Giant Steps: How Lister Drive Library became a symbol of hope for L13

Lister Steps Old Library Project
Date: 22/09/2020

Lister Drive Library, also known as the Andrew Carnegie Library, was abandoned after its closure by the council in 2006. With the inside falling apart and vandalised, the Grade II listed building had been left to decay until community charity and childcare group Lister Steps obtained funding to get it up and running again.

Under their guidance the library is to be transformed into a community centre with multi-purpose facilities. With an opening date roughly later this year, Lister Steps’ community engagement manager, Olivia Johnson, explains all to Jason Simon.

How did Lister Steps come to be involved with the Old Library Project?

Olivia: Lister Steps is a community and childcare charity. Things are slightly different now with COVID, but we normally offer nursery 51 weeks of the year, breakfast club and an after-school club. We’re expanding what we do through the Old Library Project.

Lister Steps was originally in Lister School and then when they expanded, they moved into the old school on Lister Drive, which had become an empty heritage building, and planned to renovate it. It was too unmanageable to be in it while that happened, so they moved into porta-cabins next door. Long story short, over the years the school fell further into disrepair and was eventually burned down through arson. So, Lister Steps ended up being in the portacabins permanently.

We’ve been in the porta-cabins about 15 years now. Gaynor Williams, our CEO, always had her eye on a new venue in L13 where we’d be able to expand and do more for the community. The Old Library had been there since 1905 and operated as a public library until 2006. The building had been closed and empty since then but in 2012 the council put it up for auction to see if anyone wanted to take it on. Lister Steps applied and were given preferred developer status and that’s when the Old Library Project began.

How did the funding come about?

Oliva: Once we got preferred developer status, that’s when Lister Steps started applying for the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The council also backed us with £100,000. We had to put forward an activity plan for how we were going to help the local community and how they were going to be involved. After that two-to-three year process, we were awarded just under £4 million for a five-year project in November 2016.

What different purposes will the building serve?

Oliva:  We’ll have childcare as we do now, a café, a main events space downstairs for communities or private events, children’s play areas for our childcare around the back and community grounds at the front for community events. Upstairs, we have hot desks and office space which we’ll rent out. We’ve got a meeting room in the tower available for hire and as an organisation, we’ll be hoping to put on different community events and activities and bring opportunities to the area. We want to have something for everyone.

There was a sense that the people in the area and the community had been forgotten about and the library was a symbol of that…

Will the library go back to being an actual library?

Lots of people did want that but the problem is that to make it sustainable and beneficial for the community, it needed to do more than just one thing. That’s why we’ve come up with the idea of a multi-use venue.

L13, I think is fair to say, has been in decline for a few years and didn’t get a lot of the European investment from 2008’s Capital of Culture. So, there was a sense that the people in the area and the community had been forgotten about and the library was a symbol of that. It was shut down and felt like it had been taken away from local people, so this was Lister Steps trying to help the community, expand our services and wanting to be the spark that makes our area better. We wanted to provide a place where people could get together and socialise or come and learn and share new skills.

Will the building stay as it was?

Oliva: For the public side of the building – our main events room downstairs, our café and the entrance hall – is where we focused on most of the restoration work and trying to put the building back to how it was.

For some areas, our designers have created modern interventions that fit within the building without touching the existing fabric of it, such as a separate pod structure for our childcare area. You can still tell it’s the old library and feels like a heritage building but it’s had a modern update so we can use it in a way that make sense for today.

Don’t keep us in suspense. How long ’til you’re open?

Oliva:  We’re very nearly done. We’re hoping to have a handover day soon so we’re getting into the snagging process at the end of the construction phase. We’re still not 100% certain on dates but we’re hoping we might be able to start being operational in October 2020.

How can people help out?

Oliva:  When we’re able to start our activities again, people are welcome to come and get involved. If people want to run an activity themselves, we’ve got the space to do that. If people want to volunteer, then watch this space. As we grow and put more things on, we’ll need more help so there should be opportunities in the future. We’re going to be launching a new website soon that will have all the information everyone will need which will be going live in the next few weeks.

Are you happy with the progress that has been made?

Oliva:  The building looks really amazing. We’re so excited to open it up so people can finally see the finished product. When you look at when we started and the level of decay there was, it was falling apart and a mess but to look at it now is amazing. We’re really happy how it turned out and looking forward to getting more people in!

What would you like to see become of the library ultimately?

Oliva:  We want to see it well used by people and a place where people feel safe and welcome. We’d love to see people growing in confidence using it and getting involved with it. We’d like to see people helping us shape it to what they want it to be and bring the things to the area that are needed.

Lister Steps