The ongoing cost-of-living crisis, exacerbated by recent increases to gas and electricity bills, has encouraged many institutions to reconsider the services they can or should provide to patrons. Across the UK, many museums and libraries are responding to the present crisis by increasing their role as places of respite and opening as warm spaces. Given these changes, it is more important than ever for institutions to understand how they can cater for these shifting audience needs.

The changing role of libraries

Libraries have changed significantly over time to become the spaces we access today for a range of purposes. The idea of a public library openly accessible to the wider population has existed only since the mid-nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century librarians imagined these buildings primarily as spaces for education. But it is evident that many ordinary people also used library reading rooms as warm spaces or places of respite. And while the use of libraries as warm spaces has receded in recent decades, they are now once again being considered as spaces the public might turn to as they struggle to heat their own homes.

A new role for museums?

Museums are also increasingly offering their services as places of respite, a function much better suited to those venues without an entry charge. For instance, Gillian Findlay, curatorial and engagement manager at Museum and Galleries Edinburgh, recently stated that they are ‘working jointly with other local authority teams to develop a city-wide, co-ordinated Warm & Welcoming programme of spaces, resources and activities’. Dr Emma McAlister, a museum specialist at Queen’s University Belfast’s Heritage Hub told me that ‘in recent years museum spaces have shifted from object-focused to audience-focused spaces. Over the past twenty years or so they have worked to broaden their appeal to working-class and minority communities through free entry, targeted exhibitions and outreach programmes. This new focus is one of the reasons why people are able to use these spaces as places of respite’. Becoming warm spaces, therefore, may help these institutions to fulfil their remit by building deeper relationships with both existing and new audiences.

Photo by Thom Holmes on Unsplash

Meeting the challenge

From Summer 2022, several UK media outlets reported that libraries and museums were planning to open as warm banks for people struggling to heat their homes during the coming winter. But doubt was cast on their ability to provide this role given that their own rising bills threatened their ability to open as normal. In August 2022 Sharon Heal, Director of the Museums Association, told the Guardian that ‘Museums can onlybe safe warm spaces if we have sustainable funding. We are getting concerned calls almost every day from institutions saying their anticipated energy bills are five times higher than what they were last year’. And though many museums and libraries are currently open as warm spaces ( is one website providing a comprehensive directory of free, warm welcoming spaces for public use), these issues still loom large and show little sign of going away. Professional bodies have been forthcoming with guidance on how to provide welcoming spaces. For instance, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals produced a guide offering advice to institutions considering becoming warm banks and the Museums Association has published an article suggesting ways that museums can support communities through the cost-of-living crisis.

Opportunities for outreach

As we enter the winter months and the temperature plummets, debates around funding and use of warm banks continue unabated. While in an ideal world it would be unnecessary for museums and libraries to serve this function, many of these public institutions are well-suited for this task. And perhaps it gives them an opportunity to build their relationships and engage with different audiences for the first time.

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