The Star Looks at Sheffield's Libraries: Why the first few chapters weren't easy in Stannington

If somebody was asked to conjure up the perfect little village library in their mind's eye, they'd probably imagine a place like Stannington's.

Monday, 16th October 2017, 6:30 pm
Updated Tuesday, 12th December 2017, 6:29 am
Mel Smart, Jenny van Tinteren, Bob Mynors and Carole Allen inside Stannington Library. Picture: Marisa Cashill

The smart, stone building on Uppergate Road faces a stunning countryside view of the Loxley Valley - and it was forged in fire, in a way.

The suburb's original library burned down in an arson attack in 1995, and was replaced before the decade was out, leaving Stannington in the position of owning a relatively new facility when the council handed over more than a dozen venues to volunteers in 2014 to cut costs.

Bob Mynors, Mel Smart, Jenny van Tinteren and Carole Allen outside Stannington Library. Picture: Marisa Cashill

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Three years have flown by, says Jenny van Tinteren, chair of trustees at Stannington and District Library Group, the charity formed by the community to manage the local service - but the initial upheaval hasn't been easily forgotten.

The big handover was preceded by a 'year's hard slog' with meetings every week, business cases to prepare and opposition to fend off.

"We had to contend with people saying we were instrumental in doing the Tories' dirty work for them and causing jobs to disappear," says Jenny. "We got a lot of stick."

"'Blue rinse job thieves' was a phrase I remember," trustee Bob Mynors chips in.

Bob Mynors, Mel Smart, Jenny van Tinteren and Carole Allen outside Stannington Library. Picture: Marisa Cashill

On a Monday afternoon the library has been open for just five minutes and users are already through the doors, browsing the shelves and swapping books. The large children's section, which takes up a sizeable chunk of the building's floorspace, is ready for young visitors and refreshments await in the 'coffee corner', which harbours an impressive, hulking beverage machine, rather than the standard kettle and jar of instant.

"We're smaller, so we've got to be a bit more creative," says Bob. "In some ways we were the first out of the blocks."

In any case, library supporters had been 'working up' to take action in 2013, recalls another trustee, Mel Smart.

"There had been rumours. We'd been talking about what we could do to 'save the library'. We thought we couldn't save it from Sheffield Council closing it - but we could save it by being volunteers."

There are around 50 helpers on the books, and from July to September they put in more than 1,900 hours of work, according to the group's calculations. There are also plenty of external events that take people off-site, such as school visits, the Stannington Carnival and the suburb's Story Festival.

There is talk of replacing the computer system, library members can use the wi-fi for free and the charity has amassed a stock of around 4,000 new books, which each carry a yellow sticker. There are now more of these than there are council-provided titles, says Jenny.

"People bring us books without realising that books in a library have a really hard life, so they've got to be really firm and in good condition. When people write stuff about us to the press, which they fairly regularly do, they cite falling numbers of book loans, but we've managed to reverse that with the new books."

Libraries still play a major role in helping people to read, insists deputy treasurer Carole Allen, 'especially with the schools'.

"It exposes children to reading at a young age," she says.

This year Stannington - an 'associate library' which receives some council funding - will get a grant of £9,500 to assist with running costs, based on bills from 2013.

"They've kept our grant at that level. Next year it's going to be 80 per cent of that, and the year after it'll be 70 per cent. We've got no certainty at all as to whether we'll get any sort of grant from 2020 onwards," says Jenny. "What there might be is stuff that it doesn't cost the council anything to provide. We might still have the library management system, and the building, and the books - but no new books."

It costs more than £15,000 a year to run the library - friends of the service can subscribe and make a standing contribution.

"At the moment we've found the fundraising we do raises about half of what we'd need to run a good library," says Jenny.

"We might already be raising enough to pay the gas and electric, but that's not all a library is. To pay for more new books and so on we'd really have to put in a huge amount of effort.

"Grant funding bodies won't pay for services they think councils ought to be running. And I don't everyone has woken up yet to the fact that, after 2020, councils won't get funding from central government any more. They will be expected to exist on what income they can raise from the assets they've got."

However controversial the cuts of three years ago were, Jenny believes the city council deserves some credit.

"People see Sheffield as the most pernicious council but I suppose they got it right because they've given us just enough support to make it feasible. If they hadn't bitten the bullet and gave us a limited amount of support I don't think we'd be here."

The group has hired poet Ian McMillan and composer Luke Carver Goss to put on a fundraising show at the Lomas Hall in Stannington on November 10; tickets are £12.50 with money going to the charity.

"Ian McMillan is a big risk, he's not cheap," says Bob. "If we don't sell enough tickets we've still got to pay him. It's about having the bottle to try something."

"It's not easy to be completely sustainable, so I can't answer for what the future would be," reasons Jenny.

"I think we would need to get a bigger flow of volunteers in to feel more secure."

Visit www.volunteerlibrariesinsheffield.org/stannington for details, and see www.eventbrite.co.uk to book Ian McMillan tickets.