Five years of community-run libraries in Sheffield: ‘We've never failed yet – there's never been a day we couldn't open through a lack of volunteers’
“They shut up shop on the Saturday and we came in on the Monday,” says Kathy Harbord, remembering the momentous week five years ago when Broomhill Library in Sheffield became one of 16 facilities handed to community volunteers in a bid to save £650,000 as austerity cuts deepened.
The helpers’ speedy arrival in September 2014 meant something very important, believes Kathy, a trustee at the reborn Broomhill Community Library.
“It was never not open,” she says. “I think that was amazing.”
Hundreds of volunteers have taken on all manner of duties over the past half-decade, from sorting books to co-ordinating reading groups and cleaning – everything that’s required to run an efficient library.
In Broomhill alone a team numbering more than 60 give up their time to make sure the service keeps going.
“Some of them only come in for a couple of hours a week or once a fortnight – but that is a good base from which to keep the library going,” says Kathy.
The council’s decision to give up control of so many libraries was controversial and sparked protests from thousands of people. Nevertheless, there was to be no U-turn, and across the city 75 posts belonging to paid staff were lost. Frecheville, Upperthorpe, Stannington, Gleadless, Greenhill, Jordanthorpe, Newfield Green, Totley, Upperthorpe, Walkley, Park, Southey and Woodhouse were relinquished as well as Broomhill – Burngreave and Tinsley followed in subsequent years.
Mirroring Broomhill, Stannington also reopened under the stewardship of volunteers on the earliest possible day – September 29, 2014. Bob Mynors, of the Stannington & District Library Group which is now in charge, says the priority was to safeguard the building and provide a seamless transition.
“Did we think we'd be standing here in five years' time? I honestly can't say,” says Bob. “We hoped, obviously, that the library would still be going – that was as far as our thinking went.”
For Bob, a 67-year-old retired advertising and PR specialist, the job has become 'pretty close to’ a full-time occupation.
“I try to keep a record, but between the various library activities I'm involved in, I can quite easily put in well over 100 hours a month, and quite often much more than that," says Bob. “I'm not the only member of the team who puts those sorts of hours in. I would never have got involved in a library when I was in my 30s and 40s.”
Stannington – an 'associate’ site that gets some financial support from the council – has been amassing its own stock of new books to complement the titles available to all Sheffield libraries.
“The number of our own book loans is going up, but the key factor is that's where the new books are," says Bob. “They're the ones people want to borrow. We've got a huge following for crime fiction. We make sure our shelves are well-stocked.”
Classics by the likes of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens are present and correct too.
“People still want to read them,” Bob reasons. “While we could acquire them from other libraries, it's nice to have them on hand. It could be two weeks at best if you order a book from another library because it takes that long to work through the system. That's if it's available – if somebody's already got it out, it might be another three to nine weeks before they bring it back.”
Communities, he thinks, are doing more than was ever possible when the council was in charge. In Stannington these additional activities include the Story Festival – back this weekend – a writing group and a half-term Readathon in February.
“We've never failed yet," says Bob. “There's never been a day we couldn't open through a lack of volunteers. I think there have been a couple of occasions where we've forgotten to unlock the door but that's just one of those things - that's never more than two or three minutes.”
But was it a gamble on the council's part to assume enough people would step into the breach in 2014?
“I can only assume that what the council said at the time was absolutely genuine - that the funding situation for local authorities had become untenable and they had to look for sensible things they could cut,” says Bob.
“There is a very vague statutory requirement that local authorities provide a library service. It doesn't give any guidance or indication as to what that service should be.”
Kathy and her fellow Broomhill trustees felt 'a degree of uncertainty’ five years ago, she admits. Their library is ‘co-delivered’, meaning the council covers all costs bar staffing.
“We didn't know, at that point, what the parameters were with regards to the council. We didn't know whether, for example, they would still be able to retain the associate and co-delivered libraries. Things could have changed due to funding constraints, but it's not happened. We've been very lucky in that we've maintained and increased the number of volunteers and are continuing to get people who want to come and join us.”
And Broomhill has a focus for the future. There are big plans to restore the garden, which was designed by the renowned Percy Cane in the 1920s, and the library building on Taptonville Road is to be expanded into a larger social hub.
“The idea is to redevelop the basement and attic, and possibly have some sort of café,” says Kathy, who envisages a social enterprise similar to Fusion Organic Café in the city centre, which is part of Freeman College and trains young adults with learning disabilities. “There's a sense of optimism, I think, which keeps us going.”
Her neighbourhood, she says, would have been a ‘sadder place’ without its library. “It would have lost its diversity and vibrancy. We wouldn't be providing for the people in society that don't have the funds to buy books, or don’t have a computer at home.”
Broomhill’s ‘tea and talk’ meetings attract many people who are newly settled in the UK, and its children’s sessions are highly affordable.
“We ask for a donation of £1 but that's not a pressured thing,” says Kathy. “If you want your child to go to an art and craft club you're going to pay an awful lot more than that, whether that's in school or a private artist running a club for children - which they do, in this locality. We're providing just as much fun in a relaxed atmosphere at a very cheap rate. We're not asking to have an income out of it.”
Bob, meanwhile, has a simple wish for 2024.
“It would be good to think Stannington and all the other volunteer libraries would all still be open in five years' time,” he says. “Part of me would like to add that they had all been taken back into public management, but I can't see that happening somehow.”
The ethos of a library, he says, is virtually unique in today’s society.
“They are one of the few places left where you can walk through the door and nobody will make any demands on you at all. Aside from the basic minimum level of socially acceptable behaviour, you don't have to spend any money, you don't have to engage with anybody... you can sit and stare at the wall. And that's fine.”