Start of a new chapter for library as volunteers take over its running

Volunteers at Totley Library: Margaret Spencer (left) and Natasha Watkinson (both front middle) with volunteers at a training session
Volunteers at Totley Library: Margaret Spencer (left) and Natasha Watkinson (both front middle) with volunteers at a training session

More than 100 people have volunteered to staff Totley Library from next weekend.

Totley is one of 10 ‘associate libraries’ being passed to volunteers by the council, which says it can no longer afford to keep them going on its own.

Sheffield was the first town to have a public library service in Yorkshire, in 1856, and communities such as Totley are determined that the tradition has another chapter. The Totley branch is in community hands from Saturday next week. Others are changing from the start of the week.

Members of the voluntary committee overseeing the Totley transition are very clear that their favoured option was to keep the library open with paid staff, as it ever was.

But the figures were clear, said Natasha Watkinson, publicity officer for Totley Community Resource and Information Centre, the new charity set up by the volunteers.

“The council said they needed to save £600,000 a year from the libraries,” she said. “Ideally we wanted Totley Library to stay open the same way, but we realised if that money needed to be saved there was no point pushing at a closed door, as we really didn’t want the library to close.”

By this time, the CRIC team had been in touch with other community run libraries around the country.

CRIC chair Isabel Hemmings had been in touch with Little Chalfont Community Library in Buckinghamshire, which has loaned outside council auspices since 2007.

“They said the bottom line was that you must remain part of the local library system, because it’s really hard otherwise,” she said.

“Little Chalfont had found out the hard way that a community library needs the resources of the local authority to ensure the public still get the library they expect, with access to books from other libraries and a catalogue system.”

Sheffield’s ‘associate’ libraries will be run by volunteers, but with full links to the council-run service.

“The council met us half way,” said Natasha, “so we’re still connected to the service. Otherwise we’d just have been a building with some books in it.”

The campaign in Totley was started by local father Matt Kik with public notices and a social media page a year ago. Some 120 people attended a public meeting, and negotiations began.

The original ‘independent library’ (aka buildings with some books in them) model was discarded and agreement in Totley was for CRIC to receive around £25,000 worth of help towards administrative costs, to be linked to the city library systems, but effectively to do pretty much everything else themselves.

“When the decision was taken we had two-and-a-half months before we reopened,” said Natasha.

In that time CRIC had to recruit and train a team of volunteers, and organise the running of the building. “Everything from keys to insurance to gardening.”

Fortunately, the Totley volunteers include several ex-librarians and teachers along with business people, directors, a marketing officer and similar types of specialisms one might expect in the city’s southern-most suburb.

The criteria for keeping libraries or turning them over to community management was linked to deprivation indices – a blunt instrument, said Isabel Hemmings, as Totley includes council housing as well as many older people with limited mobility for whom a community library is crucial.

Over half the volunteers are pensioners, said Margaret Spencer, herself a retired biotechnologist. “We think it will be a positive thing for everybody,” she said. “We hope that the library will be a stimulating thing for retired people to work on.”

Last Saturday, the first batch of volunteers were shown the operating systems for books, DVDs and computers. The children’s wall display included a happy conjunction of Angry Birds and Just William, while in the adult section the volunteers puzzled over the shelving complexities of thrillers, crime and spy fiction.

Isabel Hemmings was very keen to thank the scores of volunteers and the local library staff who’d provided such an inspirational service to their unpaid replacements.

“There is something positive about giving people new skills and making people feel they can do it for themselves. We absolutely need public services but the model we have for the way they’re provided in future probably will bring some value.

“I’m not a ‘Big Society’ supporter as such, but there is something in that notion of people taking ownership and responsibility and being able to do things.

“But this is doing it with the council. On our own we couldn’t have done it.”