planners commit to maintain and develop their expertise through Continuing Professional Development.

Using our book loan service is one way that our members can access new publications and stay up-to-date with current thinking in their sector.

  • Localism and Neighbourhood Planning

Neighbourhood planning was one of the rights and powers introduced under the Localism Act of 2011, and was expected to offer ” a new way for communities to decide the future of the places where they live and work”. Six years on, a new book edited by Sue Bronhill and Quintin Bradley, reflects on whether neighbourhood planning has succeeded in increasing democratic engagement with the planning system.

In particular it examines how localism has played out in practice, especially given the legal and technical skills that are required in planning. As well as exploring the situation in England, the book also looks at how multi-level governance is being applied in the other parts of the UK and in countries such as Australia and France.

It raises interesting questions about whether neighbourhood planning has changed the institutional structure of planning and the power relations involved. It also asks whether an even more progressive form of localism within planning might emerge.

  • Essential Guide to Planning Law

With the planning systems and law devolved within the UK, a book which provides an overview of how practice differs in each nation is much needed. This book covers all the core areas, from development management, planning conditions, planning control and enforcement. It also addresses the planning arrangements in specialist areas such as minerals planning, waste planning and marine planning.

The book serves as a useful reminder of how and why planning decisions are made, and the legal frameworks that underpin planning practice.

The Idox Information Service

As Dr Mike Harris, Deputy Head of Policy and Research at the Royal Town Planning Institute, has said, it’s important that the planning profession is able to access and use evidence and research.

“Research and theory can help to lift the perspective of practitioners beyond the day-to-day demands of the job, to provoke reflection and discussion about the wider social purposes and values of planning. It can also help us better to defend planning from those who would seek to erode it further.”


Our members include policy makers and practitioners from organisations including local authorities, central government, universities, think tanks, consultancies and charities. They work in challenging environments and often need evidence to inform service delivery or decision-making.

Get more information on membership here or contact us to arrange a free trial of our service for your organisation.

Introducing the Idox Information Service … supporting evidence use for over 40 years

Exterior of the Idox Information Service office in Glasgow

Exterior of the Idox Information Service office in Glasgow

As a team who work every day to supply evidence and good practice to our clients in the public sector and consultancies, it would be easy to feel a bit down about the ease with which the idea of a post-truth world has taken grip.

In fact however, it’s heartening that so many organisations continue to recognise the value that our service brings. Not only does it offer a continuing professional development resource for staff, it also acts as a channel for knowledge sharing between organisations – helping them when they have to review services, look for efficiencies, or transform what they do in light of changing government policy or priorities.

We know that much of what we do can remain hidden, even to our own members. So let’s go under the bonnet of our unique service …

Who we are

The Idox Information Service is a membership library service, which was established over forty years ago – originally under the name of the Planning Exchange. At the outset, the emphasis was on the provision of resources to support professionals working in planning and the built environment in Scotland, but over the years we’ve expanded our subject coverage to cover the whole spectrum of public sector information, and across the UK.

Our members include policy makers and practitioners from organisations including local authorities, central government, universities, think tanks, consultancies and charities. They work in challenging environments and often need evidence to inform service delivery or decision-making.

Our work

Our team is made up of a mix of researchers, public policy specialists and qualified librarians, along with support staff. They have professional memberships, including chartered membership of CILIP and the Social Research Association. This picture shows the typical range of activities in a year:

2014 statsPublic policy is an ever-evolving subject and so current awareness services are a big part of what we do. Members can set up their own subject alerts on anything that interests them, and we also have a set of weekly and fortnightly updates on common topics. Last year we added three new current awareness updates on Devolution, Smart Cities and of course, Brexit!

UK grey literature is a particular strength of our collection. We spend a lot of time sourcing documents such as technical reports from government agencies, and research reports produced by think tanks, university departments, charities and consultancies which are often overlooked by other databases. Recent research has highlighted the value of grey literature for public policy and practice.

