Resident blogger Chris Twomey discovers Library of Things’ latest collaboration could be a match made in heaven

Re-open for borrowing!
After a crowdfunding campaign where 291 local people from Crystal Palace, the Mayor of London, B&Q Sydenham and Martin & Co Crystal Palace pledged £9,400, we've been busily working together behind the scenes. We've drawn up budgets and volunteer training plans, designed new furniture and sourced new Things. Finally, Library of Things has re-opened this week…in partnership with two trailblazing community organisations: Crystal Palace Transition Town and Upper Norwood Library Hub!

The Library of Things journey
After 18 months based at the previous borrowing site off Vale Street, West Norwood, directors Emma, Sophia and Bex realised that Library of Things (LoT) had outgrown its 2 shipping containers. There were nearly 900 borrowers – and many wanted longer opening hours, new Things, events, socials, home delivery options… It wasn’t possible to re-imagine a better new version whilst doing the daily work of running the old one.

It was a difficult decision to shut up shop outside Community Shop last December. But the intervening weeks have given LoT the opportunity to take stock – both literally and metaphorically – of what they were doing and, most importantly, find out what borrowers really wanted. 

Now open again for borrowing, the 'smart borrowing kiosk' located at the front of Upper Norwood Library Hub lets borrowers collect and return Things more easily. Skills workshops like sewing and DIY classes mean borrowers can learn practical skills. The streamlined stock base means ongoing item maintenance is much easier for the team too. 

The new home for Thing borrowing: A library!
So let’s take a look into Library of Things new home, Upper Norwood Library Hub (UNLH). Why did they want a Library of Things? I caught up with co-director Emily Jewell.

Last year we formulated a five-year business plan, which looked at different ideas of how we can give to the community, but also make money and still be connected to our core values,” explains Emily.

UNLH has six trustees, currently chaired by Laura Wright, CEO of Tate Enterprises. “As part of the negotiations between the trustees and the two councils responsible for running the library (Lambeth and Croydon), we put together our own proposals for how the Library Hub could become financially self-sustaining. One of the first suggestions was whether we could have Library of Things here."

I must admit that at first a couple of us thought 'No, we don’t want a dirty hire shop thing…it’s not going to be for us at all.' But then we went down to West Norwood and saw how sleek and stylish everything was and kind of fell in love with it.”

Upper Norwood Library Hub: A history
Time to interject, dear reader, and give a bit of background: the Upper Norwood Library opened as the UK’s first independent library in 1898 and has been based in the same Victorian building, in the heart of the Crystal Palace community, ever since. It remained open during both World Wars and survived numerous harsh recessions, from the 1930s and beyond. Ironically, though, the library has faced wave after wave of closure threats in more recent economically prosperous times – always countered by a passionate campaign by local residents to keep this vital service open.

Part of the problem, it seems, is the library’s unique status and geographical location. It’s situated just within the southernmost border of Lambeth but serves the four other London boroughs that converge on the Crystal Palace triangle: Southwark, Croydon, Bromley and Lewisham (there isn’t another public library for miles around).

For over a century, responsibility for funding the library was shared between Lambeth and Croydon…and inevitably austerity cuts (along with, it has to be said, reduced footfall) meant the library faced an uncertain future until the trustees, comprised of highly-motivated local professionals, set up a charitable trust to ensure a thriving future for the library four years ago.

From 'read and be quiet' to thriving community hub with books and more!
The resulting “takeover” has been spectacularly successful: the library has since undergone a makeover, from the décor (“We took on a building that was very dilapidated, dark and dingy, buckets at the window, that kind of thing!”) through to the services it’s able to offer. The traditional “read and be quiet!” model has evolved into a hub that hosts 28 different activities, ranging from life drawing classes and ballet fitness, to bike rental, to breakfast networking meetings and parent/toddler sessions (oh, and let's not forget the coffee shop). Footfall and membership have increased dramatically and the arrival of Library of Things can surely only improve their fortunes…

I think it will benefit the community a lot,” says Emily, a trained actress who has experience of running successful businesses, such as catering companies and property renovators. “Working so closely with LoT these past few months has been amazing because they’re great guys and the energy together is perfect. It’s not just about the lending at low cost, but everything else that goes along with having a Library of Things in the Hub – like the skill-sharing workshops and repair parties. It just fits in with who we are.”