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Inside UK's 'vital' libraries providing 'warm banks' as cost of living bites and households struggle

Some 93% of public libraries polled by Libraries Connected plan to offer free, heated spaces in the colder months

Image of woman getting warm/ warm banks/ energy bills/ winter/ cost of living crisis

Warm banks will be a refuge for people who need to get out of the cold. Image: Pexels

Most libraries will once again offer “warm banks” as the weather gets colder and the cost of living crisis continues to hit hard, a new poll has found.

“Last year we had parents come in telling us they can’t afford to keep their children warm,” says Mandy Grimwood, the manager of Gainsborough Community Library in Suffolk. “They were really worried about what they were going to do.”

Gainsborough is one of the 93% of public libraries across England, Wales and Northern Ireland planning to offer free, heated space in the colder months, according to Libraries Connected. More than three quarters (79%) of those surveyed expect demand to match or exceed last year, when soaring energy costs prevented many people from switching the heating on.

As the cost of living crisis grinds on, warm spaces provide vital respite from the weather alongside a bevy of other services.

“It’s a safe, non-judgemental space, and it’s free,” Grimwood says. “We’re already a community hub, so there’s no stigma attached to coming in. Anyone can access it no matter what.”

Heated to a toasty 21C in the winter months, Gainsborough library boasts a cut-price café, a pop-up fruit-and-vegetable stand, and ‘kindness rails’ for people to donate items of clothing. The parents who were worried about keeping their children warm filled up “lots of bags”, Grimwood recalls. “They were so relieved.”

Some 500,000 people visited warm rooms last winter. When it comes to community support offered by libraries, these spaces are the thin end of the wedge.

Of the library services that will be taking part in a warm space scheme, 74% will also host entertainment and cultural activities, 70% will provide free hot drinks, and 66% will run advice sessions on topics like household budgeting, the new survey suggests.

Libraries offer a “vast array” of services, explains Karen Pugh, senior libraries manager for Caerphilly County Borough Council.

“Reading and learning are our bread and butter, but we’re more than that, now… we’ve changed and evolved to meet new needs,” she says.

Caerphilly’s 18 libraries gave away more than 38,000 hot drinks between November 2022 and August. In collaboration with ‘Caerphilly Cares’ – a response triage service for county borough residents in need of support – the library also rolls out ‘warm packs’ filled with beanies, scarves, and gloves. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, Karen says.

“I’m scared to put the heating on in the flat because it’s so expensive. So it’s lovely that I can come here,” one feedback note reads.

“Thank you so much. I was freezing last night so I really needed this,” said a homeless library user after receiving a hot drink.

“A lady who cares for her husband who is on kidney dialysis visits the library for an hour most days to have a hot drink and spend some time doing a jigsaw,” the staff at another library wrote. “We think it’s a form of respite for her.”

The library is a key part of the holistic support offered by the local council. Caerphilly libraries collaborate with Caerphilly Cares to tackle food poverty, debt or rent arrears, isolation and loneliness. It all starts with a conversation and a cup of tea, says Pugh.

“Our staff are chatty, they’ll ask, ‘How are you, I noticed you were in here yesterday’ – and the person might reply, ‘Yes, I’m struggling a bit at the moment, I haven’t got anywhere to live.’ Then we can put them in touch with the services that can help them,” she explains.

Despite increasing spending pressures, Caerphilly has managed to keep all 18 of its libraries open. Sadly, this makes it an anomaly. Spending on libraries has fallen by almost half (47.9%) since 2010. Between 2010 and 2019, more than 800 of the beloved institutions were forced to close across the country.

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But the warm spaces initiative shows just how important libraries are, says Grimwood. “We are one of the vital services provided to communities now,” she explains.

Staff go above and beyond to help – even delivering Christmas toys to the houses of their most vulnerable visitors.

“The parents [who were afraid about clothing their children over winter] started coming in regularly,” Grimwood recalls. “In the lead up to Christmas, we had a large toy donation, so we asked them if they wanted to choose something for each of their children.”

“The parents were just so happy. They said all we’d been able to get them before this was a colouring book and some pencils.”

Libraries are “here to help,” she enthuses. “Anyone can come in and ask for anything, really, and we’d do our best.”

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