Feature: The branch library book-ing the trend

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While most libraries have seen a sharp drop in numbers over the past few years, one is enjoying growth thanks to other services attracting everyone from expectant mums to OAPs

Visitors to Sheffield’s council-run libraries have plummeted by a quarter in the last two years, but there is one branch which is bucking the trend.

Highfield Library welcomed 67,596 people through its doors in the 2015/16 financial year, eight per cent more than in 2013/14.

During the same period, footfall at Sheffield Central Library’s lending department slumped by a third, from 298,267 to 198,907, figures obtained under The Star’s Your Right To Know campaign reveal.

Most council-managed libraries in the city saw at least a 20 per cent drop in visitors, and the picture is a similarly gloomy one for libraries in much of the country.

But Highfield’s growth hasn’t just been built on books, with a host of other services attracting everyone from expectant mums to pensioners.

Jessica Ennis-Hill

Jessica Ennis-Hill

Mother-and-baby sessions, reading groups, arts clubs, IT workshops and health checks are just some of the activities drawing a diverse range of locals to the imposing Grade II-listed building which has been a London Road landmark since 1876.

There are also visits by children’s and adult’s authors, and other events, like the Chinese New Year celebrations coming up on Saturday, January 28, where the dragon dance always draws a big crowd.

“Highfield Library has always been at the heart of the community it serves. People have been coming here for years, and they bring their children, and their children’s children,” says Joanne Parkes, who has been running the library since 2010.

“I’m lucky to have a great team and we do our best to make it a welcoming place where everyone feels comfortable, which is really important.”

Highfield is a beacon for how libraries across the city and beyond can continue to flourish in changing times, and Sheffield Council hopes to replicate its success by expanding the range of activities elsewhere.

Mindfulness courses, coding classes, knitting groups and photography sessions are among the activities being rolled out at libraries in a bid to attract new visitors and halt the alarming decline in footfall.

Joanne is convinced libraries still have a crucial role to play in the communities they serve, from giving young people their first taste of reading to entertaining and providing company for older people who might otherwise end up isolated at home.

For young readers, that means organising school visits to familiarise them with the facilities and activities to foster their love of books.

For pensioners, the library already runs coffee mornings and Joanne is keen to do more, with plans for reminiscence sessions, where older people can share memories of years gone by.

The library also caters, of course, for all those in between, from jobseekers brushing up their CVs on the computers to adults who are seeking to improve their English skills.

Since summer 2014, the library has been home to Sharrow Children’s Centre, which supports young families – a move Joanne says has proved mutually beneficial.

“We get people coming in when they’re expecting, for clinical sessions with the midwives, who are really impressed when they see what’s available here,” she said.

“We also have baby time and story-telling sessions, where families who come along can register with the children’s centre and learn about other stuff that’s happening in the area.”

Catherine Tunney, coordinator at the children’s centre, is also a big fan of the sharing arrangement.

“The library’s a very informal, non-threatening environment. When I started working here, I was amazed by what a hub of the community it is,” she said.

“It’s a great place to engage with families because it doesn’t feel cold and officious like other venues can.”

There’s always a good turnout for the library’s drop-in baby time sessions every Friday morning, from 11.15am to 12.15pm, with around 20 tots and their parents typically attending.

Emily Sheard, from Meersbrook, and her 11-month-old daughter Olive were among those enjoying the sing-alongs.

“It’s a really nice, friendly group, which represents the area’s multicultural mix and isn’t cliquey in any way,” she said, during a break in the music.

“Olive loves the music and the toys, and I’m able to pick up and drop off books, and learn about what’s going on in the area from other parents.”

Despite the ever-expanding programme of events at Highfield Library, it is teaching people to read, and developing their love of books, which Joanne believes must remain their ultimate goal.

“It’s so important for people to learn to read at a young age. It enriches people’s lives by teaching them about the world and helping them realise they can achieve almost anything they want to achieve,” she said.

“Jessica Ennis-Hill lived around the corner as a child, and used to come here, and she’s living proof of what’s possible.”

For local councillor Nasima Akther, one of the biggest factors behind Highfield Library’s success has been its willingness to listen to the community it serves.

When the library closed for five months in 2012/13 for refurbishment, including the installation of a lift, Joanne and her team made a point of asking locals what they wanted from their new-look library, and they’re still eager to hear people’s views.

“It’s a really community focused library with different language groups and a children’s library upstairs with lots of activities,” said Coun Akther, who meets constituents at her council surgeries there.

“The atmosphere is really welcoming and the staff are brilliant. Each year at the Sharrow Festival they have a stall so they can talk to people and listen to their needs, which I think other libraries could take inspiration from.”

The cash-strapped council two years ago slashed the number of libraries it runs, supporting volunteers to take over the reins at many venues.

But Coun Jack Scott, cabinet member for community services and libraries, insisted it remained committed to attracting more visitors to the city’s libraries.

“As a result of huge government cuts libraries across the country have seen a decline in visitor numbers and our figures for council-run branches are similar to the national drop,” he said.

“We’re running new things to encourage more people to visit including coding clubs for children, Mindfulness courses, knitting groups, photography classes and lots more. We’re also linking into community events and festivals as well as running our own, like last year’s successful Multi-Story library festival.

“Highfield is a great example of how user numbers are boosted when there are different activities and groups running. I’m committed to achieving more of this so more people can enjoy our wonderful libraries.”

Sheffield library  Highfield Library, London Road

Sheffield library Highfield Library, London Road