The idea of creating a neighbourhood library was developed during a survey conducted in 2012 by the local authorities, in which the residents of Praga were asked about their needs and expectations related to their place of residence. Among other ideas, the people expressed the need for the establishment of places for encounter – so called neighbours’ clubs, informal places that would serve their needs and not simply the implementation of the concept imposed. As the project coordinator claims:
“A neighbourhood library is a ‘social’ library, a grassroots initiative which meets the dreams of residents as neighbours about a place where togetherness is expressed by the exchange of good words, ideas, books, and advice.”
The main objective of the initiative ‘Neighbourhood Libraries’ is to create a place where residents can meet and talk, spend free time in a safe, pleasant environment. A neighbourhood library is a space without formal restrictions, where everyone can feel welcome and comfortable, and where users participate in deciding about the character of the place.
The initiative does not have a stable source of funding. The library is established on the ground floor of a building in a premises appropriated for a flat. The place has been adapted to the needs of the library. The organisers of the project work on a voluntary basis and the infrastructure, as well as equipment comes exclusively from donations. Thus, the main resource of the initiative are the social and cultural capital of engaged participants. Also, less valuable books or those in poor condition are sold as wastepaper for recycling, this giving some additional revenue.
The library is a place filled with books, chairs and couches to sit on, which creates an informal homely atmosphere. Each user can simply come and borrow a book – the library does not hold a register of books or participants. Although the initiative does not directly define its goals in terms of the impact on the community, however, the activity can contribute to the growth of social cohesion at the local level. This derives from the fact that the Neighbourhood Libraries initiative strives at creating spaces of encounter for people from different social backgrounds. As the coordinator of the project states:
“It turns out that the library is visited by people who – judging by their appearance – would never be interested in literature, or who are consumers of Culture. Many of our guests are recidivists, after long prison sentences. But even if people do not come to read, the fact of spending time among books and other people in the library is ennobling.”
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
The initiative is implemented in an area known in Warsaw for its social diversity and the accumulation of social problems. A considerable share of the district’s housing are old, decayed tenement buildings, often inhabited by lower social strata. On the other hand, there is an increasing number of new private housing investments which attract a growing number of relatively affluent inhabitants characterised by different needs and behaviours. As the founder of the initiative expresses, the aim of the project described, is to “attract both old and new inhabitants”. In this sense this one and ‘Neighbourhood Libraries’ in general, are to be understood as sort of informal community centres where encounter is eased (compare Fincher and Iveson, 2008). In line with that concept the library is a safe space in which ‘participants have some control over the activities in which they are engaged and the types of interaction they have’ (p. 200).
At present the interest is mainly on the side of “the old” Praga inhabitants, those representing disadvantaged social groups. Interestingly, the library is also visited primarily by men, who in relative terms represent almost 80% of the visitors. Taking into account the aspect of supporting personal development, and the interaction of different social backgrounds in order to exchange views and information, the initiative addresses both positive and negative aspects of socio-economic diversity in the neighbourhood.
Main factors influencing success or failure
The main success, according to the Coordinator of the project, is the “engagement of the local community which is reflected in many aspects”, i.e. donation of furniture and books, help with repairs, lack of vandalism and burglary of the property, regular visits paid to the library. This success is predominately due to:
– the commitment and initiative of the organisers responsible;
– their interpersonal communication skills, which allow to create an atmosphere of cooperation and friendly interactions among library visitors. As the coordinator of the project stresses: “people often come here to read, discuss, or just spend time in a friendly atmosphere”.
Another success factor is the informal character of the venue. As a frequent visitor of the library states: “The neighbourhood library is no place for ‘intellectuals’ or educated folks – a person coming here must be accepted by the diverse social environment of this neighbourhood.”
When evaluating the failure factors and barriers, the Coordinator of the project mentioned:
– the shortage of money;
– considerable failures in attempts made to obtain funding from external sources;
– poor (or lack of) cooperation with public institutions.
The financial issue is a considerable barrier to further development, as the premises in which the library is located belongs to the City, and it is necessary to pay the rent and electricity bills. The problems with obtaining external financial resources results from the fact that the project is practically not institutionalised, there is no register of activity and measure of efficiency in accomplishments and aims adopted, what creates an external barrier to meeting the demands of social projects’ funders. As the project organisers stress: “We are a cultural institution that does not have a place in the existing system. We deal with people and the promotion of culture and not the money.”
It may be assumed that another failure factor, or hindrance to further development is the image of the library, its interior – extremely informal and quite disorderly. While this may be treated as a success factor by the visitors of the library, in order to comply with most legal regulations concerning the establishment of such places, the premises would have to undergo some reorganisation and considerable ‘face-lifting’.
The ‘Neighbourhood Libraries’ project is a grassroots, area- and group-based initiative aiming at fostering interaction between neighbours and supporting social cohesion at the neighbourhood level. The form adapted – library and surrounding of books – is treated mainly as a pretext to create a friendly and pseudo-intellectual atmosphere for social encounter. The promotion of reading is a secondary objective. The conceptual assumption of the initiative is, to make the place as socially accessible as possible and as least formal as the conditions allow. According to the organisers of the project: “the main asset of the initiative are the features that distinguish the initiative from other, more institutionalised forms. Informal means more authentic, more oriented at the individual”. At the same time, there is a conflict between the sustainability and development prospects of the initiative, and the existing legal and financial framework. In order to attain any public financing, the status of the initiative would have to be regulated.
 Currently there are four places functioning in Poland in the framework of the initiative – therefore the project is entitled: ‘Neighbourhood Libraries’. The library in Praga Północ was the first one established by the group of activists and serves as a model case for the other three.