Challenges and opportunities as library reopens for the community

Walkley Carnegie Library training day: Laura Tassoni looking at the old 'Overdue Book' with (ltor) Anne Martin, Stan Bateman, Jill Arezoo amd Chris Culmer
Walkley Carnegie Library training day: Laura Tassoni looking at the old 'Overdue Book' with (ltor) Anne Martin, Stan Bateman, Jill Arezoo amd Chris Culmer

The librarians at Walkley Carnegie Library won’t need their scarves and woolly hats for much longer, said a confident Chris Reece, part of the group of 60 volunteers who took over the library on Monday.

“The new boiler is going in this week.”

Walkley Carnegie Library training day: Chris Reece and Laura Tassoni

Walkley Carnegie Library training day: Chris Reece and Laura Tassoni

‘Iconic’ is the word generally applied to the gritstone edifice on the corner of South Road, built 110 years ago with a £3,500 grant from the Scottish American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

“It’s an iconic building donated to the community,” said Annie Bore, “a beautiful listed building that deserves to be restored to some glory and also some functionality because it deserves to play a central part in this community.”

Walkley is Sheffield’s one and only Carnegie Library, added Chris Reece. “Andrew Carnegie felt that learning was one of the most important aspects of life. Carnegie’s libraries always have steps up to them because it’s a step up to learning. And they’re always stamped with ‘free library’ so that has to be taken forward.”

The turmoil in local library provision caused by cuts to council funding has resolved itself on South Road in an agreement between the two parties who bid to take over the library under council reviews.

The partnership between the former Save Walkley Library group and businessman Kane Yeardley of Forum Cafe Bars makes a lot of sense, said Chris Reece.

“We’d like to use the building to bring a bit more life to South Road, and to create something slightly different. This will be a library service, but there will also be a cafe-bar here. The greatest advantage is that because the cafe-bar will probably be open seven days a week, it gives far more scope for increasing the library hours too.”

Much is still to be decided, Chris cautioned, but it’s clear that the Forum group is keen to make the library side of the operation work, and has said it would invest up to £400,000 on refurbishment and £40,000 a year on maintenance and employing a librarian.

The refurbishment is particularly welcome, as the roof needs repairing and there are basins regularly in place to counter the leaking windows.

“Having a cafe makes coming to the library more of an outing,” said Annie Bore. “You could sit and read a book over a glass of wine, parents can have coffee or food while the children go to the story time session, you could have book clubs meeting here.”

A welcoming library is good for older people who may be isolated, and to help improve mental health and social opportunities, she added.

Locals have been campaigning to keep the library open for over a year, and are now aiming to become a charitable trust under the name Walkley Carnegie Library.

Drawing on Walkley’s ‘broad demographic’ (as Annie describes the wide mixture of ages and backgrounds of Walkley folk) the group includes former librarians, fundraisers, public servants and facilities managers - local companies wishing to help with financial, marketing or legal services would also be welcome to join the team.

Chris and Annie think that the new cafe /bar /library will contribute to the changes in Walkley - they note the arrival of a craft beer shop, an artisan bread maker and vinyl record store among many retailers moving in to an area where house prices are still affordable to young people who might value artisan bread and a Carnegie Library on their door step.

“There’s been a lot of conjecture about what’s happening, and the library does look a bit run down,” said Chris.

But not for much longer, it is hoped.

The volunteers will run the library for the moment while discussions with the council and Forum continue: “‘Run by the community for the community’ is the strapline for Walkley Carnegie Library”, said Annie, while noting that the idea of volunteers running former public services due to government policy should be treated with caution.

“Our priority is to maintain the library service, and we’ll keep doing that,” said Chris.

There will be challenges and opportunities.

“We can look at other ways of making libraries interesting. They have to be more than just a place to pick up books.”

l Walkley Carnegie Library hosts an open day on Saturday from 10am to 1pm.