Explore York, which runs the city's libraries and archives, has just been awarded a new 15-year contract by the city council. STEPHEN LEWIS speaks to Explore chief executive Fiona Williams about the challenges and opportunities ahead

YOU may not have realised it, but for the last eight months the organisation set up five years ago to run York's libraries and city archive has been fighting for its life.

Explore York Libraries and Archives Mutual has been locked in a tendering process with a rival bidder to secure the contract to run the service for the next 15 years.

Had it lost, most library and archives staff would doubtless have transferred across to the new organisation. But the city's library and archives service might have looked very different in future.

The city council has never publicly confirmed who the rival bidder was, or what the terms of its bid were. But last week, it confirmed that Explore had won the contract after all.

That new contract will begin on April 1. Explore has been given £34.25 million to run the service over the next 15 years, plus capital funding of £4.2 million to spend on new or improved library buildings.

The council originally took the decision to hive off its library and archive service to an independently-run community organisation five years ago. The idea was that the new, independent body, while operating under contract to the council and mainly funded by it, would be able to tap into donations, grants and sources of funding not available to a council-run body.

The new mutual, headed by Fiona Williams, the former head of the council's library service, was given an initial five-year contract to see how it did.

By and large it has made a success of things. Explore managed to get funding to sort out and catalogue several of its archive collections - including the records of York's workhouse and poor law union. A new Tang Hall Explore library has been opened on the site of the former Burnholme School. And, perhaps most significant of all - and in stark contrast to some library services elsewhere - none of York's public libraries has closed, and they all still have paid staff.

Five years was never enough for the new organisation to do all the things it wanted to do, however. And in the last 18 months or so, as its initial contract began to draw towards an end, it has been harder to get funding.

The award of a new 15-year contract changes all that, Fiona Williams says. "Now we can get funding, and we can start to make things happen!"

Books and reading remain at the heart of what Explore will be about, she stresses. She is also committed to ensuring that libraries stay open - and staffed by paid professionals. "We will keep all libraries open, with paid staff in every one," she said.

But there will be changes and new initiatives, too. No-one quite knows what the world will look like 15 years from now, she says - 15 years ago, for example, social media were only just beginning to take off. Few would have predicted back then the huge part they would play in our lives today.

The world will change further over the next 15 years - and libraries will have to adapt and change to remain relevant.

Fiona believes they will succeed - and says that if anything, in these days of fake news and instant online opinions, libraries are probably more important than ever. "Libraries have a huge role to play in enabling people to get to the truth," she says. "Social media are often used like an echo chamber, reinforcing people's opinions. Libraries have a role to play in challenging that, and exposing people to different points of view."

So what are her key priorities for the library and archive service over the next few years?

Here are a few...

Library buildings

The city council had already committed funding for a new Haxby library. The plan is for the library to share a building with the Haxby and Wigginton scouts at scout HQ in the Ethel Ward Playing Fields. Scheduled to open by spring 2020 the new community building will include facilities for the scouts, a meeting room, a library and a reading café.

The extra £4.2 million of capital funding Explore will receive under its new contract, meanwhile, will be used to improve library facilities in Clifton and Acomb. The plan is for the existing Acomb Explore to be expanded. There will also be an Explore Centre at Clifton.

The model for both will be the new Tang Hall Explore library at the Burnholme Centre.

This includes:

  • Fiction and non-fiction for children, young people and adults
  • a café and shop
  • meeting rooms available to hire
  • Free broadband and wi-fi
  • a family and local history section
  • a children’s area and a space for quiet study

The Tang Hall Explore has been a huge success, Fiona says. Because there is a decent space, you can have concerts, big-name author events for 200+ people (Chocolat author Joanne Harris will be at the library on April 9 to talk about her latest book), community learning, health and well-being sessions - and even, potentially, jobs fairs.

Explore Labs

One idea is to set aside a space in libraries for local people to come along and experiment with new technology and new ideas. It is something that has worked well in libraries elsewhere in the country, Fiona says.

The plan would be to set up a dedicated space - in the main York Explore library, and possibly in some of the outlying libraries, too - and use them to let local people have a go at 3-D printing or to give them a Virtual Reality experience.

"It would bring to libraries a whole different group of people - and then once they're here, we could hopefully get them reading books!" Fiona says. "Because after all, everything we do is really about wanting people to read."

The city archives

The city archives are about so much more than just dusty records dating back to the time of King Richard III, Fiona says. There is the fantastic Imagine York photographic archive, for a start - more than 6,000 photographs of York's streets, slums, businesses and people going back to the late 1800s. There are the York workhouse and poor law records, packed with real-life stories featuring people who could have been our own grandparents or great-grandparents - former York Lord Mayor Barbara Boyce's grandmother Elsie, for example, was born in the York workhouse. And there is a treasure trove of city architects' and engineers' drawings dating back as far as the 1830s, which include details of wonderful buildings which have now been lost, or which were planned but never built - as well as street plans and original drawings of the homes that many York people live in to this day.

One of the key aims of the next 15 years will be to make all this material more accessible to York people. There are plans to submit a funding bid for a 'public engagement' programme for the workhouse and poor law archives, for example. This could include drama workshops and performances, plus exhibitions of archive documents. "The power of some of these documents is astonishing when you see them up close," Fiona says. "People say: 'can I really touch it?'"

There could be localised archive exhibitions at local Explore centres, where people are invited to come in and see material relevant to their areas - and also to tell their own stories. And another idea is to convert the undercroft of St Leonard's Hospital, next to York central library, into a central exhibition space for archive material.

Then there are the photographs. Already there are something like 6,000 of these on Explore's digital Imagine York website. But Explore actually has probably double this number of photographs, once they can all be scanned and catalogued, Fiona says.

York people could contribute information about what the photographs show - and the expanded library of photographs could be a great learning tool, as well as perhaps a source of revenue in the future, if an e-commerce site can be set up.

Adult learning and well-being

Explore already works closely with the city council's adult education programme York Learning, so the city's libraries can be used for workshops, classes and courses. The plan is to build on this - and also to allow libraries to be used for a wide range of 'health and well-being' activities: everything from memory sessions for people with Alzheimers to organised activities such as boccia - a kind of indoor bowls often played by people with mobility problems or other physical disabilities. There is already a regular boccia club which meets at York Explore.

Explore is also keen to work more closely with the NHS on programmes like the GP 'prescribe a book' service.

Many of these things are about tackling loneliness as much as anything, Fiona says. Libraries are great, safe places to bring people together. "There's something about library services. People talk to each-other! We want to build on that!"


Explore York Libraries and Archives Mutual runs York central library, the city archive, plus 13 other libraries (two of them reading cafés) and one mobile library.

To find out more about your local library and the services it provides, visit exploreyork.org.uk