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Taking Action, Changing Lives – A Libraries Week message from our CEO Bruce Leeke

Bruce Leeke

Bruce Leeke, CEO of Suffolk Libraries. Photo by Sonya Duncan courtesy of Archant.

This week is Libraries Week which comes just after Suffolk Libraries’ ninth AGM. I felt it was a great time to think about the role our libraries have played over the past year and also the potential we have to provide even more impactful services to communities in future.

Suffolk Libraries was launched as an independent charity back in 2012 so we’re amazingly now in our tenth year!

The past nine years have seen multiple changes and challenges for library services everywhere. Nearly 800 libraries have closed across the country in the past ten years. This painful reality is even more disappointing when you realise the impact libraries can have and their enormous potential to do more. Our independent research highlighted the power of libraries to maintain and improve wellbeing and at the same time save statutory services resources and money. It is a key piece of research in the battle to get people to realise the value of what we offer.

Thankfully, in Suffolk our libraries continue to grow and develop. All 44 branches have remained open with several now offering improved facilities and increased opening hours. We’re even looking forward to opening a brand-new library branch in the next couple of months! We can only do this with the fantastic support we get from the county council who appreciate the enormous value of libraries and their key role in supporting the fabric of Suffolk’s communities. We also have a fantastic staff team and the support of our community groups and hundreds of volunteers.

The past 18 months have represented the biggest ordeal our generation has had to face with everyone affected in some way. On the day our libraries first went into lockdown back in March 2020 I publicly pledged that our buildings temporarily closing did not mean that the library service itself was closing down.

It is, therefore, a source of immense pride to look back at Suffolk Libraries’ contribution since the start of the pandemic - we stepped up and did our bit.

Through befriending calls, online activities, laptop loans and our brilliant eLibrary services, we were able to reach out and engage with people during the various lockdowns. We’ve already made over 200 laptop loans to help bridge the digital divide and over 11,000 befriending calls to lonely and isolated people. These new innovations were launched during lockdown but are still running and making a huge difference to people’s lives now.

Libraries in Lockdown infographic

Our colleagues have been flexible and resilient, setting up new services and streaming a staggering array of live online sessions within days of the first lockdown. They’ve also kept up with the complexities of bringing back different aspects of our services - and sometimes having to go into reverse - in line with the ever-changing nature of the pandemic.

The pandemic has turned the traditional idea of a library service on its head and allowed us to reach even more people than ever before in a multitude of different ways.

People seem to appreciate what we do more than ever and that far from the traditional view of silent, stuffy, book lending services, a library service can adapt to the needs of the people it serves. Events like Libraries Week are great as they help to focus on the contribution of libraries and challenge people’s perception. This year’s theme hits the spot in terms of the message we want to get out there about how proactive and life-changing libraries can be ‘Taking action, Changing lives’ is exactly what we set out to do back in March 2020.

We know many people are still struggling so now is not the time to relax and simply pat ourselves on the back for what we’ve done well. We’re looking to the future and considering what more Suffolk Libraries can do to aid recovery.

Their presence at the heart of 44 Suffolk communities means our libraries are ideally placed to work with local organisations such as the NHS and Suffolk County Council to provide support in areas such as mental health, job seeking, financial advice and community cohesion.

At our AGM I gave a presentation about libraries being the ‘First Place’ for levelling up local communities. As we emerge from the pandemic, we have a real opportunity to take a fresh, transformative approach to the way vital local services are delivered and integrated with key national policy initiatives. Libraries can be the glue that connects communities, local public sector infrastructure and nationally led programmes across preventative health, digital inclusion, economic and social development and so much more. With this in mind, we are keen to work with Suffolk County Council to pilot a new approach to supporting communities directly through our libraries.

You can see a selection of our highlights and achievements on this year’s video presentation from our AGM.

I always think it’s more powerful to hear people’s own experiences in their own words so we’ve also created this short clip featuring Emma Fakes, a former library volunteer who has spoken about the positive impact the library has had on her life.

We know people appreciate Suffolk Libraries as they tell us all the time. We even got a shout out on the podcast of comedians Rob Beckett and Josh Widdicombe recently!

Reflecting again on the Libraries Week theme of ‘Taking Action, Changing Lives’ we’re just hoping the message will be heard by people who aren’t already library users who will ‘take action’ by coming along to their local branch and discover what’s waiting for them!