The Star Looks at Sheffield's Libraries: More than just books as Upperthorpe shows it has Zest

Matt Dean outside Upperthorpe Library. Picture: Dean Atkins
Matt Dean outside Upperthorpe Library. Picture: Dean Atkins
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If in the 21st century libraries are having to diversify rather than simply offer books on loan, Upperthorpe Library already wears many hats.

Now just one element of a bigger venture called the Zest Centre, the volunteer-managed facility operates alongside a gym, swimming pool, youth club, citizen's advice clinic and the 'pay as you feel' Citrus Café .

Emma Carpenter organising the library shelves. Picture: Dean Atkins

Emma Carpenter organising the library shelves. Picture: Dean Atkins

"The whole point is that it's integrated, it's not just one service, and it all works together really well," says Matt Dean, chief executive of Zest, the snappier trading name of the Netherthorpe & Upperthorpe Community Alliance charity.

"Books are still part of the offer. But on its own that's not going to be effective."

Upperthorpe has always led the way. The neighbourhood was home to Sheffield's first branch library, which was given its own premises in 1874 - today's centre uses the same Grade II listed building. Characterful stone carvings of two figures, a workman holding an axe and a factory girl reading a book, keep watch over the door; a nod to the libraries movement's ambitions for social reform, enabling the lower classes to educate themselves.

In 2014 the local service was entrusted to volunteers as the council made painful budget cuts. It was a challenging time, Matt remembers, but for Zest, which already existed as a charity and managed the centre, the transition was 'smaller'.

"We were ahead of the curve. We recognised the value of the building as an asset to the local community."

Upperthorpe is a diverse area - there are 28 languages spoken on its streets and a third of the population is Muslim - and levels of deprivation are higher than average.

"It's not something we make a song and dance about, because we don't want to be defined by it, but the need is intense," says Matt, indicating a small queue of people waiting to use the advice service, which helps people with housing, benefits and other matters.

"There are lots of people with English as a second language."

Twenty-five volunteers manage the library, which is open seven days a week. Its IT suite, with eight computers, is the most well-used in Sheffield apart from the Central Library's, and the children's library is one of the city's most popular, too.

Sue Turner, a former nurse from Millhouses, is cataloging books on the front desk, and says her volunteering role has brought her full circle.

"I started my working life in a library when I left school, and so I thought I would end my working life in a library. I like meeting people, I like the books, and it's a challenge."

Emma Carpenter, who is inputting entries on a computer beside Sue, signed up after moving to Sheffield from Bristol, where she was a student.

"It's just down the hill from my house, so it's really convenient, and I've worked in libraries before, which I enjoyed, so it seemed like a good idea."

Matt says the children's library will most likely grow in importance in the years to come.

"It's more of an interactive experience. I call it the family library area. In the adult library the book stock will probably diminish and shrink and there will be other digital options. That's just inevitable."

He says the children's area - furnished with two large armchairs, ideal for settling down with a story - is an 'essential resource'.

"The school environment is one thing, but it's nice to be able to come here."

Meanwhile the Citrus Café started in its present form in July as a collaboration with Sheffield's Real Junk Food Project, which recycles unwanted produce from supermarkets.

"It's been a good addition," says Matt. "Obviously the food is free, so that means we can spend more money on the chef. Once it hits lunchtime it gets really busy."

This summer Zest ran a Holiday Hunger project for schoolchildren, plating up breakfasts and lunches alongside a programme of activities. Some young visitors would not get fed otherwise, Matt admits.

"There's a lot of stigma around it. I think we served something like 1,000 meals over the six-week holiday period."

As an 'associate library', Upperthorpe is allocated just over £20,000 in funding every year from the council. The grant is a welcome contribution, but Matt knows the council wants to 'shift to zero subsidy', and is urging Sheffield's volunteer-run libraries to take a collective approach.

"Everyone should receive a sensible settlement and we need to all work together on fundraising. If you asked people, in Sheffield, whether they wanted to put a few quid in to keep the libraries going, I think you'd get broad support. Once libraries start pulling in different directions you've got a danger there."

Issuing funding based on an assessment of need could be divisive but necessary, he says.

"While we can spread the funding around to make sure libraries are there, great, but I would argue there's a secondary need in this area for somewhere people can come together."

Visit www.zestcommunity.co.uk for details.