We also write our own research briefings for members on different topics, with more detailed analysis of research and policy developments, and including case studies and good practice. Some of these briefings are publicly available on our publications page.

The interest from members in using our Ask a Researcher service has been increasing, due to the time pressures and other challenges that people face in sourcing and reviewing information. An example looking at the links between employee wellbeing and productivity is on our website. Members regularly comment on the usefulness of the results, and it’s satisfying to be able to make a direct contribution to their work in this way.

Keeping it personal

While our online database allows our members to search for and access resources themselves, there is a strong personal element to our work.

Our members know that we’re always available at the end of the phone or via email to provide them with dedicated support when they need it. It’s important to us that we provide a quality service which keeps pace with the changing needs and expectations of a varied membership base.

Hopefully, this article has provided some insight into the way that the Knowledge Exchange supports staff and organisations across a variety of fields. More information about the service can be found here.


In 2015, the Idox Information Service was recognised as a key organisation supporting evidence use in government and the public sector. It was named by NESTA / Alliance for Useful Evidence / Social Innovation Partnership in their mapping of the UK evidence ecosystem.

We also contribute data to the Social Policy and Practice database, which focuses on health and social care evidence, and is a resource recommended by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Going through the roof: could building upwards address London’s housing problem?

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The Ter Meulen Building, Rotterdam: 21st century residential apartments built on top of a post-war shopping centre

The housing challenges facing London are well documented::

  • London needs around 50,000 new homes a year, but housebuilding is running at around half that.
  • Between 2005 and 2015, private rents in London rose by an average of 35%.
  • Future projections suggest there will be 9m people in London by 2020, 10m by 2030 and 11m by 2050.

There are now serious concerns that the lack of affordable housing and rising rents risk driving key workers out of London, and may cause businesses to think twice about locating in the capital. But as well as triggering dire warnings about the future of London and the UK economy, the housing crisis has also prompted increasingly creative ideas on how to solve it.

Going up

Last year, Darren Johnson, who represented the Green Party on the Greater London Assembly, proposed five ideas to secure land for affordable homes. One of his proposals was to build additional storeys on top of existing buildings.

Johnson suggested that this approach has many advantages over demolishing existing properties and building new homes, including:

  • a shorter period of disruption for residents;
  • more environmentally friendly than demolition and rebuilding
  • an opportunity to refurbish the existing homes

He offered the example of the Ducane Housing Association in Hammersmith, which built 44 new homes on top of two 1970s buildings. Based on data from London’s Borough Councils, Johnson estimated that almost 50,000 new homes could be built using Ducane’s example.

One potential stumbling block is the difficulty of getting planning permission for intensive construction projects in the heart of active communities. However, in July 2015, the Treasury signalled the government’s intent to end the need to obtain planning permission for upwards extensions in London.

Building on public buildings

Another approach, on similar lines, is the idea of building new homes on top of publically owned buildings. In 2015, WSP professional services consultants conducted a survey to gauge interest in the idea. Among their findings:

  • 61% of respondents supported the idea of allowing private developers to refurbish government buildings, allowing them to make their money back by building additional housing on top of the refurbished building, which they could sell for profit.
  • Over 60% of Londoners would happily live above a library, while 44% would be willing to live above a government administration building, and around a quarter of Londoners would be willing to live above a school or hospital.

The WSP report went on to suggest that developing all available sites by building apartments above all available public buildings in London could provide over 630,000 residential units.

“Of course we acknowledge that not every building will be able to be redeveloped in this way, but even targeting one in every two municipal buildings could go a long way in solving the housing crisis, providing 315,000 homes.”

These homes, the report argued, would be most suitable for key workers employed by these facilities, or by students, older people and young professionals. Some may even house those working in the facilities below.

