How library volunteers in Jesmond are writing their own stories

It's been a long hard slog but a community running their own library are confident of continued success

Volunteers at Jesmond Library Volunteers at Jesmond Library. Pictured from left, Peter Breakey, John Cook and Jenny Adams
Volunteers at Jesmond Library Volunteers at Jesmond Library. Pictured from left, Peter Breakey, John Cook and Jenny Adams

Ever read a book and sneaked a glance at the last chapter - only to find it’s missing and you will never know how it all ends?

That’s what it’s like for the hundreds of volunteers in the North East who are running public libraries which were closed by the region’s councils and are now in the hands of the community.

A new chapter has been started and no-one can guess what happens next.

Will the hero win the day? Or maybe there will be heartache before the final word is written.

The next turn of the page may reveal a success story of keeping an important resource open against the odds, or a tragedy when volunteers realise just how much work is involved.

But how have the characters fared since local authorities started to close libraries to save money?

It’s been 18 months since the residents of Jesmond, Newcastle, took over the running of their library from the city council.

They’ve done well but, as chair Peter Breakey explains, it’s been a hard slog as the team dealt with the practicalities of what they were doing.

The volunteers had to be found and organised, the building had to be maintained, and someone had to think about how it was going to be funded.

He said: “How’s it going? It’s going OK. It’s gone well in many respects but the future is not guaranteed.

“There is still plenty to do but we have achieved what we set out to achieve.

“We started the group in December 2012 when we heard the council was going to close the library.

“We had a meeting and said we would try to stop the closure and, if we could not stop the closure, we would save it somehow.”

The volunteers may have failed in their first objective but they achieved the second with a flourish.

But first there were the legal necessities to get through.

“We set up a charitable company with eight trustees and a board of 15 but it is the 60 volunteers who are the heart what we do,” Peter said.

“They are generally from Jesmond and often, but not always, retired, and it’s them who staff the library.

“We also have people who know about buildings who do that side of things for us.

“We have refurbished the building, restocked the books, and improved the children’s area.

“Donations have come in cash and in kind from schools, universities, and other sources with the biggest from the Catherine Cookson Trust.

“It’s not all easy. The legal arrangements with the council are still not finished, we are still negotiating the lease, and want the roof repaired properly.

“It was not straightforward to get the IT system started, and it was a difficult business learning about public liability and things like that.

“We have done well, made good progress, but keeping it going is the challenge and making sure it is still going in five year’s time.

“There is every chance we will still be going, we may be thriving, but we do not under-estimate the challenge. It requires a lot of commitment from a lot of people.”

Volunteer and handyman John Cook, 71, was repairing a broken blind when The Journal visited the library,

“It’s a listed building - it was one of the first buildings to be listed in this part of the country - so we have to make sure it’s kept in the way that is right,” he said.

“I am not on the rota to look after the books but things frequently go wrong with the loos or the blinds and I will fix it.

“Why do I do it? I have lived in Jesmond all my life, the library has been part of my life, and I did not want to see it closing.”

Volunteer Jenny Adams is one of those who look after the books. She said: “I retired a few years ago, and had a bit of time so I decided to do my bit.

“We were pretty disappointed in the council when they decided to abandon us but that feeling is not so evident now.

“I come in a few hours a week and it’s a positive experience. In many ways the library is even better now because we run a lot of events, including talks, which are popular.”

The programme of events include regular story-telling for under-fives, Italian lessons, and a session called Mindfulness aimed at those who want a moment of calm in a busy life.

There are talks every Thursday and a host of special events on a wide range of subjects including workshops on children’s portraits and making jewellery, all run by volunteers.

Anne Sweetman, 61, adds new members and books onto the library’s electronic system - and enjoys every minute of her voluntary work.

“I am doing this because I have loved libraries all my life,” she said. “I have had a library card since I was six. It’s an important resource for the community.”

In Newcastle, ten out of 18 libraries were under threat but the community now runs some, like Jesmond, and others are in the hands of partner organisations with negotiations at various stages of completion.

Opponents of the cuts include Billy Elliot playwright Lee Hall, who once said closing libraries was a “criminal act of vandalism.”

Meanwhile other communities are learning to get to grips with the changed word of public libraries.

The latest to open is in Southwick Primary School, Sunderland, where members of the public can use their books in a new scheme.

And that’s not all. Supermarkets and community centres are getting in on the act and each project has its own unique set of challenges.

Councillor Harry Trueman, deputy council leader, said: “We want to make sure that everyone in the city can access library services in their own communities which is why we’re taking them out to the places people go like supermarkets and community centres.

“Schools are at the very heart of their communities and none more so than Southwick Primary School so it makes perfect sense to have a community book collection based here.

“We’ve worked closely with the school and headteacher Trish Stoker, who has been a fantastic advocate of the scheme, to set this up.

“The book collection has more than 1,000 books available for anyone in the community to borrow. You don’t even have to have a library ticket, you just take a book read it at your leisure and then return it.

“It’s a wonderful facility and I hope people in the community will come along to check it out for themselves.”

Eyebrows might be raised at the use of 18 teaching assistants, as well as parents, to staff the library.

And even though the school’s stock is the third largest community book collection, it has relatively limited numbers and critics say it, and similar projects, cannot hope to match the giant public libraries they replace.

Head teacher Trish Stoker, however, is keen to make it a success. She said: “It’s very exciting for the whole school and community. Our school was built for activities like this. We’re open evenings and all the holidays so this is a natural progression.

“It’s been fabulous because for us we’ve just upgraded our own library and we’re also training parents to help out.”

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