Why answers will help find a way forward for our library

Central Library and Graves Art Gallery. Picture: Andrew Roe
Central Library and Graves Art Gallery. Picture: Andrew Roe

As a petition opposing a five-star hotel at the Central Library and Graves Gallery building gathers more than 10,000 signatures, the Sheffield Telegraph’s editor calls for more detail on the proposal

I have an interest to declare. I absolutely love the Central Library.

Graves Gallery and Central Library, Tudor Square, Sheffield.

Graves Gallery and Central Library, Tudor Square, Sheffield.

This is the place I first volunteered as a teenager, where I used to pay pence to borrow cassettes and where staff can seemingly magic answers about Sheffield’s history out of thin air.

It represents so much about why I am passionate about Sheffield.

We are all equal when we walk through those great doors and nothing is too much trouble for our wonderful librarians.

Oh, unless you happen to have a pram and want to access this Children’s Library, in which case it’s round the back and through security for you.

Graves Gallery, Sheffield.

Graves Gallery, Sheffield.

And if you also have an energetic toddler, keep hold of them tight, because that entrance is far too close to the dual carriageway.

That’s where the problems start.

A wonderful facility to tempt children into a lifelong love affair with literature – that actually isn’t accessible to them.

Add in the £30 million needed just to stop the building rotting away and we have a serious problem.

Graves Gallery and Central Library, Tudor Square, Sheffield.

Graves Gallery and Central Library, Tudor Square, Sheffield.

There is still a wonderful feeling as you enter – but if you’ve ever been inside one of our city’s university libraries, then the difference is embarrassing.

The jewel in the crown of our library services is not fit for purpose and our council does not have the money to change that.

We live in a city which in just a few years’ time will rely on cash from its business rates to provide social care.

That should put things in perspective.

Nancy Fielder editor of Sheffield Telegraph

Nancy Fielder editor of Sheffield Telegraph

But it also doesn’t mean we have to throw out the baby, bath water and bath in a desperate bid to survive.

We have to secure the future – making the most of the many amazing assets we have in this city.

A five-star hotel would be a wonderful addition to one of the best areas of the city centre.

It needs to be unique, a true attraction for international visitors who could and should be enjoying all we have to offer.

Let them come and enjoy the museums, theatres and green spaces of one of the country’s most blessed heritage cities, which also happens to be real ale capital of the world.

There are even libraries around the world which are so good and so unique they themselves are visitor attractions – why not Sheffield?

I, like most Sheffielders, am desperate for our city centre to be transformed, brought into line with other neighbouring cities and even surpass them.

This plan could be part of that. The problem is, at the root of this whole sorry mess is that many in the city do not trust its council.

Campaigners see this as just another case of the city’s family treasures being sold off – lost to future generations.

Nobody can blame them for that and the council has only itself to blame for the completely inept way it has handled what was bound to be an unpopular scheme.

We need answers and until we get them there will be no change in public opinion.

It is no good saying Sheffield would get facilities up to the modern standards expected of a library.

We want to see plans. We also want assurances that the new library would open at the same time as the old one closes.

It is no good saying it would be within the ring road. That is not the same as the city centre.

It is no good saying the Graves Gallery would maintain public access. We need times, days and size.

In fact, none of these pledges from the council actual counts for anything without more detail and evidence to back them up.

I realise it is early days – but let’s face it, no millionaire investor would have earmarked the library for a hotel without having a very good idea what they want and how it will look.

Sheffield deserves the same. I won’t be so presumptuous as to imagine what JG Graves might have thought of the plan but I absolutely trust our museum and cultural leaders.

Our treasured Graves collection could actually get the TLC it deserves as part of this – creating a big and better space for us to celebrate.

I’m sure art lovers will have access to pop in for a posh coffee to admire the works.

But what about the teenagers who only actually want to duck out of the rain but just might see something that sparks a lifelong love of art?

What about the pensioners who use it to meet once a month but would hardly feel comfortable in the foyer of a glamorous hotel.

Will it be welcoming to them? To every one of the people given such a wonderful gift by JG Graves.

And, dare I mention it, what would happen if the hotel went bust?

Sheffield has a huge opportunity and there is a growing sense of optimism that a new city centre is almost here.

In an ironic twist, our lack of progress over the decades mean we now have massive potential that our neighbours lack.

Yes we really, really want a council which is bold and imaginative – but part of that is also having a bloody good plan and sharing it with the people who matter most. Us.

So this week the Sheffield Telegraph has published a list of questions on the front page which the council must answer before this deal is signed.

We will print it every month, inside the paper, until we have the answers.

Sheffield is a passionate city and will determinedly fight against perceived wrongs.

Yet actually I believe we all want the same thing.

A better city centre, better library, better space for Graves and better care of our heritage.

We would be in a much better place and have a much stronger city if only we were fighting together, rather than against each other.

Imagine that.