Part One: Why we shouldn’t oppose the closure of Sheffield Central Library

This is the first of two articles, Part Two will covers the themes which have emerged from the concerns of the public over Sheffield Central Library’s closure.

As both a resident of Sheffield and a librarian-in-training, one thing I haven’t been able to miss on social media is the petition to save Sheffield Central Library, which has gained just under 7,000 signatures in less than 48 hours. Despite the obvious opposition from the public, I don’t think we should oppose it’s closure and I will explain why.

The library is no longer sufficient.

The building was opened as a library in 1934, placed on the site of the defunct Sheffield Mechanics’ Institute, which held the first public library in Yorkshire. The building itself is Grade II listed and has held on to original features including it’s art deco interior. The bold stone work by Frank Tory and Sons (who also worked on the Town Hall) and the architect who designed the building, W.G. Davies, were citizens of Sheffield. On opening, the library had a state of the art ventilation system and still holds many rare books linked to Sheffield’s industrial past to this day.

Detail of Central Library and Graves Art Gallery, Surrey Street, Sheffield” by Stephen Richards is licensed under CC BY 2.0

At the start of it’s life, Sheffield Central Library was a symbol of the city and it’s skills, as well as forward thinking — allowing the children of Sheffield access to make exciting new discoveries as well as providing leisure reading, boosting the population’s literacy, and offering local people access to valuable information. Today it still performs these functions and offers internet access for those who don’t have this service at home, as well as acting as a social hub for book clubs and children’s events.

While I very much doubt anyone in the UK will have failed to notice the effect of austerity measures on public libraries, you may also be aware of the #MyLibraryByRight campaign, run by the professional body for librarians, CILIP, to raise awareness of Local Authorities legal obligation to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” library service to the public. While the public have realised the severity of these cuts affecting their services, this time we’re missing one key point…

This is the closure of a building, not a library service.

The council have committed to relocating the library service — the building itself simply houses the services which make the library a special space. Unfortunately that building, no matter how magnificent, was built for the 1930’s concept of what a library should be. There is no disabled main entrance and while the facade still looks pretty the state of the art ventilation system has long since retired and there’s LED lights hiding under those art deco lampshades in the foyer.

This potential acquisition of Central Library is part of the first wave of investment, totalling £220 million, and the start of a 60 year partnership between the Sichuan Guodong group and Sheffield City Council. It’s the largest Chinese investment deal ever outside of London which could create thousands of jobs here. This is a truly positive sign considering the current economic uncertainty resulting from the implications of Brexit.

Considering the idea of the “Northern Powerhouse” is arguably “Manchester-centric”, and our neighbours up in Leeds are constantly receiving new shopping centres, which win global awards and attract large London brands, it’s about time we started receiving some investment in our infrastructure.

The building is reducing the potential of the library service.

The current library has some redeeming features but on the whole it’s drab — the children’s library should be more colourful, there could be an open space with versatility and adaptable furniture for social activities and more touch screen technology, like tablets, to highlight the existence of the eLibrary and improve service experience as well as more plug sockets to feed today’s power hungry mobile devices.

“Manchester Central Library 2014 re-opening Ground Floor Café 7873.JPG” by Clim Rutter is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Instead of opposing this closure, we should look upon this change as an opportunity to lobby our council and pursue a brand new, state of the art library building which is designed by consultation with the people of Sheffield and built to fulfil the communities needs.

“Good public libraries are anchors in their communities, adept at creatively and thoughtfully responding to and anticipating the diverse needs found there.”
Nick Higgins, from a BBC news article about innovation in US libraries

We need to move towards a building that will support activities which are important in a 21st Century library, and not only to increase our cities’ literacy but provide a place for social activities. We can embed technology to improve digital literacy and ultimately lay the foundations for our community to be inspired and grow.

Sheldon Korpet (@sheldonkorpet) is an Information Officer and MSc Digital Library Management student at the University of Sheffield.

If you would like to sign the petition to oppose the closure of Sheffield Central Library, click the link below:

Last updated Sunday 27th November, 11:53am