Case study

St Helens libraries: libraries as creative hubs

St Helens library service provides access to educational, recreational, cultural and information activities to improve the quality of life for residents.

Swimming in the library

'Swimming' in the library. Photo credit: St Helen's libraries

Contribution to corporate priorities

St Helens Library Service exists to improve the quality of life for St Helens residents by providing access to educational, recreational, cultural and information activities. It does this in support of St Helens Council’s priorities, in particular to:

  • increase participation in cultural events
  • improve skills and learning of local people, particularly families and young people
  • engage with and meet the needs of local young people
  • support neighbourhood development and community cohesion
  • support events and activities that promote a distinctive borough and town centre
  • promote an environment that supports the health and well-being agenda

Description of the work

In 2013, St Helens Library Service was awarded just under £150,000 from Arts Council England’s (ACE) Grants for the Arts Libraries Fund to deliver a 2 year research and development programme aiming to:

  • deliver an excellent, ambitious arts programme in St Helens libraries
  • build on community commissioning of the arts already initiated within libraries
  • create a methodology to enable continued development of the arts in libraries within St Helens

The project has been called Cultural Hubs and initially, the project focussed on 3 main demographic areas: families, young people and those using, or about to use, the services of Adult Social Care and Health. These groups had been identified as priority groups to reach and enabled St Helens to address key concerns within the borough.

Owing to the post-industrial decline in local industries, St Helens has a number of challenges to overcome. Key concerns are high unemployment, child poverty, poor statistics about the health of children and young people and the mental health of adults. Almost one quarter of the population of the borough has a registered disability. St. Helens is also ranked amongst the lowest 20% of boroughs nationally for engagement in the arts and is ranked the 36th most deprived local council in England, out of 326 local councils.

As part of the programme, audiences were invited to attend performances of ballet, music, storytelling, theatre, spoken word and poetry as well as visual art exhibitions. Participants could enjoy a range of opportunities to ‘have a go’ themselves, including digital arts, paper den making and story-telling workshops. With match funding from Public Health, they commissioned Collective Encounters, a professional arts organisation specialising in theatre for social change, to deliver a music and drama project with adults affected by mental health issues. Further work addressing mental health stigma was delivered by the Comedy Trust, who sourced additional funding from Time to Change to deliver stand-up comedy workshops for adults.

Distinct strands of work enabled Continued Professional Development (CPD) opportunities for artists, Arts Award for young people and digital arts residencies.

Outcomes achieved

In terms of key performance indicators (KPIs), their statistics bucked the trends with visitor figures and new members showing an upturn. The work has benefited the library service in St Helens in a number of ways. It has:

  • enabled the service to reach out to some of the most vulnerable adults in the borough, those suffering from drug and alcohol addictions and mental health problems
  • reached families, young people and the wider community through a vibrant arts programme
  • expanded the horizons of library staff, showing them the range of events that could be offered through libraries and teaching them the skills to manage the processes themselves
  • given staff greater confidence to try different things in their own libraries, leading to an enriched programme of events and activities
  • challenged people’s perception of what a library is for
  • raised the profile of the library service in St Helens, leading to a greater awareness of the role that the library service plays
  • raised the profile of St Helens as a major proponent of the arts

Accomplishments and lessons learnt

As part of Cultural Hubs, they have developed an Arts in Libraries Policy and Strategy, setting out their plans to embed arts delivery into the core library programme.

By involving the community through commissioning groups in the programming and delivery of events, they produced a programme where their citizens feel invested in what they are doing.

Cultural Hubs has enabled a real focus on pushing the boundaries of how library spaces can be used and enabled them to offer arts experiences to people in their own neighbourhood. One audience member summed it up when they said “A play like this would be something we would usually have to go to Liverpool or Manchester to see so it’s amazing to have a quality production like this in my local library”.

In addition, the focus on the therapeutic benefits of the arts, evidenced by the improved feelings of well-being of participants, has paid dividends. This work is measured using the Warwick Edinburgh Mental Well-Being Scale (WEMWBS) where appropriate. Libraries are seen as the focus for this work in the borough, which has led to productive partnerships with both Public Health and Adult Social Care and Health.

For artists based in St Helens, the CPD opportunities have delivered excellent results. A number of participants have gone on to have new work commissioned as a direct result of the programmes on offer.

To share their learning, they hosted an Arts in Libraries Conference in March 2015, attended by over 80 professionals from libraries and arts organisations across the country.

Future Plans

St Helens Cultural Hubs programme is now in phase two, having received just under £100,000 funding for a further two years from ACE’s Grants for the Arts in Libraries Fund to embed Cultural Hubs within the core library programme. The Arts in Libraries Policy and Strategy sets out the direction for long-term development, including a costed 4 year plan to sustain Cultural Hubs. Staff will become more proficient in the skills needed to programme and manage successful events with the support and guidance of the 2 Arts in Libraries officers.

In addition, they plan to spread the learning and best practice through an Arts in Libraries regional network established during phase one in partnership with ACE. This network will enable libraries across the region to share ideas and contacts and help each other develop the arts offer in libraries.

They will continue to increase the support given to marginalised groups through participation in the arts. Partnerships developed through Cultural Hubs phase one are bringing dividends, with an Arts on Prescription programme now being funded through Public Health and delivered as part of phase two of Cultural Hubs.

Whilst continuing to showcase work aimed at families, Adult Social Care and Health service users and young people, phase two will also enable them to programme ‘mainstream’ arts events, specific events aimed at LGBT audiences, to work further with their local amateur arts sector and to advance the Arts Award offer for young people. Through targeted evaluation, they will look to demonstrate the social and economic benefits of the programme, establishing it as a major focus within the borough.


The St Helens programme:

Additional resources

Film: St Helens library service cultural hubs

Published 16 December 2015