LIBRARIES continue to play a key role in some of Swindon's most deprived communities, despite a bleak picture elsewhere in the country.

Figures published at the end of last year revealed almost 800 libraries have closed in the UK over the last decade, falling victim to government cost-cutting.

But things are different in Swindon, where branch libraries are thriving in community centres.

Park Library in Cavendish Square dates back to May 1962, when Park Sub Branch Library opened. It moved to its current location in February 1964.

On average 150 visitors come to the library each day.

Run by Swindon Borough Council, the branch predicts has loaned 35,000 items over the course of the last year.

Supervisor Glenda O’Connor said: “It’s brilliant to be part of such a thriving library service. You only have to come in here to see that libraries are still relevant.”

As well as lending books, the branch hosts a range of activities, from children’s craft groups and story time sessions to a peer writing group called Park Writes, the annual Summer Reading Challenge and an English conversation club.

“We try to have something every day,” said Glenda. “And something for everyone.

“We aim to provide that safe space in the community, where you don’t have to pay to come.

She continued: “Having a branch here in Parks means people can access all these services here.

“It’s hugely important to have regional branches like this because if there wasn’t one here, then people would have go to the central library in town. In less advantaged areas this can make a big difference to people.”

Approximately 600 people join Park Library each year.

Glenda added: “It’s very important that libraries are in people’s local community. They are all about community – all the activities we have going on here are for the community. We try and have things going on which can help with social inclusion and prevent loneliness for example. Our activities for children are designed to help parents spend quality time with their children.”

“Perhaps people don’t borrow as many books as they did, say, 10 years ago,” Glenda added. “But what we’re finding is that people are increasingly accessing our digital services.”

Currently the libraries public computers are used for 400 hours a week.

“It’s important that we are actually here in the community for people to use,” said Glenda.

Central Swindon South Parish Council currently funds 20 of its 35 opening hours.

Indeed parish councils are increasingly helping Swindon’s libraries to continue. Central Swindon North Parish Council is in the process of taking over four branch libraries – at Pinetrees Community Centre in Pinehurst, John Moulton Hall in Penhill, Even Swindon Community Centre in Rodbourne, as well as Moredon and Rodbourne Cheney Library in Moredon.

Libraries manager for the parish council Aaron Cripps said: “Being part of a library network that is able to continue is very positive.

“I think libraries are essential. They’re absolutely crucial for literacy, which along with digital literacy are the two most important things that determine your life outcomes in modern Britain. If you’re not literate your opportunities are severely restricted.”

Currently the branch libraries are open for 15 hours a week, but their services will be extended as more staff and volunteers are recruited.

There are plans to increase the number of community groups using the space, and make more advice services available for users.

Aaron added: “The overall strategy and vision is to create something that is embedded in the community for everybody to use.”

Libraries in this area date back as far as 1948, when a temporary library opened in Pinehurst. Penhill Library opened in 1957, while Moredon had a temporary library from 1953, with the current building opening in 1973.

Wile the library service itself in these branches is still provided by Swindon Libraries, from April they will be completely run by the parish council.

Councillor Mick Lucas, chair of the Leisure and Amenities Committee said: “People say that you can acquire knowledge and information from the internet, but not everybody has access to a computer or the internet at home. This is why we need libraries. To help people obtain the knowledge and information they require and seek, by providing them access to both print and online resources that are free at the point of use.”

Aaron continued: “This is a real opportunity and I think the parish have made a very good decision.

"By bringing the libraries into the parish, making them part of the parish, they are secured for the future.”

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The National Picture

Almost 800 libraries have closed since austerity was implemented by the then Conservative-Lib Dem government in 2010.

A survey by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (Cipfa) of the UK’s libraries shows that since 2010, 773 libraries have shut their doors.

That amounts to almost a fifth of the UK’s libraries.

The figures, which exclude Northern Ireland, were published at the end of last year and show 3,583 library branches are still open in the UK, with 35 having closed between 2018 and 2019.

This is set against a backdrop of a 29.6 per cent decline in spending on libraries over the last 10 years.

National spending on the service has dropped from £1bn in 2009-10 to under £750m in 2018-19.

The number of paid librarians has also plummeted from 24,000 salaried staff at the start of the decade to 15,300 employees in 2019.

Instead branches now rely heavily on people giving up their time for free – with libraries now having more than 51,000 volunteers.

As the number of branches and paid staff have declined, so have library visits.

Across the UK there were 226 million visits to libraries over the last year, compared with 315million between 2009 and 2010.

The data also reveals how local authorities have redesigned library services to respond tightened budgets and changing consumer habits, including a 60 per cent drop in spending on audio-visual materials, such as CDs and DVDs, in the last decade as libraries make more use of other online resources.

‘There’s so much on offer, it’s lovely libraries are thriving’

Anna Miles from Covingham has two young children and is a regular visitor to Swindon’s libraries, attending the weekly children’s craft group at Park Library on Thursdays.

She said: “My children are home-schooled, so Swindon’s libraries are so important to us. I would say they’re vital to us.

“Whatever we’re doing or whatever project we’re on, it’s important to be able to go to the library and get a book out about it.

“Primarily we use them for education purposes but it’s great for the children to take part in the craft activities as well or whatever is on, and it gives them the opportunity to socialise with other children too.

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“We love coming to the libraries. I take the children two or three times a week and we go to all the various different ones around Swindon.

“All the libraries offer something different, such as events or activities.

“Its nice to be able to go to some of the smaller libraries too sometimes, for a different experience – we don’t just stick to the bigger ones.

“It’s a real shame that libraries are continuing to close.

“Weekly events like the children’s craft group are so important for getting people in the community to come together and an engage with the library. While you are here you can go and have a quick browse in the book section.

“There’s so much on offer, it’s really lovely that there are thriving libraries like this around Swindon that are here for everybody and that everybody can use for free.”