North East libraries - what's the next chapter?

We look at how our local institutions are branching out in new ways to help safeguard their future

Five year old Christopher Blanks makes his reading selection at Low Fell library at Gateshead in January 1972
Five year old Christopher Blanks makes his reading selection at Low Fell library at Gateshead in January 1972

News that the North East is suffering the biggest loss of libraries in the UK makes depressing reading.

Those currently embroiled in the fight to save their local branch in the wake of council cuts sweeping the region need no telling but the latest annual library survey still hits home.

Issued by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA). the figures reveal that the region saw a year-on-year decrease of 5.9% in its number of libraries, with 12 fewer open in 2013-14 than in the previous year, the largest percentage reduction than any other region in the UK. The North East also saw the largest drop in library visitors, with a 5.5% reduction in users.

Some good news came in the success of Newcastle City Library - the most popular in the region with 814,359 visits a year - which was picked out as the fourth most visited in the UK.

Another positive of sorts has come in the reaction to proposed library closures in Newcastle in recent years, which has made a sorry situation some way better.

 

While the situation over in Gateshead has yet to play out, of the 10 proposed closures in Newcastle in 2013, just one - Moorside - has taken place, the others under threat being rescued by a rallying together of local communities, businesses and council staff. There may have been moves involved, service changes and reduced hours but they are open nonetheless and inspire some hope for the future.

A success on an altogether different scale to Newcastle City Library’s has been the saving of Jesmond Library by a small but very determined bunch of local residents.

A victim of the city council’s three-year budget strategy, the branch closed in June 2013 but the local community proved what a bit of spirited fight and goodwill could achieve: it re-opened less than three months later.

The Friends of Jesmond Library were behind efforts to secure £10,000 to re-open it three days week, with 70 founding members pledging £100 and up to 100 locals keen to fund-raise or help staff it.

A year on, the library is firmly back in the business of book-lending with a nice, and essential, sideline of events such as talks, drop-in sessions for the elderly, and events to broaden its appeal.

Tony Durcan, Newcastle City Council’s assistant director of customers, culture and skills, and libraries manager David Fay, are as pleased as anyone at the results of the re-think following the outcry over the initial plans.

Tony Durcan at Newcastle Central Library
Tony Durcan at Newcastle Central Library
 

“In Newcastle we agreed we needed a core network of eight libraries,” said Mr Durcan. “These were the City Library; five large community-based libraries: Gosforth, Shieldfield, Kenton, West Denton and Benwell; one at Newburn because of its location and difficulty for residents in reaching the next nearest; and Walker, an area considered in need.

“That should have meant 10 closed, including three in April this year, but only one has closed.”

The answer has been found through making them community-run, as in the case of Jesmond, or partnership-funded.

The first instance involves the council transferring the building, rent-free if council-owned, and handing over its stock of books and computers to be run entirely by volunteers, unconnected to the core library network and without financial support; and the latter finding a partner to meet most if not all of a library’s costs but retaining a council member of staff and connection to the library network.

In Dinnington, for instance, the parish council has taken on the service, transferring it to the village hall. Your Homes Newcastle stepped in to save Fenham and, along with Newcastle College, will relocate and refurbish Cruddas Park. Denton Burn is currently closed but only for refurbishment before reopening in a partnership involving the college and Dyslexia North East; and High Heaton is revived by the college and a close-knit Friends group who host the likes of coffee mornings on the days the library is closed.

Mr Durcan said: “There are lots of partnerships across the country and I think some up here have been quite pioneering.”

He added: “We were clear: nobody wanted closures but if we had to close those the service would still have been competitive and efficient which is what the government expects us to be.

“We didn’t need them to be part of the network but we are very happy to support them.”

Of the three earmarked for closure this year - Blakelaw, Newbiggin Hall, and Fawdon, which were given more time because of their community centre links - there is hope too, with discussions taking place with the local community to look at a model like Jesmond’s, although Blakelaw will close at its current location.

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
 

Having residents take up the reins is of course only half of the story and part of the battle. Sustaining the service, finding the finances to keep it going, may be more of a new year wish than a resolution at present.

But certainly the success at Jesmond to date has marked a new lease of life for the library and even something of a return to the good old days when libraries were a true institution and a focal point of the community.

The Friends set up a company with charitable statue which now has eight trustees intent on creating a true community hub with Finn Willingham of Highbury, Jesmond, said: “In terms of having to be totally financially independent and entirely volunteer-led it’s been quite a steep learning curve: training volunteers, introducing a new management system and keeping the book stock new and appealing to our users.

“We hope to attract all members of the community so target events at different ages: for instance we have a wellbeing event on Wednesday afternoons, when the library is closed, aimed at over-50s.”

They’ve reduced the age for volunteers to 16 so more young people are playing an active role. There is now a core group of 60-80 volunteers and are now 1,171 registered library members, not taking into account the drop-ins, and while it’s free for all, some events carry charges, the library space is open for hire and as many members as possible are being asked to sign up to monthly subscriptions.

With running costs standing at around £30,000 a year, that kind of guaranteed income is vital to ensure a sustainable future, says treasurer Chris Clarke.

An Independent Library Report for England, published in December, said the library service in England is at a crossroads and reported: “There are examples of volunteer-only libraries being set up across the country though there is a tendency for these to be established in reasonably affluent areas and there are still questions over their long-term viability.

“The more disadvantaged localities often have the greater need for such a service but they don’t tend to have the resources, experience or confidence to take over the running of their library.”

While the report agreed that no one library model fits all situations, it recommended setting up of a task force to work with local authorities to help libraries adapt to changing environment and shape a future of increased community involvement and better digital resource.

David Fay said Newcastle is getting this bit right too. More ebooks than traditional books are being issued - of the 771,618 items borrowed last year, 19,438 were ebooks.

The independent report cited Newcastle in a case study and said: “The community library hub will be the key council building in communities, strategically placed across the city’s neighbourhood and will provide a base for a range of locally relevant services.”

With further austerity planned and local government taking much of the cuts to the public sector, further library closures in the North East are likely.

Mr Durcan said: “We’d very much like to have the amount of money we had before but members of staff have worked really hard in the city to maintain as good a library service as we can. “It could have been much, much worse. It’s been traumatic but we’re proud of what we’ve been able to do.”

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