Darren Taylor has learned to love books. His dyslexia meant he did not learn to read properly until the age of 23. He now reads to his two children, aged two and four, every night. “Julia Donaldson’s book, The Gruffalo, that’s their favourite,” he says. “I must have read it with them hundreds of times now. I love to see their passion for books and the joy of reading – it seems to be starting at a young age for them.”
Taylor’s first love was computers. A former IT manager who opened a computer repair shop in Sydenham, south London, he is now responsible for running seven public libraries in the capital. “It’s been a strange journey but, actually, one thing grew quite naturally from the other.”
Starting from his small high-street shop, Taylor’s social enterprise, Eco Communities, grew into a large reuse and recycle operation. The outfit collected unwanted computer equipment from companies and individuals and gave it all a useful second life in community projects in deprived parts of south London – providing IT training schemes and CV-writing sessions to help the unemployed find work.
In 2011, Taylor’s organisation made a bold move. With several ailing libraries in the London borough of Lewisham under threat of closure, the social enterprise approached council bosses about taking over the management of the buildings and transforming them into community hubs. Eco Communities won the contract for three of them. “We were allowed to put in an expression of interest, and we were successful,” says Taylor. “It wasn’t easy at first but it’s gone really, really well.”
A warehouse was also transformed back into its previous use – a library – taking the number of libraries saved to four. Eco Communities then went on to bid successfully to run another three libraries in the nearby borough of Bexley. With around 25 members of staff and more than 120 volunteers working across the sites, all of Eco Communities’ libraries aim to fulfil Taylor’s vision of lively, bustling centres for neighbourhood activity of all kinds.
Alongside book-lending services and drop-off points for hardware, there are digital inclusion courses, employability training and Esol English language classes. There are also yoga sessions, after-school clubs, storytelling events and NVQs in childcare. The libraries have increased their trade in the sale of second-hand books, and four of the buildings now have cafés where young people are being trained as baristas.
A library should be the community on your doorstep
“A library should be the community on your doorstep,” Taylor explains. “The sad thing about closures across the country is the loss of something nearby, somewhere you drop in on without it feeling like a big deal. And libraries should be busy places where many things are going on. It’s about engaging in neighbourhoods, giving people access to services and space to do lots of different things. Our volunteers and staff have made a big difference there – they’re amazing people, really dedicated to their community.”
Taylor thinks supporting reading and highlighting the power of the book dovetails nicely with a drive to boost digital literacy. “A lot of people are still not online, still struggle with computers, and it’s important to help them become familiar with that world,” he says. “But digital literacy naturally overlaps with book literacy. One thing affects another.
“For instance, a lot of the young parents in the area have been college students and used the library to study and get internet access,” Taylor adds. “Now they’re staying around to take out parenting books after the ‘Baby Bounce and Rhyme’ classes. Another example: some of the pensioners who take out novels might want us to show them how to fill out their Freedom Pass forms online for concessionary travel. The library is the place where all these things happen together.”
Big Issue Invest, The Big Issue Group’s social investment arm, helped Eco Communities access finance to transform libraries, cherished public resources, in deprived parts of south London.
“Eco Communities is actually run out of my local library in Crofton Park,” says Daniel Wilson-Dodd, head of lending at Big Issue Invest. “The library is helping more people to access knowledge and opportunities, as well as a good cup of coffee. It’s also used by lots of different people, from the very young to the very old, across a range of socio-economic backgrounds. It’s great to see the impact of our investment in person.”
With many local authorities across the country still struggling with budget cuts, some have turned to social enterprises as a way of injecting fresh energy and new ideas into library management.
Up and down the UK, social enterprises like Eco Communities have proved themselves shrewd and flexible operators, finding new revenue streams by opening up library spaces to a wider range of outside partners, from housing associations to Citizens Advice bureaus to further education providers.
Despite the challenges ahead in maintaining ageing Victorian buildings, Taylor remains excited by the possibilities. “I think there is more we can do with libraries,” he says. “They are places to learn new things, and we can all learn new things in life, whatever age we are.”
I’m grateful someone took the time to help me read all those years ago. It makes so many different things possible.
Taylor, the dyslexic IT expert who is still more comfortable picking apart a hard drive than flicking through a novel, recently found himself roped into volunteering for one of his own library’s Baby Bounce and Rhyme toddler reading-and-singing groups.
“I said, ‘Okay, get me a book and I’ll do it’. There are all these mothers and babies staring at me – but I gave it a go. I’m still really grateful someone took the time to help me read all those years ago because it makes so many different things possible.”