Saga of the Central Library searches for a happy ending

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Consultants have been appointed to look at ways of giving Sheffield’s Central Library a new lease of life.

The future of the Surrey Street premises is secure amid the upheaval of the proposed library closure programme, but the council admits the 77-year-old building is no longer “fit for purpose”.

Ideas are being sought to develop it for the 21st century - generating more income and potential grants in the process. The authority says it is keeping an “open mind” about the possibilities.

The ambition of improving the Central Library has been on its agenda for many years, with little sign of identifying the substantial funds required. It is the last major civic building in the city centre awaiting a major overhaul, following revamps of the Lyceum, Crucible and City Hall.

Inevitably, any upgrade would reflect the new digital era, and new formula would also have to address the future of the Library Theatre facing Tudor Square and the Graves Gallery on the top floor. The theatre is well used by amateur theatre groups and other local organisations, and there was an outcry a couple of years ago when it was suggested the Graves might close.

Basic repairs have been carried out over the years, but the age and structure of the building have always pointed to a much more extensive, and expensive, refurbishment, which has become even more problematical as the council’s coffers have dried up.

In particular, access for disabled people remains the steep steps off Surrey Street or the goods lift off Arundel Gate.

At one stage, options for redevelopment ranged from a simple refurbishment to major extensions. Shops, apartments or a boutique hotel could be added, it was mooted.

At another time, the thinking was more along the lines of building a new Central Library as part of the proposed retail quarter, with the art deco style Surrey Street building put to some other use.

The consultants are expected to report to the council within a few weeks.

Under the libraries review, which threatens the closure of up to 16 community branches unless community or other groups step forward to help with their running, the Central Library would remain open six days a week, with a reduction of one evening and one afternoon a week.

Jan Fitzgerald, interim director, community services, says: “The current building is not fit for purpose and proposals are being developed to offer more modern and flexible space where cultural/art and library uses can better share space and offer an accessible, attractive and welcoming space for residents and visitors to enjoy.”

Lack of progress over the years contrasts with the recent opening of the £189m Library of Birmingham, which houses 1m books, while Liverpool and Newcastle have also invested heavily in central libraries in recent times.

One positive note for Sheffield is that the Central Library was built in the early 30s - despite a recession.