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This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

From Chester to Newcastle - Arts in Libraries are being embraced in the North

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Outcome: culture

Graphic of a hand print, 2 music notes and paint splotches. The culture icon for Libraries Deliver.[Editor’s note: Post compiled by Owen Hutchings, Senior Arts In Libraries Officer for St Helens Council, with contributions from Chester, Leeds and Newcastle Libraries and Clancy Mason, Arts Council England.]

Over the last few months, I’ve been to various events in the North of England to talk about St Helens’ Libraries journey to achieving Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisation status.

I feel like I’m a bit of an old hand when it comes to delivering arts activities and events in libraries, having been delivering projects since 2011, and leading on St Helens award-winning Cultural Hubs (Arts In Libraries) programme since 2013. I am incredibly passionate about the opportunities libraries present to the arts sector, and vice-versa, and feel like I have a breadth of understanding of the ingredients it takes to make up a successful library arts programme.

However, I hadn’t been quite prepared for the wide-ranging scope of ideas, activities and interventions taking place in libraries across the region - whether it’s been our own networking events in Chester, Leeds and Newcastle, or ACE’s funding sessions in Manchester or Hull, I’ve been blown away by the diverse range of exciting practice that highlights how libraries are embracing the opportunities that the arts give them to host innovative events, performances, exhibitions and participatory arts interventions. Some examples follow of how this is happening:


Leeds Libraries are developing inspirational arts activities to animate the Universal Offers. The delivery of arts activities takes their ordinary library offer, making it extraordinary. Key areas include commissioning new art - inspired by the library collections and introducing new audiences to them. A recent example is their immersive sensory installation, The Herbology Room - part of the Living Knowledge Network’s Harry Potter Exhibition - and associated series of events.

Photo of a woman looking at a herbology book amongst some pot plants.
Herbology in Leeds central library. Photo credit: Leeds library

Leeds also offer a wide range of opportunities to take part in the arts, from drawing and writing to stitching, photography and film-making – in both branch libraries and the impressive Central Library Arts Floor. They programme performances and workshops, particularly for families, across their libraries, and are keen to develop and embed quality partnership working with key arts organisations. Recent examples include Opera North: Whistlestop Opera - bitesize opera opportunities in non-‘arts’ locations; Opera North: Bring a Baby Choir; and their own storytelling tent, engaging families with Japanese folk tales. Leeds Libraries are also the lead regional partner in the Poet in the City/British Library national project Collections in Verse; strengthening their commitment to increase Spoken Word and new writing opportunities.

The team at Leeds continue to raise the profile of their magnificent Central Library as a cultural venue and are supporting many arts festivals throughout the year, ranging from disability arts to live arts and film.


Newcastle have also delivered a number of arts projects in libraries both big and small, including regular events and one offs. They’ve hosted Snow Dogs as part of the Great North Snow Dog trail across the Tyne and Wear Metro Network, whilst, later in the same year, they delivered a series of events and workshops as part of Shakespeare 400, culminating in a major exhibition which included a loan of Shakespeare’s first folio from the British Library.

A father and his 2 daughters painting
Family arts session in Newcastle. Photo credit: Newcastle library

They take part in the annual free late night culture crawl around Newcastle and Gateshead called ‘The Late Show’, opening the Library from 7pm until late. Last year, this included performances from the Avison Ensemble with period dancing, a local youth dance group flashmob, a Ukulele and Guitar group, and a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest by the People’s Theatre. Newcastle also recently completed an ACE funded project, The Fifth Sized Adventure, using oversized library books to inspire local emerging and established artists to create the exhibition ‘Love Big Books’, which took over the entire City Library building for three weeks

Newcastle’s arts programme is a key facet of the high quality service they deliver in the City, and something of which they are clearly very proud.


Storyhouse Library in Chester hosts 111 regular community-led creative groups each month, rich evidence of creativity in the community. They offer 21 spaces for diverse communities to engage as artists and celebrate creativity. Current examples include community choirs, primary school performances and storytelling workshops, Chinese New Year celebrations, police officer-led storytelling, interactive adventures with Storyhouse MA Drama students (in partnership with the University of Chester), Hollie McNish’s poetry exhibition - sharing her poems on the walls, floors, toilets and windows - Christmas wreath making, reading groups, poetry groups, craft sessions, and 14 Storytime / Rhymetime sessions each week.

Photo of a poem called Reading to You on the wall in the library. The poem isn't readable.
Hollie McNish’s poetry in Storyhouse. Photo credit: Julia Chandler/Libraries Taskforce

With a theatre and cinema in the library, they have hosted free-to-access performances by the Manchester Camerata, and a resident chamber group, Ensemble Deva, have started productions in the public spaces (Julius Caesar, The Secret Seven) before continuing into the main theatre. They present public screenings of classic movies, election night, sporting events and concerts, and a £30,000 major new digital art commission from Bedwyr Williams.

Storyhouse actors lead poetry readings and sing-alongs in the informal setting of the coffee bar. They work with communities to curate arts festivals in the library: Kaleidoscope (by and for people living with disability), Pride (LGBT), Women Of the World (in partnership with the Southbank Centre), Festival of Speaking (celebrating Cheshire’s diversity of speaking cultures), Wayword (children’s literature festival), Youth Arts Festival (working with hotspots of deprivation).
It’s busy, creative and fun at Storyhouse!

And others around the region

Other notable examples I have heard about, include South Tyneside’s model of embedding the hosting, managing and programming of exhibitions at The Word Library within the core library staffing structure, and Barnsley’s example of asking candidates at interview for jobs in the library service what arts activity they would like to deliver if they were appointed.

The recent arts in libraries networking sessions that we’ve hosted have proved really popular. 95% of attendees have rated them good or excellent. Clancy Mason, Relationship Manager, Libraries, Arts Council England (North) said about the sessions: “The AiL network offers a valuable opportunity for library staff to connect with each other, and with artists and arts organisations, in a practical way. Whilst there is much change within the library sector which presents challenges in how we deliver our services, having access to this positive and supportive network where exciting, innovative ideas can be discussed is an important resource.”

Due to St.Helens strong track record in delivering arts in libraries programmes, we became one of only 6 library authorities to receive NPO funding this time round, and the only one in the north of England. However, because of the strong foundations being laid at the moment by other northern library authorities, in 2021 when we apply again, I sense that the competition for NPO funding in the north will be tough and the arts and libraries sectors all the stronger for it.

St. Helens Council will continue to run Arts In Libraries networking sessions in the north (dates, times, venues to be confirmed). To be added to a list to find out more about future sessions, please email


Please note, this is a guest blog. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of DCMS or the Libraries Taskforce

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