It was novelist Ray Bradbury who once said: “Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.”
Public libraries have long been pillars of our communities up and down the country. However, in recent times they have found themselves under threat as budget cuts have forced some local authorities to take tough decisions and close many of these precious bastions of literacy.
In 2016, it emerged that an estimated 8,000 jobs in British libraries had disappeared in the space of just six years, with more than 300 libraries closing their doors during the same period.
Last year, it looked as though the writing was on the wall for many in North Yorkshire, too, after the library budget was almost halved – going from £7.8m in 2010 to £4.3m by this year.
However, while libraries in many parts of the country were closing, North Yorkshire County Council sought to find a different solution to a nationwide problem with its library services team working alongside volunteers to ensure they remained open.
In April last year, community groups took over the running of 22 libraries, joining nine already managed by volunteers. It’s a partnership that has borne fruit with North Yorkshire’s community libraries model praised by the Arts Council and the Local Government Association as an example of ‘best practice’ and the service shortlisted for a Public Finance Innovation award for its community engagement.
Newby and Scalby Library and Information Centre, in Scarborough, is among those that have flourished thanks to the hard work of people like Isobel Nixon, the library’s chair of trustees.
“I thought it would be nice spending one afternoon a week moving a few books about,” she says, explaining why she got involved.
But when she was invited to a meeting with officials it quickly became apparent they were looking for a management group. “I wasn’t sure, having just retired as headmistress of an independent school, whether I wanted to do what seemed to me like a job.”
However, Isobel and the other volunteers at the meeting got on well and together they became trustees tasked with overseeing the running of the library.
They took over in April last year. “We all had experience of managing organisations though I was still a bit trepidatious, but one year on and my plans for retirement have been put on hold, possibly permanently, and the library has become my life.”
The library now has a team of around 50 volunteers with a minimum of three working on each of the two daily shifts. The trustees, who include a former GP and a former NHS manager, are responsible for the day to day running of the library and the upkeep of the building, while the council remains in charge of supplying the books and maintaining the IT system.
Isobel says they were aided initially by a couple of part-time librarians that came in a couple of days a week. “For the first few months we didn’t know what we were doing and if it had not been for this support we would be in a pickle, but now it’s all running quite smoothly.”
Through their hard work, the management team and the band of volunteers have not only kept the library going, they’ve helped make it an integral facet of the local community. They hold drop-in sessions on mental health issues and for carers, and the building is home to a local writers’ group and book club.
Isobel says on top of their annual income of around £11,000 they’ve raised £26,000 through fundraising. They also have plans to create a new multi-sensory garden that could be used by children and disabled people, and have just been awarded £10,000 of National Lottery cash that will pay for, among other things, new LED lighting, cafe furniture and CCTV cameras.
Some people question the relevance of libraries in today’s digital age, but Isobel says they remain vitally important and points to the fact the library has had 25,000 people through its doors during the past 12 months.
“How can than they not be important? You see a lot of the same faces every week which just shows there’s a real need for this library.”
It’s not only books that people come in for. “They use the computers and to search their family history. We have a craft group in on a Wednesday and people come in for a chat, or to read the newspapers, or to keep warm and have a coffee.
“It’s a real social centre which is something we wanted from the beginning. It’s not just about keeping the books going, it’s about creating something more than that.”
The library has become an important part of her life, as it has for the other volunteers. “The meetings last for ages, but for all the right reasons – we have regular Prosecco evenings to keep spirits up,” she says, with a chuckle.
“It was quite nerve-wracking at the start and I was concerned about how much time it would take up. Most of us have retired from very stressful and responsible jobs, yet here I am reading stuff on data protection and health and safety all over again. If the library was not worthwhile I wouldn’t be doing it, but the thing about working in a library is everyone loves you. People are so grateful for what we’re doing and that’s really uplifting.”
Boroughbridge Community Library and Resource Centre is another of North Yorkshire’s success stories. It has around 40 volunteers, built around a group of 12 people who’ve been involved since 2012.
Among them is John Helliwell, the library’s secretary. “It’s great that North Yorkshire has not lost a single library, whereas in some other counties up to half the libraries have been lost,” he says.
John, a retired headteacher, admits running a library is more challenging than he envisaged. “It’s not been easy. We thought it would be but quickly found out that running a library isn’t a doddle by any means,” he says.
“Our aim is to be at least as good as a library run by paid professionals and then, perhaps, extend our territory by taking in new ways of being a library in this town.”
He praises the county council for its support along the way. “We’re very fond of criticising local authorities in this country but the council’s library services here have done really well.”
John says together they have added a range of activities and feels the library is a lifeline for many people. “We’ve done our best to help needy, mainly elderly and marginalised members of the community who are becoming more and more isolated because of their lack of technology.
“I think more people are becoming reliant on library services, but that’s what we’re here for, we want to help people.”
North Yorkshire success story
There were around 1.7 million visits to North Yorkshire’s libraries last year, while the number of active users has increased.
Events, too, have proved popular and last summer around 10,000 children across the county took part in the libraries’ Summer Reading Challenge.
County councillor Greg White, executive member for libraries, says through the determination and resilience of volunteers and the dedication of library staff, libraries have survived and can flourish.
“Libraries may be changing but they still have books and reading at their core and with the help of our communities they are adapting to meet wider needs, proving that they remain as valuable and relevant as ever.”