Library of the Year 2019: shortlist spotlight

Library of the Year 2019: shortlist spotlight

The nine shortlistees for the Library of the Year Award 2019—run in partnership with charity The Reading Agency and sponsored by Rakuten Overdrive and W F Howes—come from across the UK and span various modes of operating, but books remain at the heart of each outfit.


Library of the Year | Harrogate Library, North Yorkshire

Harrogate Library is the busiest library in North Yorkshire, with visitor numbers “steadily rising”, says Harrogate & Craven area librarian Hazel Smith, who puts the library’s success down to a willingness to try new things, and raising its profile as a community space.

The library—reconfigured in a major redesign nearly 10 years ago, which opened up its internal space and added a glass ceiling to introduce more light—caters for all ages and all sectors of its community. Library staff and volunteers have visited not just local schools and under-five groups, but also food banks, supermarkets and local churches, to promote the library and recruit new members.

“People think of Harrogate as being quite an affluent area, but there are pockets of deprivation, and you can’t assume that everybody has the money to buy books, or knows how to use the library. There are lots of things libraries can help with and it’s really important to get the message out there,” says Smith of the library’s outreach work.

Attracting young readers is a big priority, and the library is keen to increase its under-fives membership, which means encouraging their parents to visit the library regularly, and getting them “hooked” on attending sessions every week, such as Bookstart Bear Club (numbers up 15% last year) and Storytime sessions, which can attract audiences of 50 children to the dedicated children’s library on the basement floor.

School’s out
The Summer Reading Challenge is hugely popular, with close to 1,000 children taking part last year, and nine special events put on by the library for the scheme. The library has an active group of young volunteers (the Reading Hacks, aged 14–18) who have organised events aimed at encouraging younger children to read, including for Harry Potter Night, Star Wars Day and Science Week.

The library is also popular with school students revising for exams, and has just had an exceptionally busy couple of months in the run-up to GCSEs and A-Levels. “We can have up to 70 students studying at any one time, they really see the library as a cool place to come and revise,” says Smith. “They find every nook and cranny they can. We are hoping to do more next year in revision time to extend the space we’ve got and offer extra facilities: it’s a really important thing to offer to the community, that quiet place to go and study.”

With a “healthy book fund, which we are very fortunate to have”, Smith says Harrogate Library offers an “excellent” choice to tempt readers, and does a lot to promote stock, with themed displays to tie-in with events which include author visits (Julia Chapman and Ann Cleeves have visited), a multi-author Crime Noir event, and a First World War centenary commemoration. The library has developed strong links with writer group Promoting Yorkshire Authors; it holds regular events there, which are recorded and uploaded to YouTube. The library also supports 40 book clubs, which pay a subscription fee to borrow multiple copies of the club’s chosen reads, with some book clubs meeting for discussions in the library itself. Meanwhile, the popularity of audio and e-book loans is growing, Smith says. The library links in with national programmes such as Mental Health Week and BookStart Week.

Imaginative work
Harrogate Library also has a relationship with local indie bookshop Imagined Things, and the two support each other: the library acts as a venue for some bookshop-organised events that the shop is too small to host, and there are “lots” of opportunities to promote each other’s events and activities, including on social media. Another partnership has seen Harrogate Theatre use the library as a venue for productions. “Author events and theatre performances bring people to the library that perhaps have not visited before; performances also enable people to access theatre and literature in a venue in which they feel secure to try something new,” says Smith.

The library has 15 paid staff—a mix of qualified librarians, library assistants and supervisors—but after undergoing “significant” local authority budget cuts in recent years, also makes use of volunteers to run activities. Smith is proud of Harrogate Library’s good record of volunteer retention, and believes the volunteers have brought in a range of new skills, which has seen the library branch out into activities from coding workshops to choir performances, meditation and crochet—always, of course, with relevant book displays on hand. They help with regular clubs, such as the Board Games & Craft Group, planned to alleviate loneliness. There are also targeted events, such as a Deaf Café, which brings hearing-impaired people together at the library for support and friendship.

Smith says: “Particularly in the past year or two, people have come to us with ideas: ‘Would you like to try this? Can we try that in the library?’ and we’ve said yes to just about everything. When people see that’s happening, say on social media, they think, ‘I hadn’t thought of that happening in a library, perhaps I could do something’—and it builds.” That said, “books and reading are at the heart of what we do”, says Smith.