One landlord is already exploring the idea with several London councils. Apex Housing Group has experience of converting airspace above properties into luxury penthouse apartments. Managing director Arshad Bhatti believes the principle could be applied to affordable homes:

“We are working with a number of local authorities across London and expect airspace development projects will help bridge the gap between demand and supply of new homes in London – crucially with minimum lead times, and offering maximum value for property owners.”

The view from overseas

The idea of building up may be relatively new to London, but other densely populated cities have already been exploring its possibilities.

  • In Rotterdam, developers have been combining ultra-lightweight materials to build apartments on top of a 1940s shopping centre.
  • In New York, a developer is planning to construct a nine-storey condominium on top of apartments dating from the 1950s.
  • In Paris, three prefab dwellings attached to the rooftops of existing buildings were completed in January 2016.

The architects of the Paris project believe it has multiple benefits:

“Building on top of the roofs is not only an ecological and economical solution, it’s working against the urban sprawl that kills the social link. It’s also a contemporary way to discover new perspectives of the city, a new Paris above the horizon.”

But not everyone is happy with the idea. Residents in the existing apartments beneath the proposed New York condominium are concerned that the wear and tear of construction could damage their properties. And they’re also worried about the stability of the columns supporting the new building.

The only way is up?

Clearly, building on existing properties is not without its problems. But as the housing crisis in London intensifies, and spreads to other parts of the UK, it’s an idea that may no longer be regarded as pie in the sky.


If you liked this post, you may also be interested in other blog posts on suggestions for tackling the UK housing crisis:

Makerspaces – bringing creativity and innovation to communities

ernycfwp8iBy Donna Gardiner

Makerspaces, hackerspaces, fab labs, hack labs – the variety of terms can seem a little bewildering at first.  Although there may be subtle differences between these, essentially they all share the same key features:

  • the provision of a shared space where people can come together to share skills, ideas and equipment
  • a focus on informal, peer-led, networked ‘learning by doing’
  • an encouraging and inclusive environment, where people of all skill levels are welcome

As well as the names used, makerspaces can also vary widely in terms of their size, the tools offered, and their governance and membership models.

Makerspaces have grown from the increasing popularity of ‘maker culture’ – in which people enjoy designing and creating new objects, as well as tinkering with existing ones.  In the UK, the number of makerspaces is growing rapidly – there are currently around 100 – with at least one in nearly every UK city, and at least two in every UK region.

What sort of activities do they include?

Makerspaces most commonly provide access to machinery like 3D printers, electronics, soldering guns, laser cutters, and sewing machines.

However, other activities that makerspaces may facilitate include:

  • computer programming
  • robotics
  • video production
  • music making
  • print making and photography
  • woodworking and wood carving
  • ceramics and sculpture
  • baking, homebrewing, winemaking, and pickling
  • urban agriculture and composting
  • handmade cosmetics and perfumes
  • hairdressing lessons
  • kit cars, vehicle tuning, electric vehicle conversion

Aside from the physical resources, one of the key benefits of makerspaces is that they attract skilled and enthusiastic people who are happy to share their knowledge with others.

Makerspaces within libraries

The makerspace ethos of providing equal access to knowledge resources is not a new concept; libraries have been doing this for many years!

The increasing popularity of makerspaces has led to many forward thinking libraries establishing makerspaces of their own, particularly in the US.  One of the first to do this was the Fayetteville Free Library in New York – which has three distinct makerspaces – one lab for digital creation, one for physical creation, and a makerspace for children aged 5-8. It also runs a number of different programmes and clubs for both adults and children.

Makerspaces are also becoming more common within school and academic libraries too.

In the UK, library makerspaces are still in their infancy. However, there are a few notable trailblazers, including:

Wider benefits of Makerspaces

The main reasons people tend to use makerspaces are for socialising, learning and making. However, there is growing interest among researchers in the wider benefits of makerspaces.

