‘It’s amazing what libraries can do for the community’

Children taking part in activity in Suffolk Libraries

Our libraries are community hubs essential for developing literacy and sparking imagination, as well as promoting social interaction and wellbeing - Credit: Simon Lee Photography/Suffolk Libraries

As part of the East of England Co-op's #EastTogether campaign, Suffolk Libraries CEO Bruce Leeke explains the importance of libraries as community centres that enrich education, nurture wellbeing and champion creativity. 

In an increasingly digitised world, it is important to be reminded of the vital role that our libraries play in developing literacy and sparking imagination. But our libraries are also community hubs essential for promoting social interaction and welfare.  

Suffolk Libraries is an independent charity overseeing the management of the county’s libraries.  

“Libraries are now experiential, rather than transactional places,” says CEO Bruce Leeke. “Our service is designed to meet local needs – with each site empowered to work with its community to develop ways to increase connectivity, reduce isolation and improve wellbeing. We believe what we do keeps people happy, healthy and together.” 

Bruce Leeke, chief executive of Suffolk Libraries

Bruce Leeke, chief executive of Suffolk Libraries - Credit: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Since 2012, the charity has expanded its services from 44 sites across Suffolk and three mobile libraries to also include two pop-up libraries and an increased portfolio of prison libraries.  

“Everything we do – whether that’s encouraging children to read, providing social activities for parents and older people, offering arts activities for young people or our digital services – it all helps to connect people and tackle social isolation.” 

Before the pandemic, Suffolk Libraries delivered nearly 15,000 events, activities and experiences with more than 200,000 attendees every year. But in March 2020, the lockdown prompted the charity to pivot towards digital content, with e-library services such as e-books, audiobooks, e-magazines and music all enjoying an 150pc uptick. 

“In spite of the challenges presented by the pandemic, we were determined to find new ways to reach out to people to support their wellbeing,” Bruce says. “We developed a simple plan that focused on three key areas: great online content via our website, livestreamed activities, and telephone services.” 

Suffolk Libraries received a donation from the East of England Co-op towards its Lifeline service, which saw mobile phones donated so that staff and volunteers could make regular phone calls to elderly and vulnerable community members.

“We’ve had fantastic support from the East of England Co-op, which provided £2,500 for additional mobile phones to enable us to make more Lifeline calls during lockdown.” 

Two Suffolk Libraries volunteers holding books during re-opening

Suffolk Libraries staff welcome back customers as libraries reopened under Covid restrictions - Credit: Suffolk Libraries

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Suffolk Libraries also plays a key role in social prescribing and signposting. “We are uniquely positioned to make early interventions in the community using the power of our networks to assist people in need of emotional, practical and informal support,” Bruce explains.  

“If we're not able to provide a service that directly meets the needs of someone, our staff are experts in understanding what is available in the local community, and they will signpost to local NHS services or another charity, for example. 

Independent research found that just three of our hundreds of regular activities create £2 million of social value every year. These three activities also provide a return on investment of more than £8 for every £1 spent, and save the NHS £284,000 annually. It's amazing what libraries can do for the community.” 

Suffolk Libraries provides a wide portfolio of services, including free loans of laptops and Wi-Fi dongles to help jobseekers, perinatal services supporting new parents’ mental health, sewing therapy groups, gigs, fashion shows and an online book festival, which featured six authors including Anthony Horowitz in March and attracted an audience of 2,000.  

“But our libraries can only be all these things with the help of public donations,” Bruce adds. “Additional services like physical and online activities, befriending, community outreach and promoting wellbeing need public support.” 

Making a donation or volunteering with Suffolk Libraries can help maintain these vital services. “We want to encourage people back into libraries and particularly to enjoy our regular programme of activities in the summer – as soon as it’s safe to do so. We’d love to see libraries buzzing again!” 

Bruce hopes to offer a comprehensive programme of activities by the end of June. However, in-person events are beginning to take place once again, such as the Circular Art Fair at Ipswich County Library, which ran from May 24-28.   

Fundraising assistant Ella Cairns said: “As a charity, Suffolk Libraries is always looking for creative ways to increase funds, which is why the Circular Art Fair became such an exciting new initiative. It brings together a celebration and support for local creatives, while raising awareness and funds for the library services.” 

Fundraising assistant Ella Cairns with donated artworks from the Circular Art Fair

Fundraising assistant Ella Cairns with donated artworks from the Circular Art Fair - Credit: Suffolk Libraries

The exhibition displayed 78 circular shaped works, aiming to ‘spotlight’ local talent. All artworks donated were by East Anglian based artists, including two pieces from renowned contemporary artists Maggi Hambling CBE and Ryan Gander OBE.

“I was blown away by how many artists were interested in donating their work during such a difficult time,” Ella says. “Artists need our support now more than ever and I hope this event brings to light just a fraction of the creative talent based here in East Anglia.” 

Visit www.suffolklibraries.co.uk for more information or to sign up for your free library account. 

Watch more episodes from the #EastTogether series at www.eastofengland.coop/easttogether 

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