A joint project by Midlands Partnership Foundation Trust and Staffordshire County Council, winner of the Health and Local Government Partnership category at the 2019 HSJ Awards, is running eight community libraries that serve deprived communities. Jennifer Trueland finds out more about their impact

A health trust and local authority have come together to run eight community libraries across South Staffordshire, mobilising and supporting volunteers to deliver much-needed services to local people.

The project is a joint initiative by Midlands Partnership Foundation Trust and Staffordshire County Council, and took the top prize in the Health and Local Government Partnership category of last year’s HSJ Awards.

Now in its fifth year, the project has involved up to 250 volunteers as well as community support workers, library services staff, and social inclusion navigators.

Services on offer include self-help, creative activities such as craft workshops, dementia awareness, reminiscence work, well-person checks, diabetic eye screening – and, of course, reading.

“Libraries are at the heart of their community and, with us being a mental health trust, it really fits in with our wellbeing agenda,” explains Michelle Harte, the community managed libraries co-ordinator. “We’re always trying to tackle things like social isolation and mental health problems, and we felt that the libraries were a brilliant place to do it. It’s not just the people who use the libraries, but it’s the volunteers as well. A lot of them are perhaps retired, or on their own, and feeling socially isolated. Or perhaps people who have recently retired and who feel they’re not quite ready to give up on having that sort of structure in their lives.”

“Libraries are at the heart of their community and, with us being a mental health trust, it really fits in with our wellbeing agenda”

Although the facilities are naturally closed at the moment because of covid-19 restrictions, the volunteers are still benefiting. “We’re all keeping in touch – they’re all emailing me and letting me know what they’re up to; it’s become a community in itself.”

Many of the libraries serve deprived communities, and have come to be seen as a valuable resource for tackling health inequalities and promoting inclusion and accessibility. This includes working with people with English as a second language, and taking a flexible approach to the space so that parts of the buildings can be available outside traditional hours.

The collaboration between the health trust and county council has provided additional benefits: for example, supporting the community managed libraries has allowed the trust to be part of a wider network of community groups with similar aims and objectives, including a passion for keeping libraries open.

According to Ms Harte, involving the local community in decision-making, for example on opening hours and activities, has been very important. But one of the things that she has been most touched by is watching the benefits spread beyond the library buildings themselves.

“You find that people will come to the group for yoga, then a little group of them will join up and go to the café over the road afterwards. I like to think that we’re the hub, and lots of little spokes come out of that. It’s about so much more than books, although we do have books, and issues [of books] are on a similar level, percentage wise, with all the main libraries.”

Winning the HSJ award felt like a real achievement, she says. “It certainly gave the volunteers a lift.”

She has some words of advice for other trusts and local authorities thinking of taking a similar path. “It’s been a learning curve, because nobody had really done anything like this before. I suppose there were some pitfalls we hadn’t really thought about – for example, you need a really strong co-ordinator in each: you can’t just say ‘oh we’ll have 20 volunteers’ because I can’t manage all eight, I have to have a go-to person. It took a while to find those people, but now I’ve got them they’re wonderful. You also need to think about income generation to keep the libraries going, to make them sustainable. Getting the groups in – getting the message out there that we’re here and you can use these rooms, was also a challenge. And some volunteers just want to come in and do their four hours at the counter, which is great, but you need some with a bit more passion, who have a love for books and really want the library to succeed.”

There is a turnover for volunteers, she says, but that can actually be very good news. “The volunteer base does change, but it tends to be the younger ones who go off and find a job. But they’ve found a job through volunteering at the library, which has given them the confidence to apply for a job and get a job. You really don’t mind losing them for things like that.”

Click here to find out more about how to enter the HSJ Awards 2020.