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How Suffolk libraries have turned the page to a new chapter

Libraries have always been gateways with their vast stores of books giving millions access to knowledge, great literature, gripping stories, or just a good, fun, feet-up holiday read.

They still are, but in Suffolk they can now open the door to so much more.

Suffolk Libraries, which became an independent charity almost a decade ago, still loans more than three million books a year.

Children join in a reading challenge
Children join in a reading challenge

And after over a year of lockdowns, isolation and staring at screens, library staff are reporting that customers are keener than ever to get their hands on actual, physical books.

But today the services in its 44 branches have been transformed. The days when the only reason for going into a library was to borrow a book are long gone.

Some will still recall when a reverential hush was required. Librarians were often portrayed as straight-laced despots shooting death stares at anyone who dared to as much as rustle a sweet wrapper.

Enjoying a chat and reading the papers in a library
Enjoying a chat and reading the papers in a library

Now Suffolk’s libraries are also places for socialising and community activities, with an emphasis on supporting their clients’ wellbeing.

Chief executive Bruce Leeke was appointed three years ago. “I’m a real evangelist when I talk about this job,” he says.

“I never expected to find what I found. I couldn’t believe all the stuff that we did.”

Film nights, a sewing group, clubs, gigs, arts and crafts, exhibitions and fashion shows are just a tiny sample of what goes on in the county’s libraries and will return with the lifting of Covid restrictions.

The changes didn’t happen overnight. Bruce says statistics around libraries often involve outputs, like numbers of books loaned. “What we are really interested in are not just outputs but outcomes.

“What are we doing for people and what difference are we making to their lives? There has been a subtle shift over time, I think.”

That shift has led to groups including Chat ‘n’ Chill at Ipswich Library for people whose first language is not English.

Sporting Memories in various branches is designed to help tackle dementia, depression and loneliness through the power of sports reminiscence.

Activities for children are a vital part of library services
Activities for children are a vital part of library services

Lego fans can indulge their passion at the new Mildenhall library, among others, while Needham Market has an adults’ jigsaw group, and Sewing Bees sewing therapy takes place at Thurston.

There are also coding clubs to improve knowledge of computers, a cancer support group in Ipswich, film nights at Capel St Mary and Clare where the income helps pay for children’s events, and many more.

The numerous initiatives for children include the popular summer reading challenge.

It is hard to believe that around 10 years ago the future for the county’s libraries looked bleak with cutbacks leaving half of them under threat of closure.

Games being played during a Top Time session
Games being played during a Top Time session

Suffolk then took a groundbreaking step - moving the library service from county council control into the hands of an independent charity.

“We were the first library service in the country to be divested in that way,” said Bruce.

“Just under 90 percent of our funding comes from Suffolk County Council but as an independent charity we can also generate income elsewhere.

“Now we are a much more effective organisation. The way our management structure works is very streamlined.

A young reader gets to grips with a reading challenge
A young reader gets to grips with a reading challenge

“There have been a few bumps in the road but we have now got to a really good place as to how to develop the service in the future. It’s a genuine partnership with the county council. With them we will look forward hopefully to a new era.

“What we are being really effective at doing is stripping out some of the back office costs - streamlining a lot of the activities makes us a lot more nimble in terms of our procurement, and our charity status helps us.”

Far from libraries closing down, new buildings have replaced older ones at Eye, Mildenhall and Saxmundham, with plans to do the same at Needham Market and Southwold.

They are hoping to open their 45th branch at Moreton Hall in Bury in September or October as part of the redevelopment of the community centre there.

Mildenhall’s new library opened on June 1 and within a month more than 120 additional people had joined. “We’ve been signing up four or five new customers a day,” said executive library manager Kate Ashton.

