Marking one year of community-run libraries in Sheffield after controversial cut

It is one year since the running of Frenchville Library was taken over by volunteers.
It is one year since the running of Frenchville Library was taken over by volunteers.
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When 15 of Sheffield’s libraries were controversially relinquished by Sheffield Council, nobody knew if having them run by the community could work.

One year later, more than 600 volunteers have donated 52,000 hours of their own time to maintain the service in their communities.

Park Library Centre volunteer Dorothy Jones. Picture: Andrew Roe

Park Library Centre volunteer Dorothy Jones. Picture: Andrew Roe

They stepped in after the council decided to give up the libraries, despite passionate protests from thousands of people.

There are still those who feel more should have been done by the council to keep the libraries under public control and staffed by librarians who lost their jobs.

“I’d agree with people who think that, but if the council is not going to do it I’d rather the library was run by volunteers than lose the service altogether,” said volunteer Dorothy Jones.

The 76-year-old grandmother helps out at Park Library every Monday afternoon.

(l-r) Park Library Centre volunteers Dorothy Jones, Vivien Ratcliffe, co-ordinator Tracey Brown and Pippa Line. Picture: Andrew Roe

(l-r) Park Library Centre volunteers Dorothy Jones, Vivien Ratcliffe, co-ordinator Tracey Brown and Pippa Line. Picture: Andrew Roe

Dorothy added: “I’ve always enjoyed reading, and I also wanted to help because I thought to not have a local library would be awful.

“There were some people who were going to brave taking it on and I thought it would be a good thing to do.

“It seems to me there are so many parents who bring their children in to the library, those who borrow books and study and lots of people coming to use the computers who find them instrumental.

“From all points of view the library seems to be vital.

“I’m 76 and find the computing side challenging but there are other volunteers who do that so I help on the more old fashioned side of things. It’s very difficult not to find myself reading when you are sorting books out, and I always take two or three books home, so it is a total pleasure for me, it’s a wonderful way of spending an afternoon.”

Many of the 15 libraries taken over have expanded to run different sessions, such as baby massage or language classes. In Totley Library, a community cinema is to open. Park Library, on Duke Street, Park Hill, runs a café several times a week and hosts dance classes.

Dorothy, of Norfolk Park, added: “It is becoming a real centre for people. I would like it to grow from strength to strength.”

The future of libraries is now dependent on big-hearted volunteers such as Dorothy and Park Library’s Tracey Brown who she praised as a ‘wonderful leader’.

That leads to questions about sustainability, particularly when funding provided by the council will dry up after three years for those classed as ‘associate’ facilities.

However, five co-delivered libraries, including Park, will still have building and maintenance costs funded by the council plus 15 hours of support from staff.

Volunteers at Frecheville Library have overcome various challenges, including purchasing newer books than those already available through a council system and extending opening hours.

Liz Grant, who is part of the management committee and balances the role with work, said she believed community-run libraries could go the distance.

She added: “In fairness compared to other libraries our running cost are very low, about £10,000 a year without the book management system.

“Our knit and natter group is really supportive and they donate, we’ve got a lot of other community groups that pay a small fee and books are donated.

“But we do need help looking to at larger funding options because the building is in quite a poor state of repair – if we were to need a new roof that would be a very big cost.

“The challenges really are funding, where you are going to get your next bit of money from, although not so much at the moment because of the funding from the council, and getting more people through the doors.”

Frecheville resident Liz added: “I got involved as I saw the signs about the library closing and just thought it was too valuable a community asset to lose.

“We’ve met a lot of new people through the library – it is great being able to see the work that you do make a difference. Our volunteers are brilliant.”

Stannington Library organised the first ever Stannington Story Festival to mark the one year anniversary. Writers were joined by Loxley Training Band in Stannington Park and crowds listened to stories. The festival is to return next year.

Festival organiser Bob Mynors said: “As volunteers, we have the flexibility to do things not possible under local authority management – we ran a murder-mystery evening in May that was great fun and helped raise money to keep work going.

“Twelve months ago, when paid librarians shut the doors for the last time, the library would have been closed forever if it weren’t for the efforts of our volunteer team. They have trained and worked hard, and their reward is the appreciation shown by the community.”

Coun Isobel Bowler, Sheffield Council cabinet member for neighbourhoods, said: “I’d like to say a big thank you to all the volunteers who have kept our libraries open. We’re grateful for all they work they have done and I know the communities that use the libraries are really grateful too.

“It has been a challenge but people have really stepped up to the plate and helped.”