Commendation for volunteer-run library | Preston Community Library, Wembley, Brent

Although Preston Library was one of six libraries closed by Brent Council seven years ago, campaigners and volunteers have come together to make the new library a shining light in the community. Now managed by the volunteers who led the campaign to save the library, the Preston Community Library has been highly commended for the tireless work of its volunteers and for its position at the heart of the community.

In fact, Brent Library Service—hearing that the library has been attracting large audiences for its events—has asked Preston Community Library to bring two of its author events to its own libraries: one was held around Susie Boyt’s My Judy Garland Life (Virago), and the other, a Second World War memorial event with Elisa Segrave, was about her book The Girl from Station X (Ebury).

Kamila Shamsie at an event at the library following her Women’s Prize For Fiction win

Open four days a week, the library is run by some 80 volunteers, the eldest being 97. The children’s library is “a well-stocked and animated environment”, and membership is around 1,400.

“This shortlisting couldn’t come at a more pressing time,” says literary event lead Geraldine Cook, who adds that the accolade is a “much-needed boost” for the management team (made up of the former library campaigners) who are determined to carry on running the library with all its activities, even when they may have to move the library temporarily, while the council develops the current site for flats.


Shortlisted | Eltham Library, Eltham, London

The Enchanted Story Garden has brought magic to Eltham Library,” says Rebecca Gediking, national children’s library specialist for Greenwich Leisure Limited, which runs the service. The library was awarded £125,121 from Arts Council England to create literary play space The Story Garden. Inspired by the work of local Eltham author E Nesbit, the garden’s illustrations were designed by author and illustrator Graham Carter who is returning in September for the launch of his new book Otto Blotter Bird Spotter (Andersen Press). It was opened by the Mayor of the Royal Borough of Greenwich in December 2018, and since then has received, on average, 250 visits a day.

“We have formed closer partnerships with schools and our local children’s centres to put on events, and have developed excellent relationships with publishers and local independent bookshops to deliver events and promote new books,” says Gediking. “The day we opened the garden and removed the fencing was a great day for all. For months before, lots of children would sit cross-legged outside, trying to peek underneath and see what was happening; seeing their faces when we opened was really lovely. ”

Eltham Library is staffed by a professional team who are “incredibly passionate about their work and the local community”, says Gediking. In January 2019, they won Greenwich Leisure Limited Best Library Award. Last year, Eltham Library held more than 20 author events and 80 performances, and worked with a number of organisations including local schools, nurseries, children’s centres, scout groups and local charities to deliver a year-long programme of events. Alongside its regular programming, Eltham Library and its team has embraced technol- ogy to deliver LEGO robotics, silent yoga and augmented reality events.

Performance at Eltham Library has continued to improve year on year. In the 2017/18 Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy Public Library Statistics, Greenwich was the first in the country in visits per 1,000 population. Eltham Library was a big contributor to those “outstanding” statistics, says Gediking, adding: “We are very proud of the work we have achieved at Eltham Library through innovation, collaboration, professionalism and enthusiasm.”


Shortlisted | Arden Academy, Knowle, Solihull

When librarian Emma O’Brien joined Solihull’s Arden Academy library in January 2018, it had been unmanned for a period of time and was a tired and unused space. “The walls were bare, save a few marketing posters, and apart from a few steadfast students finding a place to study, the library was empty of students and books were left on the shelves,” she says. So, with the collaboration of an “incredibly supportive” line manager and the English department, O’Brien transformed the library into one with a “positive and welcoming atmosphere that promotes reading and learning”.

As well as encouraging students to shadow the Carnegie/ Kate Greenaway shortlists and the Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ Children’s Book Awards, O’Brien created a Library Ambassador programme. In this role, students work on displays to promote books, help on open evenings and are “generally positive beacons for reading wherever possible.” Alongside this, a core group of Library Ambassadors ran a whole-school survey to decide on books to purchase for the school, and was then given a budget to buy them. This was helpful in making the library stock more contemporary and relevant for the library users themselves, and in actively inviting students who would not normally visit the library to participate in selecting titles. O’Brien’s work increased book loans in her first year more than threefold: from 1,335 in 2017 to 4,036 in 2018.

