Find your community at the library
The modern library is the main community hub in many villages, towns and cities across the country. It acts as a gateway to friendship, hobbies and culture for people of all ages.
Bringing people together
“I started the knit and natter group,” Diane says of her local library, in Sandal, Wakefield. “But I don’t knit! I’m an artist, so I’ll sit and draw instead while the others knit.”
It’s a great example of the welcoming nature of activity groups in libraries across the country. A group might have knitting, or drawing, or writing as its focus - but its real purpose is to bring people together.
Diane is one of thousands of dedicated volunteers who help libraries connect with their local communities. They’re a key part of the modern library, which often acts as a community hub, events space, art gallery and many more things besides.
“It was a huge shock when my husband died,” Diane explains.
“But the staff at the library were so kind, and so welcoming. They would call me up and invite me in for a cup of tea and a bun. And the great thing about the library is that it’s a public place where you don’t need to buy anything. You can join activities, or read - but you don’t have to do anything if you don’t want.”
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How libraries have changed
Diane is now Chair of the Friends of Sandal group of volunteers, which raised enough money to transform an unloved piece of council-owned land into a dementia-friendly garden. This came after the library was refurbished, in consultation with The Alzheimer’s Society, to make it one of the first in the UK to be tailored to the needs of people with dementia.
“Libraries are so different now from when I was younger,” says Diane. “I think perhaps some people had difficult experiences with libraries when they were growing up. When I used to visit as a child, staff checked your hands to make sure they were clean! Nowadays you’ll find all sorts of things for children.”
I was feeling a bit lonely and needed more in my life than just my art club. Sharon, a member of staff at Sandal library, suggested a friend and I set up a Knit & Natter group, so we did. Then we heard that some land out the back, where antisocial behaviour was taking place regularly, belonged to the council. But there was no money to redevelop it.
So we set up the Friends of Sandal Library group and decided to try and raise enough money to be able to redevelop the land and turn it into a nice garden. I became the Chair of the group, and after a lot of work we managed to raise a good amount of money through grants and community funding.
I designed the garden - the developer thought it had been designed by a proper architect, so I was proud of that! It’s got a wheelchair accessible path, and we did another round of fundraising which meant we could get a little children’s lawn, a sheltered place to park pushchairs and a summer house.
The Friends tend the garden every Tuesday. We grow flowers, fruit, vegetables - when people take out books they can take away some produce as well, for a small donation! Beans have grown really well, and we’ve had so many apples that we’ve got apple crumbles up to our ears!
A chap called Nick, who is a member of staff at the library, is a really keen gardener and has helped us work out what to grow when. Most of us are novice gardeners, you see.
Sometimes we’ll plan trips, like to Leeds City Park or the Chelsea Flower Show. We’ve built a nice bond together, and it’s a healthy activity - it’s nice to be outdoors doing something physical, and chatting with people. It’s good for your mental health.
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A chance to socialise
Helen Halliwell is a Floor Manager at Halton Libraries. Ask her about how libraries help people connect with their community, and she’ll tell you about the A Good Yarn group.
“We thought it would be a good way to get people together,” explains Helen. “So every Thursday people bring along their projects - it might be cross-stitch, knitting, crochet, sewing. Quite a few of the members live on their own, so it’s a chance for them to socialise. They’re always giggling about something - which I think draws more people in!”
One person who was drawn in is Michael, who was visiting the adult learning centre upstairs from the library. “I think he saw the group having a chat and a laugh, and asked: ‘What’s this?’” says Helen. “He decided he wanted to know how to knit first, but now he seems more into cross-stitch. He has additional needs and lives on his own, so he loves having the group as a way to get out and about.”
Regular social contact is important for mental wellbeing, but it can be hard for people with more complex needs, or those who live alone. Helen has witnessed the difference A Good Yarn has made to Michael.
“Michael’s a worrier - he worries about everything. So the group is a chance for him to voice his worries and get them off his chest. The ladies in the group just listen and encourage him to think a bit differently about the things that are bothering him. It’s helped him come out of his shell - he’s changed so much. He’ll just sit there and gab! He’s as much part of the group as anyone else. I can definitely say A Good Yarn has improved his life.”
Tips for finding your community
Drop in if you can
“Go in and see what groups your library has,” advises Diane in Wakefield. “There’s so much on offer, even in smaller libraries.”
Keep an eye out for posters and pamphlets advertising things you might be interested in. If you can't visit in person, send them an email or call them up. The staff are there to make sure you get the most from your library.
Find out what's on when
Find your local library’s website and browse the events and activities. If they don’t have listings it’s also worth searching Eventbrite, which some libraries use to promote things they’re putting on.
Take the kids (or grandkids)
Children make friends easily - and when they do it’s a great opportunity to strike up conversation with their parents, grandparents or carers.
Learn about the facilities
Did you know many libraries have rooms you can hire? If you’d like to start up your own group, visit your library’s website or contact staff to find out if they have space suitable for you.