National library leaders made their way to Devon last week to take part in Libraries Unlimited’s first ever staff conference, celebrating and exploring the role that libraries have to play in arts and culture.

The line-up saw an impressive range of library sector spokespeople travel from across the UK to take centre stage at the conference at The Watermark in Ivybridge on 30th October, to give their personal accounts of the importance of public libraries.

Speakers included Sarah Mears, Library Services Manager for Essex County Council, Harriet Hopkins from Awen Cultural Trust in South Wales and Sue Williamson, Head of Library Services for St Helen’s Council. Sue made the trip in a plane flown by her husband, especially to speak to Devon’s library staff about the role of libraries as arts and cultural facilitators.

Libraries Unlimited, the charity responsible for running Devon Libraries, will become an Arts Council England (ACE) National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) from April next year, providing high-quality art events and activities across the county. To celebrate, over 100 staff from across the county were invited to attend the conference to discuss the theme of libraries as cultural spaces.  The conference neatly tied in with the national launch of the new Culture Offer, developed by the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL).

Arts Council England Chief Executive Darren Henley chaired a panel of speakers including David Lockwood from Bike Shed Theatre, Carolyn Hassan from Knowle West Media Centre and Sue Williamson, who debated the significance of being an NPO and collaborative work.

Darren Henley, Chief Executive of Arts Council England said: “Libraries are wonderful places of creativity staffed by teams of knowledgeable experts who are ready to take everyone who walks through their library’s doors on a journey of discovery. Nowhere is this more evident than in the libraries in Devon, so it was a real privilege for me to take part in Libraries Unlimited’s first staff conference.”

Libraries Unlimited Patron, nationally renowned author and Co-Director of Fun Palaces, Stella Duffy OBE, spoke to delegates of her passion for libraries, arts and culture and the importance of delivering a service that is focused on the needs of local communities. She wowed audiences with her energetic account of the positive difference being made across the UK by those offering accessible services to people from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Author Jenn Ashworth moved the audience as she spoke openly about the positive impact that libraries and library staff have had on her own life, and how she found her first safe and supportive place in her own local library as a teen.

Chief Executive of Libraries Unlimited, Ciara Eastell OBE, welcomed delegates and spoke of her own passion and commitment to public library services. She said: “Our first staff conference has been a terrific success, and it has been great to see so many people moved and inspired by the fantastic speakers we have heard here today. As a public service provider, it’s not often that we get the chance to bring large numbers of our staff together.

She continued: “Today saw 120 of our staff, from front line services, to business support and finance teams and our management, Board and trustees all come together. The day reminded us that what we are all doing through our libraries is so important, and why we must continue to innovate and grow as an organisation to ensure our services provide much-needed support to the people of Devon.  Our new NPO status means that we will be able to develop a high-quality and diverse cultural programme across Devon. The day gave those attending the opportunity to understand what’s involved in becoming an NPO and how libraries across Devon will be able to get involved over the next 4 years.  We must also thank those library staff who were not able to be with us today but were continuing to keep our 50 libraries, three prison libraries and four mobile libraries open to the public.”

Also during the day were interactive workshops with organisations including Active Devon, Dr Beverley Hawkins and Hugh Waters from the University of Exeter, leadership specialist Sam Delbaere and Kate Rowlands from Real Ideas Organisation (RIO) and delegates got to grips with making music from bananas with Libraries Unlimited’s own FabLab.

Following the staff conference, Friends Groups, all staff and stakeholders were also invited to attend the charity’s first full AGM. Libraries Unlimited unveiled its first Annual Report, detailing the extensive library activity and celebrating the charity’s major successes during its first year of operation.

Julie Dent, CBE, Chair of the Board of Trustees said: “Today has been a real landmark for Libraries Unlimited. Not only have we all come together to hear from national leaders who reminded us of the importance of our work, but we have celebrated all that we have achieved during our first twelve months. As our report shows, we had almost 3 million visits to our libraries in the year 2016/17, and loaned over 2.2 million items of stock. Our libraries hosted a staggering 8,608 events and activities that were attended by 137,654 people, and provided 342,252 hours of free WiFi use across the county.

She continued: “What this tells us, against the backdrop narrative of national library usage decline, is that the people of Devon still use their libraries. They borrow books, eBooks, audio books and read free digital magazines, they come to our buildings for tea and cake and to check their emails, and they attend theatre events, author events, business support workshops and exhibitions. In Devon, our libraries are thriving because we are evolving with people’s needs and listening to the voices within our communities. Today has officially marked the end of our first fantastic year and filled us all with motivation and enthusiasm to face the challenges that lay ahead of us as we continue on our journey.”

The conference and AGM was sponsored by a number of local firms including Kitsons LLP, KCOM, Itec Group and Colman Insurance Brokers.  James Cross, Managing Partner at Kitsons Solicitors said: “We are delighted to be working with Libraries Unlimited in the knowledge that our work helps them in their desire to make a difference to people’s lives through reading and access to information.”


For more information about Libraries Unlimited, visit the website.  Follow Libraries Unlimited on Twitter @LibrariesUnLtd or Facebook/LibrariesUnlimited.