Such community benefits include:

  • enabling minorities or underrepresented populations, like women or people with disabilities, to become involved with technology or other fields they may not have previously considered
  • tackling social isolation among older people by providing a means for them to connect with others (similar to Men’s Sheds)
  • providing a ‘space for communities’ and reinforcing the library’s role as a hub of community activity and information
  • crowdsourcing’ community skills and voluntary effort – for example, the E-Nable community where volunteers produce prosthetic limbs for people with disabilities

From an educational perspective, makerspaces in libraries can also help to:

  • build links between libraries, schools, colleges and universities
  • promote STEM education and careers, particularly among underrepresented groups
  • develop students’ critical thinking skills and ability to learn from failure

And for libraries themselves, the provision of makerspaces may help to

  • increase footfall, particularly among young people
  • position the library as a ‘platform’ where it can be used by the community for a range of different things, beyond traditional book lending

There is also potential for makerspaces to be used by local councils to fill empty shops and attract people back to the high street. For example, South London Makerspace recently received funding from the GLA High Street Fund.

Although there are some issues to address, particularly around encouraging users from diverse backgrounds, makerspaces present a fantastic range of opportunities for encouraging creativity and fostering connections in and between communities.


We regularly blog on community issues such as tackling social exclusion. If you enjoyed this article, read our articles on Men’s Sheds and regenerating High Streets.

And follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Are you a managerial fox or a smart citizen? The books creating a buzz amongst our members

Number 95

Entrance to our Glasgow office – 95 Bothwell Street

One of the things that many people are surprised to find out is that we have a real library here in our Glasgow office. Created over forty years, there are more than 60,000 books and reports in the library collection, as well as a wide range of journals.

Our members can borrow any book from our collection via a postal loan service – offered free as part of the membership subscription to our Idox Information Service.

While the quick read – such as the briefings written by our own team – will always be popular given the pressures on people’s time, there’s still a place for real books. Many organisations use membership of our service as a way to support their staff’s CPD – whether that’s informal personal development or supplementary support for staff doing formal courses or degrees.

What’s hot at the moment

Some of our most popular books recently have been these ones:

  • Inside the Nudge Unit: how small changes can make a big difference

Behavioural insights, and how these can be used within policymaking in order to shape and improve outcomes, has always been popular as a search topic on our database. Now this book, written by David Halpern, who headed up Number 10’s ‘Nudge Unit’ or Behavioural Insights Team (now spun out as an independent company jointly owned by the UK Government; Nesta and it’s employees) sheds light on how it works. The book explores how simple changes to language and communications have been shown to promote ‘desired behaviours’ – examples include reducing missed NHS appointments, increasing charitable giving or encouraging job seekers into work.

  • Smart citizens, smarter state: the technologies of expertise and the future of governing

We wrote on our blog about this book, by Beth Simone Noveck, which argues that government (at all scales) makes too little use of the skills and practical expertise of its employees and citizens. It sets out a vision for a new form of participatory democracy, which isn’t based on consultation exercises or occasional voting, but in harnessing the power of people’s knowledge and ‘know-how’.

  • The public sector fox

What are the twelve skills that managers need to thrive in the public sector? This book reveals all! From strategy, planning, finance, communication and people management to the skills of resilience, perspective and commitment – working (and succeeding) in the public sector requires an acceptance of the constraints and an understanding of the opportunities. This book offers something for managers at every level, which probably explains why it has been so popular with our members.

  • The urban section: an analytical tool for cities and streets

Our collection has a strong focus on the built environment and this book, aimed at architects and planners, looks at how well-designed streets are crucial for successful places. Although it was published in 2014, it continues to appeal to our users thanks to its mix of practical case studies and thought-provoking discussion. You can hear the author Robert Mantho, who teaches at Glasgow’s Mackintosh School of Architecture, discuss his ideas in this video.

  • The new rules of marketing and PR / Marketing for dummies

Finally, it’s clear that many of our users are having to get to grips with social media as part of their jobs, if the popularity of these two books from our library is anything to go by. Whether it’s marketing yourself via personal networks, or promoting the work of your organisation to a wider audience, many marketing approaches are becoming embedded into our daily working lives.

