Wimblecomm Spotlight with Anthony Hopkins,
Head of Merton Libraries, Heritage and Adult Education
Some Mondays ago, Genevieve managed to sit down with Anthony Hopkins at Wimbledon Library to discuss everything Merton Libraries and beyond. As a great leader and a driving force behind Merton’s Library services, Anthony is a much-loved individual within our Merton community and has gone on to be recognised by none other than the Queen in the 2020 New Year Honours list. In this interview, he tells us about his contribution to London Libraries, his motivations, and how Merton Libraries continue to grow from strength to strength.
To begin, am I correct in thinking that you grew up in Merton?
Yes, I’m originally a Pollards Hill boy and grew up in the east of the borough. So lived, educated and now working in the borough.
What was your first experience of Merton Libraries?
My first experience is probably being about 3 or 4 years old and going to Pollards Hill Library with my Mum when she borrowed a few books for me, and I had a brief tour of the library. I still remember it now actually! We refurbished that library in 2009; before that it was quite green with a lot of brown and the wooden effect that is quite traditional in libraries.
I feel like library services have changed a lot over the years, especially in Merton, and I feel that the services have gone beyond just books…
Yes, that is absolutely right. The important thing about libraries is they are community spaces. They are spaces that anyone can go into regardless of their circumstances and that makes them quite a unique place. Community spaces are being more challenged in terms of their usage and their existence because of the economic environment around us, so we have had to diversify the offer. I’d say one of the biggest changes going back to when I first started my career involved the usage of computers and internet access, which the libraries played a really big role in in terms of getting people online. The libraries continue to play a big role in doing so with Wi-Fi and a lot of the support services that we provide such as training and guidance.
There is also the wider offer – we have done a lot of work around the cultural offer in the borough. We’ve developed the Merton Arts Spaces in both Wimbledon and Mitcham Library which are professionally equipped spaces that can be used for a wide range of different arts, cultural and music events. That has been a big challenge, but still retains the library ethos and can still be used for what you may consider traditional library services.
Another big change for us is the way that children and young people engage with libraries, so we have done a lot around sensory libraries and creating more ‘look, touch, and feel’ spaces. That’s made a massive difference too. Obviously, they’re not quite the quiet spaces that they used to be, but we still maintain that quietness and importance for study and other things throughout the year.
I completely agree and think the sensory spaces at the libraries across the borough all look fantastic. You talked about the libraries being a community space, what do you want people to feel when they come into a Merton Library?
I think the most important thing is to feel welcomed and safe and ensure that the libraries serve a purpose for each individual regardless of what they want to use it for. We’re hoping that there is something for everybody! Recently we’ve just done our customer user survey which we do every 3 years and have found that the satisfaction of services has never been higher. 100% of our customers are satisfied with us and the overall service which is really good. What was quite interesting from the feedback is that a lot of people regard us as a safe space and have shared what they value about our services and how our services contribute to their own personal wellbeing. High proportions of people are reporting that access to our libraries has made them feel more included in the community, and has improved their health, their reading and their general wellbeing. Overall, we are seeing people associate some of those wider social improvements with use of the libraries which is really powerful.
We know that libraries and public services are often under a lot of pressure when we look at finances. What are some of the biggest challenges that you are facing?
We’ve been through a lot of big challenges and even pre-austerity, Merton’s financial position wasn’t great. It is now in a much stronger position than it was, and this remains true in comparison to other boroughs. We’ve always had the challenge of trying to live within our own means and budgets whilst retaining high levels of customer satisfaction and have always been one of the most cost-effective services in London. Whilst we don’t spend an awful lot on our library services, where we do invest it, we invest it well. We have had to make some big changes over the last 10 years – we’ve managed to keep all of the libraries open, we’ve extended the opening hours, and we’ve either redeveloped or refurbished 6 of our 7 libraries with West Barnes to come on stream.
