The Star Looks at Sheffield's Libraries: 'Lifelines are free and offer so much'

Nick Partridge at Sheffield Central Library. Picture: Chris Etchells
Nick Partridge at Sheffield Central Library. Picture: Chris Etchells

Books are alive and well in Sheffield - and local libraries are still playing an important role in keeping the city reading, council boss Nick Partridge thinks.

Nick, manager of the libraries, archives, and information service, took on his role three-and-a-half years ago, and says the job has been a complete eye-opener.

Nick Partridge at Sheffield Central Library. Picture: Chris Etchells

Nick Partridge at Sheffield Central Library. Picture: Chris Etchells

"So much good work goes on every day. It's really strong stuff.

"Homeless people come in who have been reunited with their family through library assistants talking to them. Libraries are a bit of a lifeline and it all goes on under the radar."

There are 28 libraries in Sheffield, of which 12 are run by the council, while volunteers operate the remaining 16. Responsibilities changed hands amid budget cuts in 2014.

Tens of thousands of books are stocked around the city - the newest facility, a shared building incorporating a library and GP surgery in Woodseats, has been filled with more than 11,000 new volumes.

"Nationally there's been a bit of a decline in terms of using libraries and lending books but we're just about stable at the moment, which is good," says Nick.

"We have a service that offers traditional books but also an e-library as well, so we're covering both bases.

"The book is alive and well, I'm glad to say."

The opening of Woodseats last month has given the service a boost, by all accounts.

"In the first week we had about 400 new people signing up to the library. We've supplied a lot of stock associated with health conditions, as you'd expect!"

Nick admits that libraries are suffering competition from online retailers and supermarkets, where for years heavily-discounted books, mainly bestsellers, have been sold.

"That will always be the case. But we don't necessarily see that as a bad thing. We're about people reading. The biggest indicator of future success is if a young person enjoys reading.

"Reading for pleasure is of great benefit to people's mental health. And it's such a great skill that helps you navigate life, improve your literacy and make better decisions."

This year the service held a summer reading challenge for adults, with prizes on offer, after the success of a similar scheme for children.

"The focus was on travel - books related to different cultures and countries," says Nick. "I've done that as well, I read about South America."

Meanwhile Sheffield's volunteer-run libraries are being viewed as a success story nationally, he claims. The council employs a co-ordinator who supports helpers at the branches that were handed over to the community.

"We're in the same business - helping people access books and reading. If you have a Sheffield library card you can go into any library and reserve any book from any part of the network. So far we've had three years of this and it's worked very well.

"There's a lot more flexibility for the groups and they can access forms of grant funding. I think Broomhill would be looking at a separate source of funding for their garden restoration, and Walkley is unique as far as I know in terms of joining up with a commercial enterprise and creating something special with their café bar."

Five branches run by volunteers are ‘co-delivered libraries’, meaning the council pays for their building and maintenance costs. The remaining eleven branches are ‘associate libraries’, which the council assists with grants and training. An umbrella group - Volunteer Libraries In Sheffield - exists to strengthen links between the 16 independent charities.

Sheffield's Central Library, where Nick is based, could still be on the move. Talks are ongoing about turning the building into a five-star hotel in a project led by the council's Chinese investment partner Sichuan Guodong Group. Earlier this year it emerged the Town Hall was being considered as an alternative site for the library.

"The commitment was that we would have a Central Library service somewhere in the city centre. Not necessarily in one particular building, such as the one it's in the moment."

The city centre branch needs to have a different flavour, 'serving the whole of Sheffield', he believes. A business and intellectual property service is part of the present offering, Nick says, adding: "That would be something we would want to maintain in the city centre."

Nick previously worked elsewhere in the council, and says his management job has given him much food for thought.

"You sometimes need to be reminded of what a wonderful service the libraries deliver for so many people every day."

The schools library service, in Attercliffe, is a 'hidden gem', he says. Parents and teachers can take out 'whole stacks' of books, and a Little Library van is on hand to visit schools and other events.

"We provide services for people who don't necessarily have access to them elsewhere, or have to pay. We're one of the only places people can use computers and the internet for free if they don't have the capability at home. The library service in principle is free."

Don't miss The Star's series of special features about the work of Sheffield's libraries, running all this week until Saturday (October 23-28).