These two introductory texts give a good overview as well as practical advice for those who want to learn more about how things like blogs, online video, and good content can help you target your communications and understand your customers (or service users) – something that’s relevant for the public sector as well as for voluntary organisations and businesses.


Our members include policy makers and practitioners from organisations including local authorities, central government, universities, think tanks, consultancies and charities. They work in challenging environments and often need evidence to inform service delivery or decision-making.

Get more information on membership here or contact us to arrange a free trial of our service for your organisation.

A book for everything that ails us … why bibliotherapy could be just the medicine we’re looking for

platform reading

Image: Moriza (CC BY 2.0)

By Morwen Johnson

Many of us will have received books as Christmas presents last month – and the bestseller lists testify to their continuing popularity despite regular doom-mongering. The benefits of books go much further though than keeping your brain active and passing the time. Reading involves ‘emotional thinking’ and in the words of The Reader, books “are full of the stuff that makes us human”. That means that they can actually be a powerful resource for improving mental health.

“I felt better than before … I felt understood”

Last year we wrote on our blog about social prescribing – and how the NHS is recognising that non-medical treatments such as arts activities or exercise can improve patient’s mental and physical health. This is partly linked to the emphasis on enabling self-management support to be given to people with long-term or chronic health conditions. The use of bibliotherapy and self-help reading is a valuable aspect of social prescribing.

The Reading Agency’s Books on Prescription scheme has been running nationally in England since 2013 and was expanded last year to include a reading list to support people with dementia and their carers. In its first year, an evaluation showed that it had reached 275,000 people with book-based cognitive behavioural therapy. The scheme is evidence-based and works within NICE guidelines. Books can be recommended by GPs or other health professionals but are also available on self-referral for anyone to borrow. Similar schemes can be accessed in other parts of the UK.

The healing power of imagination and creativity

It’s not just self-help books which can help improve health however – reading fiction and poetry can also help. Blake Morrison, writing back in 2008 on fledgling bibliotherapy initiatives, quoted Hector, in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, as saying how, in the presence of great literature, “it’s as if a hand has reached out and taken our own”. We can recognise aspects of our own lives in the characters and imaginary worlds of books and in many cases, narratives of change, of transformation, of recovery, can provide comfort or hope. In other situations, books can literally put into words, difficult experiences which people struggle to admit or talk about.

This is true not just in literary works –acclaimed graphic novels and memoirs have shone a light on topics such as the experience of psychosis (Look Straight Ahead), cancer (When David Lost His Voice; and Probably Nothing); eating disorders (Lighter Than My Shadow); OCD (The Bad Doctor); childhood anxiety (Everything is Teeth) and grief (The End).

And children’s publishing is also a medium for helping children process difficult emotions or experiences –for example Duck, Death and the Tulip is visually beautiful and heartfelt. For anyone interested in how books can help children’s mental health, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has a useful online resource list of books for children.

Taking the idea of the healing power of reading and providing a creative spin, the Emergency Poet offers prescription poems and poetic pills. Deborah Alma was inspired by her experience using poetry to support dementia patients, to think about how poems could be used as a therapeutic way to encourage people to discuss stress. She now travels in a converted ambulance to festivals, schools and libraries, providing literacy solace on the move.

And the social enterprise The Reader has many years’ experience of how shared reading groups and reading aloud projects can be used to increase health and wellbeing.

Libraries are the best pill

As public libraries come under increased pressure from councils trying to make budget savings, it’s worth remembering during the economic arguments that free access to books does not just help improve literacy. Research for the Arts Council last year found that libraries make a positive contribution to people’s health and wellbeing. In fact they estimated that these improvements to health save the NHS around £27.5million a year. The Carnegie Trust and CILIP also advocate strongly for the wider benefits of public library services in the 21st century.

