The Star Looks at Sheffield's Libraries: Going the extra mile in Walkley

Brigitte Woodley, Mark Crossland and Barbara Waterhouse at Walkley Library. Picture: Marie Caley
Brigitte Woodley, Mark Crossland and Barbara Waterhouse at Walkley Library. Picture: Marie Caley
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Andrew Carnegie was a voracious reader. One of the wealthiest industrialists of his day, he loved books, devoured knowledge - and, in turning to philanthropy, decided to instil his passion in others.

His fortune has supported everything from the discovery of insulin and the dismantling of nuclear weapons to the creation of Sesame Street, but he left his legacy in another way by making Walkley Carnegie Library possible.

Mark Crossland, volunteer, at Walkley Library. Picture: Marie Caley

Mark Crossland, volunteer, at Walkley Library. Picture: Marie Caley

The Scottish-American businessman, who died in 1919, set up more than 2,500 libraries in the Edwardian era, believing anyone with access to books and the desire to learn could be successful. Walkley's, at the bottom of South Road in the suburb, is the only Grade II listed one of its kind to still operate as a library in Yorkshire.

Books are still at the centre of the volunteer-run facility's operation. The place has its own inventory of titles, a number that is growing all the time, while its traditional lending service is still on track to be complemented by something particularly innovative - the creation of a café bar, located within the building and run by Sheffield's True North Brew Co.

The proposal was first suggested four years ago as a way of sustaining the library's future as the council dealt with cuts. True North took on the lease and a planning application for alterations and an extension was approved in 2016, but the project became dependent on financial support when costs spiralled. Earlier this year The Heritage Lottery Fund approved a £67,000 development grant to allow more detailed plans to be drawn up.

The most recent timescale was for the building - registered as an asset of community value - to close next year, reopening by March 2019, with the service continuing in temporary accommodation in the interim.

Chris Reece, chairman of the library group, says the project is 'absolutely still alive', but progress has been 'quite slow' of late. The process involves four parties which 'adds a certain complexity'.

"There's the current owner, the future owner, the charity and the heritage lottery. It just takes forever."

Trustees have found running the library since 2014 'absolutely great', he says. Its book-lending system runs in parallel with the central library service, and often Walkley holds titles the council doesn't have.

"We've got over 4,000 books, including modern bestsellers. We also put a certain amount of money aside from grants and book sales to buy titles as well."

Loans have increased by 500 in each of the last four quarters, from 1,500 to 3,000, and volunteers try to anticipate demand - all of the titles shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker prize are in stock, and three more works by Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro are being added to the collection.

"If we don't have books that our library users want, we will scour charity shops looking for them," says library services co-ordinator Mark Crossland.

"We go the extra mile - then beyond."

Talking books are on offer, people can visit to access computers and the amount of events and activities at the venue is gradually increasing.

Walkley took part in the Heritage Open Days festival this year for the first time, and also participated in The Big Draw, an initiative linked to the Victorian polymath John Ruskin, who had a museum on Bole Hill Road, not far from the library. Each month there is a mix of paid activities - such as language classes and baby massage - and free events, such as craft nights.

Treasure hunts, a Ruskin the Rabbit mascot, a dressing-up box and free 'I visited Walkley Library today' stickers encourage children to return.

Chris, who spent more than 20 years working for Sheffield Theatres before taking up environmental and lecturing roles, is glad the council called on volunteers in 2014. He says shutting the library for good would have had a 'very negative effect'.

New shops are opening regularly in Walkley, and Chris thinks the library has had some influence on increasing the neighbourhood's vibrancy. One of the latest additions is a business selling mid-century modern furniture that relocated from Neepsend.

"There's one opening in a shop that's been closed for about 15 years. That's all because the library is still going. It acts as a hub."

Once the café is open, the intention is to open the lending desk on six out of seven days. The library will move into the existing children’s section, with a mezzanine to expand the space. True North – which counts The York in Broomhill and The Forum among its portfolio – will be investing £350,000 in the venture, and has pledged to spend £7,000 annually on maintenance. The firm will set £6,000 a year aside for library activities, and there will be scope to hold cultural and culinary events after hours. Two food festivals are to be held every year with proceeds going to the library.

To fulfil the lottery brief, initiatives will be organised to highlight the place’s history and origins.

There are about 100 helpers at Walkley, 70 of them 'very active', and the group takes on a wider range of tasks than might be suspected. The council still pays for maintenance, but volunteers clean the place themselves.

"Cleaning was originally done by the council, or their contractors - they had a special rota," says Chris. "We can be a bit more flexible."

Carnegie would surely be proud.

"Working on the project has taken a lot of time and effort but it'll be very worthwhile in the long run."