Looking forward at Maindee Library

On Saturday 4 February 2017 a wide group of the library volunteers, trustees of Maindee Unlimited and staff got together to discuss the past, present and future of Maindee Library as a community-run space.

Huw Meredydd Owen's model of Maindee Library

As Maindee is part of the Arts Council of Wales [ACW] programme called ‘Ideas: People: Places’ we are encouraged to explore how spaces are used. For example, we will be able to bring in a designer to help us shape the future of the space based on the uses and the people who make it work. This is a very rare opportunity and we are even more fortunate to have some funding from ACW and others to turn our plans into reality. The work to the building will most likely be carried out between autumn 2017 and finish in March 2018.

This blog article recalls the experience of the workshop on Saturday and the start of exciting plans for the next year or so!

15 months of experience: functions and relationships becoming clear

As we look towards the future – hopefully meaning a library in Maindee in the long term – we took the chance to tell some stories about what has happened since it reopened on October 31st 2015. It is important to reiterate that the library has been run by volunteers, with some financial support from ACW, Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and the Garfield Weston Trust. This gives a feel for what has happened.

Amanda Wicks, a professional librarian and curator of the library’s book collection and lending systems, welcomed how Maindee works as a neutral space for all to use. As the library’s uses develop, she would definitely like to see some better storage as the building now deals with much more than books. Storage seemed to be an issue for most of the people who spoke, including Maindee Unlimited trustee Angela Lloyd. Another trustee, Alison Starling, also the treasurer for the organisation, welcomed this feeling of the library being neutral and said that she ‘loves volunteering here when she gets the time.

Library welcome

 

The love for being in the library was supported by rota-organiser Kim Lambert and amplified very well by Susan Wilmott, who explained that the year or so of being a library volunteer had felt much longer than that. She felt that being a volunteer here had become a big part of her life – especially as she made the transition from being in full-time work to now being retired. Susan pointed at the simple things which make the library attractive as a public space: it is right next to the bus stop and it has free WiFi. She made sense what she said that ‘people know where it is.’ Maggie Bain also felt strongly about the library because of its role as a community resource. Many other spoke about this same issue: for example describing the people who come to use the computers, get things like tickets printed or just to find a warm space to meet others.

Importance of the location; and a community growing around the library

The feeling of the library being in the right location for this particular community was echoed by Michelle Brown, who uses the library as a venue to run counselling sessions on 3 different days of the week. As somebody who pays to use a private space in the library she appreciates what Susan had previously said about the library being well located. Furthermore, she explained that being part of the library had been important as she had made a change in her own professional journey.

Michelle told us how had recently left work in a big organisation to set up her counselling business;  the library volunteers had made and her clients very welcome and she gave a big thank you. It is these unexpected connections between the library as a space, and the people that use it, which started to come out from the wider discussion on this sunny Saturday afternoon. Hearing this account from somebody who pays to use the space allowed us to consider some of the other ways that the library can earn the money needed to pay the bills for things like heating, lighting, rates and so forth.

Taking down notes

How functions may help to make a long term business case

The library no longer gets any funding from Newport City Council. Consequently volunteers like Trish Johns are helping to generate some income by responding to demand and selling drinks to people. However, she explained that the library needs a proper kitchen in order to have a better café service. For example, Newport Council’s Public Protection have advised that only wrapped food can be sold at the moment – such as biscuits. In the future Trish and other volunteers would like to be able to serve simple things like toast, jacket potatoes and cake – which is not possible without a better-equipped kitchen with associated storage.

Fez Miah explained that he would like to explore other options for making money, such as selling items in the library. He is starting to explore a collaboration with local artist HP 90 Customs to make some items for sale. Part of making the transition to selling items will rely on Maindee Library communicating better that it is now volunteer-run, rather than being part of the Council’s library service. This may well include featurs on the outside of the building.

John Hallam echoed comments about the need to make enough money to keep the building going, but also added that one of the library’s biggest strengths is that the building operates with zero staff cost. Though it may seem like a big challenge to run the library through volunteers, chair of Maindee Unlimited's trustees - David Moses - explained that he had always wanted a degree of freedom to be given to the library whist the trustees of charity Maindee Unlimited are ultimately responsible. As we worked towards a tea break it was clear that the power and depth of the social bonds are a real driving force which the library should build upon.

A social space and a space for the people

John Hallam, who manages the overall Maindee Unlimited programme, described the library as some sort of space for activism: something of a social phenomenon in Newport. Though he could not quite put his finger on it, the ‘movement’ in Maindee connects with the discussions at the Blaenau Gwent gathering in December 2016. As reported in this blog, the term ‘social contract’ was used in Blaenau Gwent, and there is something of a new contract emerging between the library and the community. Partly it is about responding to the public sector budget cuts which closed the library in the first place and it is also about representing the culture and language of the people. There are no buzz words flying around this building and people take time to really listen to what others are saying.

Library strengths

The conversation about the social aspect of the library connected with what Caroline Williams had earlier stated: that she likes the library as a space for activities with people of all ages. For example, she and Susan have run many craft activities during school holidays. Fez Miah also spoke about the ‘New Paths’ programme and how the library is started to become a meeting space for people to gather and explore the arts and media. For example Fez helps young people make films through the 'Street Media' initiative and there is a Sounds Alive session every Wednesday evening. The library is also emerging as a space for wider social activism. For example in January 2017 we had a great event which included an introduction to Newport's underground artist ‘RISE Propaganda’; read the blog to find out how some of the attendees felt strongly about the future of their community.

Coming to some conclusions

As the stories from the group came to a conclusion it was clear that there is both a desire to keep the space natural and also to have flexibility. It was also good to find out that one of our volunteers, Sandra, has got a degree in architecture. As we get further into 2017, and the trustees have a better idea when we will have a longterm lease from the Council, we will start to make architectural decisions. In the meantime it is worth noting that the group were able to list the main functions of the library:

  • Catering
  • Lending library
  • Private space e.g. for counselling, the baby clinic or to rent out
  • Meeting space for public events, workshops and art shows
  • Toilets and sanitary e.g. currently no disabled toilet
  • Storage e.g. for music equipment, audio-visual etc
  • Play e.g. both for kids and events

As can be seen from the image below, we have not assumed certain spaces in the library to accommodate these different uses. The building is still a relatively blank canvas until we have done a little more research.

 Library spaces and functions

And what next? Finding a design team

Over the next few months we will be working with Sarah Pace from Addo Creative to summarise how these functions work and also to find a creative practitioner and/or team who can make the most of the space within the current building. Addo have worked with many other projects in Wales - and recently helped the Confluence project in Haverfordwest find.

Here is some more information about the project in Haverfordwest, where Studio Weave were appointed with the help of Addo. The brief for the project can be found on the same site [or here] as can the background information [or here].

We hope to have our own wider team in place for May and for the library volunteers to be involved in activities such as short-listing and interviewing. Once the individuals team is in place they will help us sort out which options are possible and then support us in managing contractors and artists.

There is a social gathering for library volunteers on the afternoon Saturday 18th February so this is the deadline for the first draft of the brief to be completed. We will carry on using this blog as a place to explore the exciting journey of the next year in the library's story.

Related Links

Michelle Brown - using the library for counselling sessions

More about Addo Creative 

The Confluence project in Haverfordwest

About the Studio Weave project for Confluence

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Supported by:

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