Lending a hand Sighthill Library, Edinburgh Winner: Outstanding Team of the Year; Local Government award

18 May 06
Books not Asbos are being used by a pioneering Edinburgh community library to challenge young people's antisocial behaviour and transform lives. Judy Hirst met the staff at Sighthill, who are the Outstanding Team of the Year

19 May 2006

Books — not Asbos — are being used by a pioneering Edinburgh community library to challenge young people's antisocial behaviour and transform lives. Judy Hirst met the staff at Sighthill, who are the Outstanding Team of the Year

They're choosing carpet tiles at Sighthill Library. Should it be the dark stripey one, to go with the silver lino? Or perhaps the slightly lighter, more textured shade? A heated discussion ensues. Like most things at this unusual community library in west Edinburgh, the decision will be taken noisily and collectively – by the staff, the service users and anyone else who cares to throw their tuppence-worth in.

The library building is undergoing a long overdue refurbishment. The city council has at last found the funding to transform the grim, concrete block into something more appealing. There will be improved areas for young people, upgraded computer facilities and more open access – all set off with trendy new colours and designs. 'It'll be great when it's finished,' says Jane Milne, the library's energetic, fast-talking team leader. 'Everyone's really excited. We're planning a launch party when it's all done.'

But in the meantime – a sure sign that this is more than a run-of-the-mill municipal library – local residents on the Sighthill estate are highly indignant about the building being closed. 'They're saying, where else are we supposed to go, what else can we do, when the mobile library only lets in three people at a time? It's particularly tough on the kids, who like to hang out here all day.'

To get some idea why this library is so highly valued by the local community – and why its eight staff have just picked up the Outstanding Team of the Year award – you have only to go back a few years to 2003, when things were looking very different.

At that time the library – surrounded by a sea of grey, high-rise blocks in one of Edinburgh's most deprived areas – was virtually under siege.

'Gangs of up to 20 or 30 young people had taken to coming in, chucking books and furniture around and abusing the staff. It was all very intimidating,' says Evelyn Kilmurray, a principal library officer with the city council, now based at Sighthill. 'They never actually harmed anyone physically, but they were frightening off other library users, particularly the older folk.' At one point, some 'hoodies' even rode a bike through the building. Another time, an entire bookshelf was sent crashing over.

With unemployment at over 18%, and almost a quarter of households below the low-income threshold, Sighthill has had more than its fair share of antisocial behaviour problems. Gang warfare periodically erupts with the neighbouring Broomhouse estate, resulting in one case last year in a tragic local killing. Vandalism, graffiti, under-age drinking, drug misuse and threatening behaviour are all serious problems.

Many of the teenagers causing mayhem at the library had criminal records and had been excluded from school. Most were barred from the heavily shuttered local community centre.

It's all a far cry from Edinburgh's wealthy city centre, with its festivals, wine bars and high culture. There's not been much sign of culture round here. Not, that is, until the Sighthill team began to shake things up.

The changes began slowly and – with hindsight, symbolically – with Milne's decision, soon after her appointment in 2003, to dispense with the services of a 'library attendant'. Until then, it had been standard practice at Sighthill, as in many community libraries across the city, to employ a specific officer – sometimes uniformed – to deal with challenging behaviour. 'Our old attendant had left, and I was trying to recruit a new one,' Milne tells me. 'But all the applicants were completely unsuitable, in my opinion. Security guards, nightclub bouncers and the like.'

In the meantime, she had been hiring new staff and taking a long, hard look at the way the library was run.

She decided that having a library attendant was at best ineffectual – at worst counter-productive. 'It hadn't tackled the problem, and barring the kids was just provoking more bad behaviour. We decided instead it should be the responsibility of the whole team to communicate with these young people, and find ways to engage with them.' Working closely with local community police, youth workers and other agencies, they decided to make the library much more relevant to the local community – particularly to youngsters, and their parents and carers.

New staff were taken on with these needs in mind. 'I asked everyone the same question at their interview: “What would you do if you had to organise an activity for young people in the library?” The successful ones came up with some ingenious ideas, and had the talent and communication skills to make them happen.'

