Over 100 people turned up at the Zest Centre on Saturday to show their support for Upperthorpe Library, housed within the centre. For nearly two hours we heard from men, women, boys and girls from many different backgrounds and ethnic groups, united by a common belief in the importance of the library service and especially the unique nature of Upperthorpe Library.
After an introduction from Cllr. Mazher Iqbal, who explained the depth of cuts imposed on Sheffield City Council by central government, Zest Chief Executive, Janet Skirrow described the unique nature of the library within the Zest Centre. The site integrates swimming, gym and general sports facilities with a café, meeting rooms, employment support and general advice provision. This all fits alongside the library which has a heavily used computer network and meeting areas. Janet announced that Zest has just won the Community Investment Award in the Sheffield Business Awards 2013, for making the “most notable improvement to the quality of life of their local community”.
It is impossible to convey fully the variety of points that were made from the audience after the introductions, but some of the most powerful contributions came from the children present. One boy explained how, since he arrived in Sheffield three years ago speaking only Arabic, the books in the library have been an invaluable support to him learning English. Other children explained the difficulty they would have travelling to Hillsborough or Central Libraries if Upperthorpe were to close.
From those present we heard how Upperthorpe Library and the Zest Centre help to support the inclusion of local Black and Minority Ethnic communities and how the computers are a lifeline for many who cannot afford home internet connections. Many expressed that the Zest Centre represents the sort of forward-thinking model of integrated services which could and should be be replicated across the country, rather than being dismantled, one service at a time.
We were told by Cllr. Iqbal that there were proposals from various community groups to run several libraries across the city. Unfortunately, it was not clear how such community groups would be sustainable without funding for dedicated staff. Nor was it clear how community groups could fund the rent and running costs of library buildings after the first two years (in 5 ‘priority’ libraries) or straight away (in the remaining 10 libraries). We heard again and again about the way cuts were being enforced by central government but very little about how Sheffield City Council was pushing back against these cuts, or why Sheffield libraries in particular were suffering a 50% budget cut.
Finally we were left with questions about whether we are ever justified in closing community resources, such as libraries, vital to the poorest and most vulnerable members of the community or how we will cover the long-term costs, in education and wellbeing, which will result from these short-sighted closures.