[Editor’s note: Kathryn Boothroyd, Library Service Manager for St Helens libraries, writes about their NPO programme and plans]
St Helens Libraries have successfully used library spaces for arts performances, workshops and exhibitions since 2011, but to apply for NPO status was a big leap, even for us. Would we have the capacity, the energy, the space, the innovation to deliver all that would be required of us? Well, we applied, and succeeded, so now the real work starts!
We know that the journey ahead will be challenging as well as exciting and I know how well the Library and Arts teams have worked together in the past. It is this spirit that will take us through as we collaborate, share, inspire one another, laugh, (possibly cry!) and learn together over the next four years to make our NPO the best it can be!
What will we be doing then that’s different from before? The funding enables us to plan longer term, to continue to build audiences and to make our offer as accessible to as many people as possible. Our target audiences for our performance programme over the four years will be young people, families, disability arts and LGBT audiences, and existing theatre goers through a more mainstream offer.
It’s a big year for St Helens in 2018 as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Borough by producing a one-off festival in partnership with the other St Helens NPO: Heart of Glass. Author and local boy Frank Cottrell Boyce is working with us to curate this event and our aim is to co-produce an inspiring, challenging festival that will engage local audiences and ensure literacy is a major feature of the 150th celebrations.
I’m particularly pleased the NPO has been awarded at this time as I now lead this fabulous Library Service. I have been linked into the Arts Team for several years, advising them and being involved generally with the Arts in Libraries programme, but now I get the opportunity to really influence the direction of the work in consultation with our Board and Steering Group. I will be looking to ensure that the brilliant work we commission complements rather than overshadows the core library offer. Strategic managers within the Council and in our partner organisations need to see how arts and culture weaves its way between the bookshelves, supporting literacy and language development, reinforcing the library service strategy and importantly, demonstrating how the library service supports council and borough priorities.
A musical start
There’s been a good start. In June, Haydock Male Voice Choir were commissioned to perform in a memorial concert, commemorating the 140th anniversary of the Haydock Wood Pit disaster which saw the loss of 204 men and boys. Alongside class visits focussing on mining and a commemoration on the actual anniversary at the cemetery where some of the dead are buried, this award winning choir added an important cultural element to the commemoration.
During Refugee Week we celebrated diversity by exhibiting work from Turner Prize nominee, Mark Titchner in two libraries. Based on text messages from refugees living in the UK, the striking images, seen clearly from a distance definitely brought the eye directly to the library. Journalist turned author Vanessa Altin led a panel discussion on refugees in one of the libraries where the artwork featured. There are forthcoming performances planned to launch the Summer Reading Challenge too.
We want to foster and encourage St Helens based artists to create new work and our aim will be to link artists into our library service development, giving advice and guidance along the way. It’s really important that local artists have an opportunity to reach audiences through libraries and we can provide them the space and means to do this. Already, submissions are planned linked to World Mental Health Day in October and World Book Day in March. Working in this way brings a depth, meaning and awareness to the cultural offer in libraries.
Plans for the future
Moving forward for years 2, 3 and 4, planning is taking place which will take us out of our comfort zone as we collaborate with FACT in Liverpool and Heart of Glass to create a FACTLab within a library. This will support development of digital skills for artists locally and provide opportunities for local communities to take part in the process of creating digital art. This will be challenging as we will need to give up precious library space to house this whilst ensuring library staff are up-skilled to cope with the demands and aims of the project, but the potential is enormous!
So we've got a lot of reasons to look forward with excitement as we settle into our role as an NPO. I have every confidence that St Helens library service will continue to be ambitious, break new ground, be bold, be supportive, be diverse and most of all be driven to offer the best experience we can as people step across our library thresholds.
Please note, this is a guest blog. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of DCMS or the Libraries Taskforce