Chester Library closes on Friday ready for its move to the exciting new Storyhouse building in May. The new library inside the former Odeon and described as “world class” will feature a dedicated children’s library, including a art/craft area, dedicated family and local history section and digital facilities and services. There will be flexible event spaces and the opening hours will be massively extended with Storyhouse open until 10pm every night including Sundays.
We visited the library after hours for a nostalgic final walk around and a chat with the Cheshire West and Cheshire’s Senior manager for library services Rachel Foster. Rachel first started working in Chester library in 1996 and is now responsible for running library services across the borough. She explained that the building was previously used as the Westminster coach works with the library moving from its original location in St John Street. Originally intended to be larger with gallery space at the rear and a lecture theatre, funding issues meant the scheme was scaled back, eventually opening in 1984.
Rachel outlined the increasing role played by technology over the last 30 years. “The front desk has gone, we changed our principles about how we serve customers with the introduction of self service check out , this frees staff up to help people so we’re not tied to a desk
“When we first started we had 3 computers , now we have them all over the place and people bring in their own devices to use the Wi-Fi. ” Online resources have grown massively with the library soon to launch an eMagazines service.
“Our core is still our customers and we have some customers who were here when I first started. we have people who have grown up with us and come back as volunteers.”
Rachel believes that the role played by libraries is “absolutely critical” saying that “we have people who come every day, every week or less frequently. For some children its about improving their reading level through the summer reading challenge, we have the volunteer programme and we can help people with social isolation. We have so many people who come in , who meet and network, use the reading groups, we have a mental health reading group, craft sessions.
“It’s universal access, we like people to be members, but where else can you go and sit all day for free, without being challenged? I can walk through here and see the same people coming in at 9am reading the same newspaper for 10 years..
“There is such a lot we do with partners. we have a partnership with the Royal Voluntary service who deliver books into the community. we work with Macmillan and Age UK. ”
The move, she says will allow these services to continue but also to provide an opportunity to do things differently. ” It’s a bold way of delivering library services, in partnership with Storyhouse. The core responsibility still lies with the local authority but we have the space and improved facilities of Storyhouse. We will have much closer access to cultural practitioners, theres a host of opportunities. ..
“We are currently open 51 hours a week, we will be open for 71 hours, over 7 days a week. The library will be staffed until the early evening and outside of that, you will still be able to issue and return books and use the Wi-Fi ”
The new library space will be a comparable in size to the existing offer, minus multimedia which will be dispersed to other libraries after a decline in use was identified. (There will still be full access to the multimedia collection but it will not be housed in Storyhouse).
“We have done some work on the stock over the last 6 months. We have changed some of the reference stock which can be accessed online, so there will be a slight reduction but not a significant reduction. ”
However , in terms of event and activity space, Storyhouse will offer much more better options than the current set up. “With the cinema we can host author events , presentations, or get schools in. There is a brilliant studio space, and all the spaces can be used for activity, the cafe area, there will be toilets and changing facilities.”
As closure approaches Rachel says that staff are emotional but looking towards the future optimistically. “We are really excited and exhilarated to be moving. Its incredible. This scale of project and opportunity to work with partners is a once in a career chance.
“We’re having a staff gathering on Friday evening.. its not sadness, it just shows that the building is important we are not wedded to buildings its about the services we offer and the people that we work for. We will make the building work !
“I hope that people value the bigger and better offer we will have. The key thing is the wider impact across the borough, we have been working with Storyhouse to take activities out to other places, the Wayword festival was a classic example. How can we use this as a catalyst to develop our other libraries ? Our staff are really on board with this. People are inspired by this project and we’re getting lots of regional national enquiries as well. Often libraries get a bad press, about the spiral of decline but I think this shows that libraries can support regeneration. ”
On the final Friday, there will be “lots of emotion, but positive emotion. It’s not sad at all . This building will have echoes of history but we can see that we’re moving onto something that’s right for “now” and right for the city. We have a fantastic opportunity to do this. It’s really exciting for the city and will add a whole different vibe to Chester, with the night time economy, the theatre and the cinema.”
The library closes at 5pm on Friday 31st March and will reopen in Storyhouse on the 11th May. During the closure, the public will be encouraged to use the nearby libraries of Blacon, Great Boughton, Hoole, Lache and Upton where public computer facilities will be available.
The new library will be accessible during Storyhouse opening hours:
Monday to Saturday: 8am to 10pm
Sunday: 9am to 10pm