Public libraries are safe spaces which people who are isolated, lonely or ill can come to for support and to make connections. As mentioned, many libraries are involved in Books on Prescription schemes (in England it is part of the Universal Health Offer), run social reading groups, and benefit both individuals and community wellbeing. Librarians have expanded their professional skills to work on these multi-agency projects and tailor them for their own local communities’ needs. For example, Kirklees Libraries and Information Centres was a finalist in the 2013 CILIP Libraries Change Lives Award for its Reading and You scheme which uses bibliotherapy in libraries, hospitals and community organisations’ premises. And yet libraries continue to be seen as an easy target for cost-cutting.

A lifeline and a consolation

Reading is not just a leisure activity. Libraries are not just buildings which have been superseded by the internet. For many people, the information and stories found in books – whether bought, borrowed from libraries, or shared between friends – can provide a lifeline.

In the words of Daisy Goodwin, introducing her book 101 Poems That Could Save Your Life, “there may not be a cure, but there is always a consolation”.


The Knowledge Exchange are a team of researchers and librarians based in Glasgow, who comment on and curate information on social policy.

You can read more about us in this blog article and on our website.

And of course, you can follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. There may also be a few book-related quotes occasionally!

Volunteers in libraries: an alternative to closures, or a risk to the professionals?

Manchester Central Library. (Photograph: James Carson)

Manchester Central Library. (Photograph: James Carson)

By James Carson

Anyone doubting the capacity of libraries to stir up strong feelings need look no further than the debate concerning volunteers in public libraries. In 2011, when the leader of Oxfordshire County Council called for increases in the use of volunteers in public libraries, the author Philip Pullman was quick to respond:

‘Does he think the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea?’

Volunteers in a changing library landscape

The use of volunteers in libraries is not new. But the nature of volunteering in libraries is changing, largely due to increasing budgetary pressures on local authorities. Since 2010, reductions in the grants given by central government to local authorities have forced many councils to review their services, and some have decided to close one or more public libraries in their area.

Some commentators have argued that because fewer people are using them the closure of public libraries is no great loss. It’s true that usage is down on previous years: a 2012 report by the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport (CMS) Committee observed that footfall and borrowing figures in libraries have fallen steadily in England since the 1990s.

But the committee also noted that many libraries have adapted to changing needs, providing other important, but hard-to-measure benefits to communities, such as literacy campaigns in areas of social deprivation and free internet access for unemployed and socially excluded people.

The emergence of community libraries

As an alternative to library closures, a growing number of councils have responded to funding cuts by handing over library facilities to volunteers, enabling them to be run as ‘community libraries’.  Research conducted by the Arts Council of England in 2012 found that over 170 community libraries were in operation, representing approximately 5% of all public libraries in England. Many library authorities reported that they had plans for more community libraries in the next few years.

The Arts Council report also featured a number of case studies demonstrating the different models of community library, including those where a library has been handed over completely to the community, without any professional support, and those where there is continued access to the advice and support of professional librarians.

Professional responses

Unison, the trade union which represents many professional librarians in the UK, estimates that the number of volunteers in libraries increased by 69% between 2006/07 and 2010/11. Its policy is to acknowledge that volunteers have a role to play, but that they should not be used to cut costs, or as replacements for employed, paid, trained staff in the public library services. CILIP, the professional body for the library and information sector, has also come out against the replacement of paid professional and support roles with either volunteers or untrained administrative posts.

A postcode lottery of library services?

In 2013, a report, from the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) warned that the diversity and range of demands placed on volunteers risks diluting the professionalism of the library service and placing an unsustainable burden on volunteers themselves.

“Volunteers have an important role to play yet there is a danger they will reach saturation point and in relying on volunteers to deliver day to day services, we risk losing sight of the added value that volunteers can bring to the service more widely, for example through assisting with reading schemes.”

The NFWI report made a number of recommendations, including adequate training for volunteers, and a debate on how community-managed libraries will fit into the overall library service.

