When Sheffield Council announced it was closing 16 libraries across the city, many people in Totley were dismayed.
But four years on, a dedicated team of volunteers has not only kept the library running but created a community hub which has become a meeting place for dozens of different groups and a lifeline for people feeling lonely.
An incredible 105 people are involved in the library in some way, giving their time for free and doing everything from loaning books to tending the garden. The building has also become a base for a number of community groups and is seen as an essential meeting place, for older residents in particular.
Collette Duke, Margaret Spencer and Amber Rebeka are just three of the volunteers who work at the library.
Margaret said: “We have 105 volunteers covering all aspects of the library. Last year we had over 80 working here and also doing gardening, maintenance, children’s activities and film club.
“The garden used to be overgrown but it’s beautiful now and people really appreciate it, it enhances the whole neighbourhood.
“When we first put up posters asking for volunteers I sat there wondering if anyone was going to turn up but you could see people filing in from all directions wanting to help.
“The fact that we managed from day one to keep it from any disasters is amazing considering how little training we had.
“We function exactly the same as the council libraries and customers don’t know the difference, I hope.”
Having such a large team of volunteers means there’s a wealth of different skills and experience. Amber used to work at Waterstones and now puts her literary knowledge and display skills to use at the library.
“We did a survey back in February about what kind of books people wanted us to buy,” she explained. “We had a grant for some stock but we also subsidised that with our own funds. We take on board people’s feedback and will do a survey again next year. People also give suggestions throughout the year and we keep an ongoing list with new releases.”
Sci-fi, young adult and children’s books were lacking so the library has invested in those and bought more stock.
“I use the knowledge I have and try to utilise that to try to help our book stock. For me, a lot of it was trying to really grow the collections.
“We didn’t have many young adult books, they were really old and tatty, and as a result we didn’t get many young adults in here. The few books we had used to be by a wall and people didn’t know they were there, they would just walk past them.
“You need to buy the books to encourage young people in so we broadened all the books for that demographic.
“There was also virtually nothing for children aged seven to 11 and we know children like to read books which come in a series so we try to get an entire collection of books.
“We’ve worked hard to make displays appealing and we now have older children coming in.
We have also placed books in ages ranges so it starts with baby books and goes through to children and young adult then into the adult section.
“There’s now a natural progression from the children’s library through by age, it flows and people naturally move along the library.”
Balancing the books
When the cash-strapped Labour council announced the library closures, there was an outcry but Totley Library is a success story.
Liberal Democrat Dore and Totley councillor, Colin Ross, remembers the public meetings about the closure plans. “It was one of the biggest public meetings I’ve ever attended, with standing room only. I couldn’t believe how large the outcry was.
“The positive thing is it really motivated the community to get people together and make a huge success of running the library.
“The next nearest library is Ecclesall or Greenhill but the only one accessible on a bus route is Highfield.”
The building is now more than just a place for books. “People were very keen that it became a community resource and information centre. It’s a community hub and the only real public building in the area. More and more groups see it as a meeting place and councillors hold surgeries here.”
Funding, as always, can be a struggle but Colin is confident the library will go from strength to strength.
“We started off getting about £23,000 from the council but we have book donations and sales. The library hosts a film club which makes a small profit but it engages the community and is very successful.
“There is some negotiation over the roof and boiler. The carpet was paid for from our own funds and we decorated the children’s library. We spend a lot of time applying for grants and it’s a bit hand to mouth but the volunteers have an amazing skill set.”
Lending figures are also on the increase. Colin explained: “It’s really important that we stay part of the council system. There has been some misinformation about lending figures, recent figures relate to council stock, but we have bought our own books and have some donated to us and they are not part of the council stock. Our figures have gone up since we brought in fresh stock.”
More than just a library
For many local groups, the library has become a long-awaited community hub.
“For years Totley residents desperately tried to get a community building but then we realised this was a community building, said Colin.
“GPs have recommended people come here. There are a few people who have been widowed and are struggling and they end up staying here and having a coffee.
“We have Sporting Memories where people come together and talk about past sports, there’s a table tennis group, a film club and a knit and natter group which has 40 people who meet regularly. These may be low level activities but they help prevent social isolation.
“It also helps our volunteers as many of them use to have high level jobs but they are now retired and want to use their skills.”
Anne Capper is very involved in Totley community groups and provides afternoon tea for people in their 80s, despite being a pensioner herself.
“I have lived here nearly 52 years and there have been changes but I personally wouldn’t live anywhere else because it has a lot to offer.
“I’m a member of Totley Rise Methodist Church and we do try to reach out with many different activities. I became aware about eight years ago about lonely people. Many of them were retired professionals and they put on a good front but were lonely, particularly on a Sunday which is a long day if you don’t have family nearby.
“I set up a Senior Tea and it’s still going strong. We have cakes, entertainment and a quiz every third Sunday at the church at 3pm. I love to hear the buzz and conversations.”
Anne urges anyone who is feeling isolated to get in touch and has also appealed for more help. “One of the biggest difficulties is finding people who are sitting on their own. Everybody is talking about these issues but you don’t go to knock on a door and ask if people are lonely. It’s a private subject.
“We rely on people who are already coming to bring new people. We have 20 people on our books and end up with about 14 each tea.
“We are all getting older and the volunteers looking after these people are in their 80s. We bring them all in by car and we are running short of drivers so would welcome any help.”