O’Brien says: “The students have been a great source of motivation for me, and giving them a voice and opinion on the library has really helped shape it.” O’Brien interviewed the Arden Student LGBT group about the library, which led to them producing a Pride display and a school-wide competition on the theme of Pride.

“The school library simply could not be the heart of the school, if it were not for the collaborative efforts of everyone,” O’Brien adds. “Never before have I worked in an environment which has had such support behind it. I am immensely proud of the library and all we have achieved, and excited to see what we go on to do next.”


Shortlisted | Listening Books, Nationwide

Specialist audiobook library Listening Books, is celebrating 60 years of catering for individuals who find that an illness, disability or learning difficulty impacts their ability to read or hold a book. The charity supports some 60,000 people nationwide every year with a permanent staff of 11, plus 10 volunteers. Copyright manager Amy Flinders says: “The audiobook market is growing rapidly, and for many people with a print impairment, audiobooks are the only way they can access literature. So we are thrilled that our service has been recognised by The Bookseller and the judges.”

The library consists of more than 8,000 audiobooks, 90% of which are commercial titles bought from publishers and 10% are books recorded in-house. For the past few years the library has been increasingly trying to bring titles directly to groups who would struggle to join as individuals. In 2010, it established the Books for Hospices project and began providing hospices with free “mini-libraries”, a selection of 300 popular CDs from its library, along with CD players. It has delivered these mini libraries to more than 180 hospices, and is now in the process of delivering its digital service to younger members of society who are receiving hospice care: to date, it has provided 45 children’s hospices with tablets and access to its digital library.

The library has seen its efforts convert into a significant increase in loans. In 2018, it increased its total digital audiobook loans by 23% on 2017 (from 56,670 to 69,170). This is also a 538% increase in digital audiobook loans from 2011, the first full year the digital library was operational. 

The library is still thinking of new ways to reach readers. It has launched a podcast and an Ask the Author series on YouTube, which has so far featured videos from Kit de Waal, Sally Gardner and its patron, Stephen Fry, who says: “I am overjoyed that Listening Books has been recognised for all the support it gives to those that are unable to access the printed word.”


Shortlisted | Libraries NI, Northern Ireland

Libraries NI, the public library service for Northern Ireland, includes 96 branch libraries and 16 public mobile libraries, and it is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2019. Coming together as one library service has enabled the libraries to use their combined heft to deliver exceptional service.

Now in its fourth year, the libraries run BookWeekNI in partnership with BBC Northern Ireland. Last year the partnership involved book-related content across the Radio Ulster schedule featuring the voices of readers, authors, presenters and library staff, and a social media campaign which saw members upload selfies with their current read. The social media reach throughout the week totalled 436,574.

Similarly, The Biggest Book Club in the Country is a feature on popular BBC Radio Ulster programme “The Stephen Nolan Show”. “It enables Libraries NI to engage with a demographic which would normally be beyond our reach,” says service development manager Sean Beattie. Staff are able to feature the work of local Irish authors, and books featured on the show regularly become the most borrowed book of that month. In December, two children from Libraries NI won the chance to see David Walliams at a BBC launch event. 

Author Patrick Gale right at an event with Libraries NI’s Peter Hughes

Libraries NI also implemented a One Book campaign, featuring Turning for Home by Barney Norris. During the campaign, 4,784 people borrowed the novel which was available in book, e-book and audiobook format. The service also developed an in-house summer reading challenge, The Big Summer Read, which saw 39,317 children borrow 390,578 books—an increase of 2.2% year on year.

Another highlight for the service is the continued growth in the use of e-books and audiobooks. Since 2011, use has grown by more than 2,000%. According to Beattie, this growth has been achieved by prominent use of social media.

As well as service-wide initiatives, individual libraries also deliver programmes tailored to meet local needs and engage with the community. Such features showcase both fiction and non-fiction and, where applicable, highlight stock in languages other than English.

For example, Falls Road Library in Belfast worked with arts organisation Beyond Skin to host an event looking at the transformative power of the arts and its ongoing work with refugees; and Derry’s Creggan Library worked with the Sia Pak Chinese Community Association to host a workshop to coincide with Chinese New Year.


