New Sheffield library sees visits soar by half, as usage falls elsewhere

Nick Partridge, libraries, archives and information manager; Councillor Mary Lea, cabinet member for culture, parks and leisure; and Alex Holyoake, library and information officer, at Woodseats library
Nick Partridge, libraries, archives and information manager; Councillor Mary Lea, cabinet member for culture, parks and leisure; and Alex Holyoake, library and information officer, at Woodseats library
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Visits to Sheffield library are continuing to fall, new figures show, but could an innovative new library hold the key to arresting that slide in popularity?

That's what council chiefs, who have hailed the success of Woodseats library since it reopened in a brand new building last September, are hoping.

Marishka Bream and her son Ziggy, aged two-and-a-half, at Woodseats library

Marishka Bream and her son Ziggy, aged two-and-a-half, at Woodseats library

Visits to the 12 council-run libraries, plus the home library service and archives, dropped by almost five per cent last year to 1,043,420, a Freedom of Information request by The Star has revealed. In 2013/14, user numbers for those services stood at nearly 1.6 million.

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Visitor numbers for the 16 community-run libraries, which the cash-strapped council handed over to volunteers to keep open in 2014, are no longer centrally recorded.

But lending figures for those venues suggest they have experienced an even more rapid decline in popularity, with the number of books borrowed halving from 498,000 when they were under council control in 2013/14 to 247,000 in 2016/17, the last year for which figures are available.

The decline is not specific to Sheffield, with library usage dropping in most parts of the country, not helped by falling investment and library closures in many places.

Nick Hamnett at Woodseats library

Nick Hamnett at Woodseats library

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But the annual CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy) report on public libraries paints a bleak picture when it comes to services within Sheffield.

The study found Sheffield has fewer libraries, significantly fewer active borrowers per head of population and much lower spending per person than other cities, though the council claims this study is misleading as it excludes the city's volunteer-run libraries.

Sheffield Council spent nearly £5.9m on libraries in 2013/14, compared with less than £4.1m in 2017/18, although the latter figure did represent a slight increase on the £3.9m budget in the previous year.

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One library which appears to be bucking the trend is Woodseats, where visitor numbers increased by 50 per cent in the six months since it opened last September, compared with the equivalent period from 2014/15, before its closure.

Woodseats library opened last year in its new premises

Woodseats library opened last year in its new premises

While the attraction of a shiny new building for locals to explore probably played a role, library chiefs are hugely encouraged by these figures and believe the new-look library could point the way forward for others across the city.

One of the key factors behind its success, they say, is how it shares the building with the local GP practice, making it easy for people to drop in on the way to or from a doctor's appointment.

It is also more easily visible from the high street than the building it replaces; it offers numerous activities, from parent and child sing-along sessions and code clubs for youngsters to reading groups and social gatherings where older visitors share their favourite footballing memories; and it consulted extensively with locals about everything from their preferred opening hours to which books it should stock.

Alex Holyoake, the librarian in charge of the branch, said: "Being part of this building shared with the medical centre has been really helpful, and once we get people through the door it's about making it a welcoming environment, having the stock they want to read and offering the kind of additional services the community needs.

Crystal Peaks library is the city's second best used library, behind Sheffield Central Library, with more than 94,000 visitors last year

Crystal Peaks library is the city's second best used library, behind Sheffield Central Library, with more than 94,000 visitors last year

"Libraries are one of the few remaining public indoor spaces where you can just walk in and spend as much time as you want without anyone asking what you're doing, and although books remain the core of the service it's about so much more than that nowadays."

The free Wi-Fi and access to public computers which libraries offer today are a big draw for users ranging from students to entrepreneurs looking to launch their own businesses.

The city's libraries are branching out by running activities like the popular board game sessions at Sheffield Central Library and developing the football history walking app which has had hundreds of downloads.

A busy programme of summer events, including cartoon workshops, craft sessions and drama classes, will also get under way soon.

The council is launching a big drive to attract new members, especially young families, and a big part of that is about changing perceptions of libraries as stuffy, intimidating places where talking is strictly forbidden.

Councillor Mary Lea, cabinet member for culture, parks and leisure, said: "We want people to know libraries aren't just somewhere people come to read their newspapers in silence. People are having fun and doing different things.

Volunteers at Broomhill library, which issued more loans than any of Sheffield's other community-run libraries in 2016/17

Volunteers at Broomhill library, which issued more loans than any of Sheffield's other community-run libraries in 2016/17

"We want to create a bit of atmosphere and say to be people libraries are fun and it's OK to make some noise.

"We have a great bunch of staff in our libraries who are trying new things to draw people in and offer a service which is tailored to the differing needs of their communities."

While the council wants more people of all ages to use Sheffield's libraries, it is particularly keen to get young readers through their doors to help them fall in love with books.

Nick Partridge, the council's libraries, archives and information manager, said: "Children enjoying reading from an early age is a bigger indicator of future life success than any other factor, because it means you're more likely to go on to make the right life choices."

With that in mind, the council is launching a targeted Facebook campaign aimed at parents and grandparents to let them know about the many fun activities taking place at libraries near them.

Coun Lea hopes the drive will help more libraries attract new users, as Woodseats has done.

"Woodseats library is a great success story, which has shown what we can do by having a good offer, with good staff and interesting activities," she said.

WHAT THE USERS SAY

Nick Hamnett, who lives down the road, was browsing the shelves at Woodseats library for something to read.

"This is a very good, modern library, with a nice atmosphere," said the 55-year-old, who teaches English as a foreign language.

"It's got nice study areas, space for children to play, good access to computers and a fair range of books.

"It's hard for libraries to attract the younger generation, who have grown up using the internet and playing video games, but they do a great job here of organising different activities like book clubs and coffee mornings."

Marishka Bream, from Meersbrook, was at the library with her son Ziggy, aged two-and-a-half.

"I didn't really use the library much before having a child but this is a really nice one," she said.

"There's no charge for children's books being overdue, which is handy as a parent.

"They could do more to advertise libraries and the events they host on Facebook, which is where I get most of my information.

"It can be frustrating when you visit one library only to find it's closed at different times to the others but I guess there aren't enough staff to keep them open all the time."

LIBRARY VISITS IN 2017/18 (2016/17 figure in brackets)

Chapeltown: 47,272 (51,993)

Crystal Peaks: 94,265 (105,385)

Darnall: 34,688 (40,371)

Ecclesall: 86,507 (95,464)

Firth Park: 85,945 (88,943)

Highfield: 55,974 (65,847)

Hillsborough: 76,167 (68,429)

Manor: 43,594 (51,016)

Parson Cross: 44,863 (39,625)

Stocksbridge: 41,698 (49,953)

Woodseats: 32,488 (N/A)

Central Library: 390,800 (429,186)

Home library service: 6,547 (7,337)

Archives: 2,612 (2,771)

Total: 1,043,420 (1,096,320)

* Sheffield Council does not record visits to community-run libraries