The Star Looks at Sheffield's Libraries: A place for everyone in Ecclesfield

Julie Marshall at Ecclesfield Library. Picture: Glenn Ashley
Julie Marshall at Ecclesfield Library. Picture: Glenn Ashley

The hushed, cloistered atmosphere of an archetypal library has been consigned to the past in Ecclesfield. It's 11am on a Friday and the north Sheffield village library's Little Bears club is coming to a close - at least 15 mothers have turned out with their children to read stories, play games and inevitably cause a bit of a hubbub.

"It's great to get kids interested, we're very keen on that," says Julie Marshall, having deftly blocked a small boy from making a mischievous dash out of the entrance.

Ecclesfield Library. Picture: Glenn Ashley

Ecclesfield Library. Picture: Glenn Ashley

"Now libraries tend to not just be a place for books, they're also a community hub."

The facility's place in local life was reflected in the campaign fought by supporters to keep the building, on High Street, open when the council handed 16 libraries over to volunteers in 2014. Ecclesfield is an 'associate' service, run independently by a Friends group and backed by grant money that is guaranteed until 2020.

"It's a worthwhile thing," says Julie, one of about 22 volunteers and a member of an eight-strong board of trustees.

"It would be such a shame if the libraries in this area, or any area, closed down."

Volunteers with books at Ecclesfield Library. Picture: Glenn Ashley

Volunteers with books at Ecclesfield Library. Picture: Glenn Ashley

There's a lot of work needed behind the scenes; lending books and hosting activities only scratches the surface.

"We still haven't sorted the lease on this building, the insurance is about to come up now and there's health and safety - we're just finding all that out."

Most of Ecclesfield's helpers are retired, or their children are in school. For 30 years Julie worked as a trainer teaching people how to use copying and printing equipment, and took early retirement with her husband Paul four years ago.

"We wanted to give something back to the community and thought a library is something that really everybody ought to have access to."

Rather than being cut back, opening hours have been extended since volunteers were given the keys.

"We did it from the word go," says Paul. Shifts are split throughout the day between different sets of assistants.

"It's a nice library, this, it's got a good atmosphere to it," he adds.

The smart red-brick building - which has a timber-covered ceiling indoors, a little like a ski lodge - is a book-lined retreat. There are even titles for sale on shelves outside the front door; paperbacks for 50p, hardbacks £1.

There's a screen inside showing Ecclesfield's most-read works - two books by literary peer Jeffrey Archer have led the way so far this year.

"We do have some very popular authors and he is one of them," laughs Julie.

To offer more new volumes alongside those on the existing council lending system, which local borrowers can still access, volunteers created a 'library within a library'. Books with a yellow sticker are either donated by the public or bought by Friends using funds.

When children first join they are also given a small pack containing some stories to read.

"People don't always want to buy books," says Julie.

"They can't afford them, or like to change them without going to Waterstones, Tesco or online. I don't use a Kindle, I must admit. There's nothing better than having a book in your hand and being able to sit, read it and take it with you wherever you go."

The group needs to generate around £13,000 per year to keep the library afloat. A watercolour painting course brings in a decent sum, the sale of books and refreshments makes a contribution and there's a small charge for printing too.

Use of the computers remains free, bookable in advance. Mostly people need to log on for job searches, or they simply lack IT equipment at home.

"Internet cafés don't seem to be about any more," observes Julie.

There is also a plan to offer free photocopying to children for their homework, using a multifunctional copier, printer and scanner donated by technology firm Sharp.

Rose Tanner, who led the campaign to keep Ecclesfield going and is now a trustee, says the original protest addressed 'two issues'.

"It was about the library as a service, but also this building. The community didn't want this building gone, because that would mean it'd be knocked down and who knows what would be on it."

Rose remains doubtful as to the merits of relying on volunteers.

"This should be a public service, with paid staff. We have got a lot of flexibility, but we're not paid workers."

Nevertheless, the Friends are pressing ahead, having created what Julie describes as a 'nice, lively little hub'.

"We'd quite like to have a little coffee shop here. We haven't got round to doing it yet but it'd be nice for the area - have a cappuccino, have a browse."

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