Shortlisted | Montrose Library, Angus, Scotland

More than 13,000 people visited ANGUSalive’s Montrose Library in the two months after it reopened following refurbishment. The library opened with a flourish of activities and events in September 2018, after almost 11 months in a small temporary space. It welcomed 663 members and issued 8,493 items in the first two months in its new premises. Author Stuart MacBride cut the ribbon on opening day, saying how pleased he was to be at the opening of a library instead of standing with a placard protesting about their closures.

“Fantastic” figures followed the library’s reopening, with a monthly average of 3,000 issues and 5,800 visitors (up from 2,513) to the new library in its eight months. The library has regular events too, including Knit & Knitter and Bookbug Babies. Librarian Arlene Henderson says: “My team and I are incredibly proud of our library and of what we have achieved in the past year for our community. We rose to the challenge of moving into our new library with excitement and the reaction and feedback from all our users has been fantastic. Everyone loves the new, brighter space; it’s a much-loved old building that has been brought right up to date and we hope it will serve generations of the Montrose community for years to come.”


Shortlisted | The London Library, St James, London

Membership is on the rise at The London Library, a unique institution first established on the initiative of writer Thomas Carlyle in 1841, and the largest independent lending library in the world. The library, situated in elegant St James Square, levies substantial subscription fees to its members (standard full membership costs £510 per annum), which limits its user base; but it has been included in The Bookseller’s shortlist both for its celebrated collection of one million books and periodicals—almost all available for borrowing, as well as to browse within the building—and the special expertise of its library staff, which include a Bibliographic Services team and a Collection Care team to handle maintenance and conservation.

Under director Philip Marshall, who joined in 2017, there has been a drive to make the library as accessible and widely known as possible: introducing an author events programme, open to non-members and featuring the likes of Jessie Burton, Candice Carty-Williams and Hallie Rubenhold; increasing the age limit by two years for a young person’s half-price member- ship, and bringing under-30s into the group of trustees on placement to ensure younger members’ views are heard; offering cheaper remote or associate memberships to reflect that many users live outside London and rely more on the library’s online resources; and schools memberships, giving pupil groups access to the library. This year the library also launched its Emerging Writers’ Programme to support aspiring unpublished writers, with 38 candidates (pictured) given a year’s free library membership plus a programme of networking and writer support.

Overall library membership now numbers 6,700 members, with many new joiners in their twenties. Marshall says: “We’ve always had as our goal the sharing of knowledge and ideas, supporting writers and readers, and nurturing creativity—both for people going on a personal journey of discovery, and for a wider public good. When people come for research, to seek knowledge or build creative work that will be published, that affects the lives of many. There are one million books here that you can browse and borrow. Members tell us frequently they can’t find the books anywhere else.” 


Shortlisted | Shetland Library, Shetland

A “madly busy” year for the Shetland Library saw a mix of e-book promotion, events and activities, and the overhaul of its mobile library service, driving issues and visits up, and costs down.

The library set out to improve the mobile service because fewer customers were using it, and reliability wasn’t great, says service manager Karen Fraser. It retired one old van, saving the council £100,000 in capital replacement costs, and then made its remaining newer, more accessible van work harder to cover all areas, backed up with extra staffing, service promotion and extra stops.

“Amazingly, in our first year—despite considerable upheaval and halving our ‘fleet’—we have already attracted more (and younger) customers and increased issue figures a little,” says Fraser. The library is still working to increase the number of stops at community hubs such as shops or playgroups. Fraser adds: “Mobile services are essential in Shetland’s scattered rural communities.”

While always “lively”, last year’s reader development programme was “exceptional”. The library organised 10 events in one weekend for The Big Takeover, a local Year of Young People festival, and special guest Nick Sharratt packed out five of them. “The poor man spent about two hours signing books after each event,” Fraser said. “Families couldn’t get enough of him!”

The library makes sure to identify events that can promote stock. When it heard Dr Ben Garrod was coming to Shetland, it struck up banter on Twitter with him, bought more of his books and the whole library “went dinosaur crazy” for a week—it even had a dinosaur serving customers on the issue desk.

Fraser says: “It is really good to be shortlisted, as last year was a very busy one for our staff, who put huge enthusiasm and commitment into their work. Everyone promoted our services and that showed up in our results.”