Libraries booking in as community ‘hubs’

Campaigners and protesters against proposed library closures gather outside Sheffield Town Hall.
Campaigners and protesters against proposed library closures gather outside Sheffield Town Hall.

A radical new chapter for 15 Sheffield libraries begins at the end of September - in the hands of community groups.

Following council approval of business plans, volunteers are finalising arrangements for the takeover of branches that were at risk of closure.

Each of the libraries will be open for at least 15 hours a week, but groups will set their own times based on volunteer capacity and demand. There is also the potential for community activities to be introduced alongside the libraries and for ventures such as cafes.

The council is looking at moving some of its services into the buildings, which it sees as becoming “community hubs”.

Crucially, the strategy lifts the threat of closures, which had prompted protest campaigns across the city.

Cabinet member Coun Mazher Iqbal said: “The business plans put forward set out a viable future for the libraries and we will support them by funding building running costs, providing access to the council’s library catalogue and computer service, helping train volunteers and providing ongoing advice and support.

“As I have said many times, we want to keep as many libraries open as possible.”

Two strands of council support are being made available.

‘Co-delivered libraries’ will be staffed by volunteers, with up to 15 hours of support per week from council staff. These are Broomhill, Park, Southey, Woodhouse and, subject to an approved business plan, Burngreave.

‘Associate libraries’ will be staffed and maintained by volunteers with the council providing up to £262,000 support a year for up to three years to help them get established and make sure they can pay running costs such as heating and lighting. They will also have access to the council’s library catalogue and computers.

These are Ecclesfield, Frecheville, Gleadless, Greenhill, Jordanthorpe, Newfield Green, Stannington, Totley, Upperthorpe and Walkley. Talks are being held with two groups who have submitted acceptable business plans for Walkley.

The Central Library and 11 ‘hub’ libraries were never at risk and will continue to be run by the council. These are Chapeltown, Crystal Peaks, Darnall, Ecclesall, Firth Park, Highfield, Hillsborough, Manor, Parson Cross, Stocksbridge, and Woodseats. Community protest campaigns were launched when the council announced last September that it may have to close libraries in response to Government spending cuts. Critics described libraries as a fundamental council service that should be protected.

Liberal Democrats libraries spokesperson Coun Penny Baker said: “Community groups have put in a Herculean effort to prepare community bids and I’ve been impressed by the incredible community spirit to help save local libraries.

“It’s clear to many people though that this has been achieved in spite of the council, rather than because of them. Key funding and decisions vital to the community bids were only conceded by Labour politicians in the face of the massive city-wide campaign to save libraries.

“We still think the council should go much further and guarantee the future of these libraries.”