Although we have achieved a lot, we’ve had to think about the model and the way that we work – so we’re a lot more dependent on technology, and we have a very buoyant and strong volunteering base across the sites which plays a vital role in what we do. We also work collaboratively with a lot of partners and services like the NHS, Public Health, theatre groups, advice centres, Job Centre Plus etc. After looking at our model we considered what things we do really well ourselves, and where we’re not the experts or don’t have the resources, to help us decide who we can collaborate with to provide those services. We’ve created more of a hub model around a range of different services in a library, rather than just being a traditional service.
Those have been the main ways we’ve tackled things. We have had to make some really big savings and even now the financial situation within local government in general still isn’t great. Whilst it’s maybe not as bad as where it was 5 to 10 years ago, we’re starting from a much lower base, so we’ve had to make those really difficult cuts. That’s a struggle for a lot of boroughs and not just Merton, but these are the main challenges that we have at the moment as well as staying relevant.
By widening your offering and developing Merton Arts Spaces, and offering more events, you’ve really added to the library experience and as we mentioned before, the service has gone beyond books. When I was younger, a library was mostly about going in to get a book but now I walk into a library and there’s lots of other great things on offer.
Borrowing books is still the core of our service and will continue to be. We’ve put a lot of investment into our work with Children and Young People. We have a scheme where every school child in the borough is a library member and we do some really proactive work in terms of bringing schools here and encouraging parents and carers to bring in their children. That has had a massive impact on our usage, and we believe that if you have a good experience of libraries when you’re young, you’re likely to carry that through in your life, and we are seeing that now. We have been running a lot of these programmes for 10 years; where traditionally young people get to mid-teens through to early twenties, libraries see a massive drop-off in usage, but we’re not seeing that anymore.
Apart from the offer being different, I think young people look at libraries differently to how they used to and make use of them in different ways. The other big element is study space. Sometimes their home lives make it very difficult for them to be able to study at home so from around February to June, it will be ram-packed in the study areas with young people working away.
In terms of the community, you’ve mentioned working with others a lot. How can we (Wimblecomm as a Community Hub for Merton, but also people within Merton in general) support Merton Libraries more?
I think Wimblecomm have already done quite a lot of work with us, particularly in the initial concept and building of the Community Hub. I remember having many discussions with the Trustees, so we have always had a good working relationship and we talk quite regularly. Your charity has made a lot of use of the spaces here (at Wimbledon Library) for AGMs and other things and promote the services really well through the website. Those things have been really positive, and the only request that I would have is that if you’re thinking about community engagement events and activities, just think library first.
Now moving on to a more personal note, you have recently been awarded a British Empire Medal (BEM) for your services to libraries, how did that come about?
It was a complete surprise; I wasn’t expecting it at all! The first I found out about it was in mid-November when I had a letter through from the Cabinet Office saying that I’ve been awarded it. When I first saw the letter, I thought it was a court summons or request for duty service or something not particularly exciting, but it turned out to be about the British Empire Medal. I am very honoured to be awarded it and it is still a complete surprise.
You don’t know who nominated you so all I know is the citation that went into it that mentions my work in Merton, and the work I’ve done on a regional basis as I used to be the President of London Libraries, as well as some of the national work I’ve done. So whoever put it together has a good knowledge of me in terms of what I’ve done locally, regionally, and nationally.
With the awarding ceremony coming up on the 24th April 2020, Anthony is still none the wiser about who nominated him but is very much deserving of the award. As we continued to discuss his career thus far, I asked what being the President of London Libraries entailed.
London Libraries is the London network of Libraries Connected which is the national support agency for libraries in England. Its membership comprises of the Heads of Services of all the libraries in the UK, except Scotland who have their own organisation. It is something you are nominated and elected to by your peers, and I served as the President of London Libraries for 2 years before stepping down in April 2018. It was a really good opportunity – in my time we focused on staff engagement and staff development across the London network. We also did an advocacy campaign around public libraries, so we got some relatively well-known people to advocate and become London Library ambassadors who speak out positively about the libraries. This enabled us to put some facts out there about the network. Unfortunately, there’s lots of perceptions around library closures, not to say that that hasn’t happened nationally, the story in London is very different and we’ve opened about 25 new ones! So it was about debunking a few myths, and we used social media to promote all of that.