West Suffolk Councillor Jo Rayner with Jack Norman, Property Manager for Suffolk Libraries, Kate Ashton, Executive Library Manager and Denise Gray, Library Manager. Picture: West Suffolk Council
West Suffolk Councillor Jo Rayner with Jack Norman, Property Manager for Suffolk Libraries, Kate Ashton, Executive Library Manager and Denise Gray, Library Manager. Picture: West Suffolk Council

It is housed in the Mildenhall Hub, a brand new multi-purpose centre where neighbours include the town’s leisure centre, West Suffolk Council, a health centre, and Mildenhall College Academy.

Kate has already noticed families heading for the leisure centre’s swimming academy are also spending time in the library.

“Since lockdown has eased we’ve had more people coming in and and wanting to borrow physical books,” she adds. “They’ve been doing so much on e-readers and have been really missing real books.

“There’s also the social interaction, having a conversation. It’s really beneficial for staff as well, having different people to talk to."

Youngsters meet an owl during Wordplay activity at Newmarket Library
Youngsters meet an owl during Wordplay activity at Newmarket Library

As well as the permanent buildings, three mobile library vehicles make hundreds of stops every month, and there are pop-up libraries in Shotley and on the outskirts of Ipswich.

“We also run three prison libraries in Suffolk, and eight in other locations - that’s an example of how being an independent charity helps us to develop other partnerships,” said Bruce.

Libraries are now starting to open up their community activities again.

“I think people are clamouring to get back to some of the things they did before like socialisation and school activities and some of the networks supported by libraries.

“In normal times we have 14,000 difference experiences across 44 sites to support a need in the community including early years events, regular groups, and Top Time for over 55 year-olds.

“Each local manager is very empowered to decide what they do at each site, knowing their community.

“At the start of our life it was fairly chaotic because no-one had every run a library service outside a local authority before.

“So a lot of library managers just had to get on with it meeting the needs of their particular locality. That was a happy accident.

“We play a key role of what I would call pre-prevention, before the need to go and see a clinician. People don’t come here for an intervention. We are helping them find the things they need.

“Now I think the council sees us as a gateway service. Libraries are a neutral environment for health and wellbeing, and mental health. We are the only library service in the country with a dedicated wellbeing service.

“People can come to a group and listen, sit and talk, or sit quietly at the back. We get thousands of enquires every month about wellbeing issues.

“Staff also have a mine of information and can signpost people to the information they need. If you look at social prescribing the library already plays a really key role.

“All our sites have public access PCs and free wifi, and all staff are trained to understand universal credit. They also have training with Suffolk Mind.

“They don’t give advice, more guidance or signposting, but they have an understanding of the challengse people face.”

The library service has 430 full or part time employees backed up by 1,200 volunteers who range from teenagers to retired people. Every library has a friends group who fundraise and volunteer.

When Covid forced all branches to close from March to July 2020 a plan was already in place.

“Leading up to lockdown there was a period when we were getting more and more concerned about the safety of our staff,” said Bruce. “By the time we were closed we had a simple three-point plan.

“One, our lifeline phone service. Local people could work out who might need support and 7,000 calls were made in the first lockdown - simply a call to say ‘hi’.

“Now we have set up a network called ‘phone a friend’ with volunteers continuing it.

“Two was beefing up our digital content. We transformed our website within a week and did more streaming, music, and PressReader for digital newspapers.

“Three was to recreate some of the social experiences online. We did 5,500 live stream events in the first three months with an average 2,300 people a day engaging in those activities.”

Other local initiatives included staff at Clare Library making face shields with their 3D printer, and food deliveries in urban areas.

“We managed to get 100 laptops to give to people who needed them to make appointments, or benefit claims. Now we have a laptop loan scheme, said Bruce.

Suffolk Libraries was also quick to join in the government Kickstart scheme for young people at risk of long term unemployment.

“Eight of the first 10 taken on already have jobs with us,” he said. “We’re now on our second cohort. I think they all surprised themselves by what they could do.”

Suffolk Libraries’ summer reading challenge is back for 2021 aiming to get children reading over the school holidays.

For more information go to www.suffolklibraries.co.uk/whats-on/annual-events/summer-reading-challenge-2021.

Read more: All the latest news from Suffolk