Following his visit to Richmond upon Thames Library Services on Thursday 29 December 2016,  Paul Martin, Chief Executive Officer serving Richmond and Wandsworth Councils, shares his views on libraries and what he saw:

In my job, the period between Christmas and New Year is a sacred time. There are no council committees, few senior council officers around and almost no councillors. So, it’s a really good time to get around and talk to people.

Yesterday, I spent a most pleasurable afternoon with Amanda Stirrup and her team. I asked her to show me around four sites in Richmond that I wanted to look at closely – the Cottage, Richmond Library, the Annexe (formerly the United Reform Church), and the Old Town Hall.

First – as councillors say at the beginning of committee meetings – a ‘declaration of interest’. I am unusual as a council Chief Executive in having originally been a librarian. I worked first as a teenager in the libraries of the London Borough of Redbridge in the 1970s and then, after graduating, in the public library services of Nottinghamshire, Bolton, Manchester and Cambridgeshire. In 1993, I got spirited away into corporate management and haven’t yet found my way back. But, as you know, there’s no place like home.

I think I know why people choose to work in libraries, because I guess it’s the same reason I did – a love of community, people and books. There’s no other place that brings these three elements together into an open, democratic place.

For many who work in public libraries across the country, the last decade has been truly dispiriting. The undoubted technological challenge posed by digital communications have been compounded by Government spending reductions which have exposed many library service to profound service changes. It has been left to individual councils to find a way through these challenges as best they can.

From what I saw yesterday, Richmond is doing a fantastic job in ensuring that its library service is relevant and valued by the people it serves. During my visit, I took the four photos below and they help explain why I was so inspired by the work being done.

Riverside RoomThis is in the reference library in the Old Town Hall. As you can see, the room is packed out with students. In fact, everywhere I visited was full of people – children, parents, students, researchers, older people. This is clearly a place that knows (in my old university motto) ‘nid byd, byd heb wybodaeth’ – ‘a world without knowledge is no world at all’.

The second thing I saw that encouraged me was the Library Workspace initiative, on the first floor of the Annexe. Who would believe that for £100 a month, an entrepreneur (or budding entrepreneur) can get a place to work in Richmond, minutes from the London rail  and tube network? This concept of cheap, flexible working spaces is taking off in dynamic urban economies across the world. It’s also a really good example of what planners call a ‘meanwhile use’ – we don’t yet know, long term, what the future of the annexe will be – but while we’re working that out, let’s use the precious space in a creative and innovative way. It’s fantastic to see Richmond libraries innovate in this way.

The third thing I liked was practical efforts to help local residents, like this invitation to help anyone who has a new gadget they can’t yet figure out (and let’s face it, who hasn’t?). GadgetThis is such a good way of helpfully engaging with residents, and most likely helping them be more independent in using technology which is now virtually essential to daily living.

This brings me to the fourth thing I saw. Here is a paper clipping of a man with a pipe, in the 1950s. I had never seen this picture until now. Man with pipeHe happens to be my uncle, who was a headteacher in Richmond in the 1950s and 1960s, is now 98 and lives alone (supported by social services) in South Wales. The Local Studies Library in the Old Town Hall is a (literally) unique resource. It is a stunning collection of prints, books, photographs and ephemera which I could happily spend days in, and probably will. Here are a few vignettes from a short visit. Over here, a volunteer was cataloguing records from children’s orphanages in the mid 19th century. Over there, we examined a rare 1830 map of the River Thames, from Richmond to Westminster, and especially at the river frontage from Richmond through to Battersea and Nine Elms. And then as I was about to reluctantly leave, I mentioned to the librarian that my uncle used to work in the borough as a headteacher. In just a few minutes, she summoned up a file of press cuttings. Later in the evening, when I got home I called him to read out the press cuttings she had found. ‘My head has just grown several sizes’, he said.

Public libraries are about community, knowledge and the heritage of this place. They are a wonderful resource, with dedicated and expert staff and much valued volunteers who every day change people’s lives. They have a vital role to play in the constant development and evolution of our communities. Those of us who are entrusted (but only for a time) with their custody have a responsibility to help ensure they continue to be attractive, relevant and viable.

I’m very grateful to the staff, volunteers and service users I met in Richmond yesterday afternoon and for all your work to maintain the high levels of service and innovation.

[Paul Martin, CEO Richmond & Wandsworth Councils]