That’s not to say that difficult decisions haven’t been made, but things aren’t as grim as you are sometimes led to believe. As President (of London Libraries) you are the spokesperson for London and work closely with the GLA and other governing bodies. It was a really enjoyable role and I’m still past President, so I still get called in to do different bits and pieces and that’s fine.
You sound like a very sought-after individual!
I’m not sure about that! (laughs)
So who inspires you? This is my first time meeting and speaking to you personally, but everyone that I’ve spoken to describes you as a lovely individual with great vision who has driven Merton’s Libraries to be the thriving spaces that they are today. Tell me about your inspirations and what drives you to keep creating more?
I think if you stand still for too long you lose a bit of momentum, and libraries are services that have to keep adapting to changing times and changing environments. There is a constant commitment to try and stay relevant, renovate and just promote a really good service. That’s what drives me on really. I’m not really motivated from a personal accolade perspective; the things that drive me on are when I see good results such as really good customer survey results or the delivery of good projects such as Tuned In which I’ll be here supporting tonight. It’s things like that where you can see that you’re making a difference to people’s lives that really drive me on.
Amazing! What’s the next step for Merton Libraries?
We have a few things. Firstly, the project centres – the Children’s Sensory Library projects. We’ve done the building developments on those, and we are now focused on the delivery of different programmes, workshops and activities.
The continued development and expansion of our Arts Space offer. We are hopefully in the process of starting to redevelop West Barnes Library so early days on that, but that’s one of our next big projects.
In some ways we’re just going to be consolidating some of the work that we’ve done because we’ve done quite a lot of rapid change and development and now it’s about embedding that further and making it business as usual. All this whilst we continue to pick up new opportunities and developments as they come along. There will be some central government funding that will come out soon that libraries can apply for. Although we don’t think it’s going to be huge money, it will be something so we will be looking at for a few of those opportunities later on in the year and have a few ideas around what we could do.
I also cover Heritage and Adult Learning in Merton. We have two big projects on with our Heritage service at the moment; a redesign of the Heritage Centre at Morden Library and work around making the services more dementia friendly, including some particular work with people with learning disabilities.
With Adult Learning, we were OFSTED inspected last October and that went really well. We were the first to be inspected under the new framework in London which is a tougher regime, and we got good across the board! Our Cabinet just agreed a new set of strategic objectives for our Adult Learning service and some of that is around integration work with libraries and how we utilise the services better side-by-side to provide a fuller offer to residents.
You seem to have covered all bases there because when we discussed libraries earlier, you talked about young people being more engaged, and now the adult and heritage centre aspects. What kind of services do you provide at the Heritage Centre?
Some of the things that we’ve done in the last few years include digitising a massive photographic archive of the borough where we have well over 15,000 images of the borough in storage. We have a site called Merton Memories which anyone can go on and add content of the borough as well as comments and information, so it’s a really rich resource. We also did a project as a part of that called ‘Carved in Stone’ which was our World War One project which digitises and tells the story of residents and people living in Merton during WW1. Generally speaking, the Heritage Centre has a lot of displays and information about the borough which features different kinds of themes and displays throughout the year such as WW1, the Suffragette movement, and Black History Month. We also work with schools and care homes throughout the year. With Dementia your short-term memory may not be as good as it once was, but your long-term memory isn’t impacted and that familiarisation of the places you grew up and things you did is really strong. Overall, we provide an information service so if there is anything that you want to find out about the borough, our Heritage Team are very skilled and equipped to be able to assist. It is a small service of 1 member of staff and around 30 volunteers, but it does deliver a lot.
Interview by Genevieve Etienne-Farrell as part of the #WimblecommSpotlight series. Continue reading our Blog for more of these features with individuals, charities, and other community organisations working for the greater good of Merton and beyond.