Community libraries are becoming a more common part of the local landscape, and many are providing services that would otherwise have disappeared due to library closures. But, as the NFWI report warned, there are risks associated with the increasing fragmentation of library services:

“…the proliferation of these models could lead to a ‘postcode lottery’ of library services with the creation of a two-tiered system of library provision that undermines the benefits of skilled and trained library staff and under-estimates the role that they play in both delivering an effective public service and supporting communities.”


 

The Knowledge Exchange is the research and intelligence arm of Idox. Our research team includes qualified information professionals, and subscribers to our Idox Information Service can access their expertise.

Read more about our service in our blog for National Libraries Day:

To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Happiness and productivity, and how our Ask A Researcher enquiry service can help to increase at least one of these things…

Smiley face

Image created by Sergio Barros from the Noun Project

by Laura Dobie

It’s the International Day of Happiness today. To mark the occasion on the blog, we’re going to take a closer look at a recent literature search that we did on happiness and productivity, and how the service can help our members to be more productive in their work.

Ask A Researcher

The Idox Information Service offers an Ask A Researcher enquiry service, which is very popular with our members who need to source and synthesise evidence and policy documents to meet tight deadlines. We’re often told that our searches save our members a day’s work or more, were they to conduct the searches and synthesise the research themselves, and they free up our members to work on other areas and achieve more with their day.

They can ask us to search for information on their behalf, and our team of research officers will conduct complex searches of our in-house database (over 200,000 references across a broad range of subjects in relation to economic and social policy), and other sources, where appropriate, to compile lists of relevant references to send back to the enquirer.

We don’t just send on a list of references for you to sift through: our research officers will also produce a research summary to accompany the results, which provides an analysis of the references that we have retrieved. This highlights:

  • Trends;
  • Key findings;
  • Implications for policy and practice; and
  • Significant research reports and articles, which are particularly relevant to the enquirer’s needs.

If the enquirer has asked a specific question, we will do our best to find an answer in the documents that we have sourced and present this in the summary.

Literature search on happiness and productivity

We recently carried out a search on our database for research which examined the link between levels of happiness in organisations and productivity and organisational performance. You can view this sample search here.

This search provides an ideal example of what we’re trying to do with the Ask A Researcher service: rather than simply compiling references, we have specifically highlighted resources in the results (and key words in the abstracts) which help to answer the research question.

The results describe the search terms and date limits which were used, and provide an overview of the content of the resources which were retrieved.

The summary highlights key documents within the results which are particularly pertinent to the research question, including:

  • MacLeod and Clarke’s concept of employee engagement: an analysis based on the Workplace Employment Relations Study, which explores employee engagement and organisational performance. It found that high levels of employee engagement were strongly associated with both financial performance and labour productivity.
  • Healthy staff equal healthy profits, IN Management Today, Jul/Aug 2013, pp56-57, which observes that organisations which look after the wellbeing of their employees see a return in greater commitment and higher productivity. It stressed the importance of effective communication of employee benefits, which can have a significant impact on productivity.
  • A government literature review, which has investigated the business benefits of adopting work-life balance practices, highlighting the positive association between flexible working and productivity and reduced absences, and between family friendly policies and retention and reduced absences. It observes that “A large body of evidence demonstrates that effective outcomes at the level of the individual, including job commitment, ‘happiness’, satisfaction, engagement and, in turn, discretionary effort, are all associated with business benefits such as reduced leaving intentions, fewer absences, less tardiness and improvements to performance and productivity.” (p.viii)

In addition to the results sourced from our own database, we also highlighted research from the University of Warwick, retrieved online, which also demonstrates the link between happiness and productivity.

Hopefully this article has provided some useful insights into the links between happiness and productivity, and demonstrated how our Ask A Researcher service can help our members to source and synthesise research in a short space of time and be more productive at work.

If you’d like to find out more about our Ask A Researcher service, or any other aspect of the Idox Information Service, you can contact us.