Many of these are now up and running, thanks to the hands-on efforts of the dedicated staff. There's a 'Computer Crazies' club, where children design their own web sites, and a literacy and football project – 'Reading the Game' – where participants read and write about football, and 'Sighthill United' plays rival teenage teams. There's also a 'Youth Boox' group, where young people choose and review books, CDs and websites for the library. Drama, dance, arts and IT sessions, gamers' workshops, creative writing courses, a hugely successful video-diary project – the list of activities goes on. And they've attracted some high profile interest, with Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh and crime writer Ian Rankin running workshops and lending support. The video-diary project even managed to win sponsorship to send a group of local youngsters on a fact-finding trip to New York.

Andy McTaggart, a library officer at Sighthill, says much of this success is due to the radical change of approach away from the old-style punitive methods to ones involving consultation. 'The old regime was much more traditional. It was not very welcoming for young people, so they resented it. This way, we're re-engaging with them, and using diversionary tactics like rewards, sanctions, and “time outs”, to improve their behaviour.'

And it's working. Antisocial behaviour in the library itself has all but disappeared, with a big fall in the number of complaints from other library customers – 75% by early 2005. Incidents in the library that involve charges being pressed have dropped to zero. The police report a two-thirds fall in the number of youth calls in the area, and a noticeable reduction in the amount of graffiti. Overall library usage is up. Still more positively, the library has now become the focus for a weekly round of activities that genuinely seem to be improving literacy, inspiring local young people – and, in some cases, giving them the chance to really spread their wings.

Julie Riddell, now 16, had been coming to Sighthill Library on and off since she was a child. Local young people, she admits, herself included, 'didn't used to respect the library. There used to be a lot of feuds and fighting.' But now, she feels, things have really changed. 'The staff are great. You can talk to them just like friends. They've really helped me a lot.' For her personally this has meant getting involved with the video-diary project, getting on a college drama course and getting to go to New York. 'It was just brilliant, I couldn't believe it. We met a lot of kids our own age, from the Bronx and places. And we went to a film festival, and marched on the Tartan Day parade.' Now she's involved with all sorts of projects, and is set on a drama career.

'What a lot of our local teenagers need is just that extra wee bit of help, to get them going,' says Milne. Low literacy levels, poor school attendance and high levels of exclusions mean that help with college and job applications and CVs can make a huge difference. Sighthill has linked up with one of the city's youth employment services to organise drop-in sessions for this purpose in the library. 'We've also got more than 35 young people signed up for the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, a big achievement for something that's normally seen as a very middle-class pursuit.'

For some of these youngsters, the library's intervention is truly life-changing. As one lad told the staff recently: 'If it wasn't for what you lot do, I'd be in jail now.'

Undoubtedly, a lot of Sighthill's successes are down to strong leadership and enthusiasm, and a dynamic team that works together extremely well. But it would be easy to underestimate the challenges that their new way of working has involved.

Richard Ferguson, one of the newer library assistants – and the brains behind 'Computer Crazies' – recalls some difficult times trying to adjust early on: 'Most of it was about developing relationships, and building the right team.' The Sighthill staff developed their own, very useful specialist training in 'dealing with conflict, anger and aggression'. But Ferguson believes that many library employees would see this as beyond their remit. 'Some branches wouldn't want to work like this. They see library services pretty much as just stamping books.'

It's a problem recognised by Bill Wallace, the head of Edinburgh city council's libraries, as he contemplates trying to roll out Sighthill's model to other areas. 'The whole team there gels incredibly well. And what they've achieved is all the more remarkable for having been done largely within budget. But it's very much part of the whole of Edinburgh library service's philosophy to be as inclusive as possible, and to update the concept of public libraries by reaching out to the most excluded members of the community.'

Donald Urquhart, the city council's head of antisocial behaviour, agrees that the Sighthill team deserves plaudits for showing just how relevant prevention and intervention are to tackling such a widespread problem. 'A lot of it is not about taking out Asbos against young people, but setting boundaries and challenging their behaviour. For example, at Sighthill they've used “acceptable behaviour” contracts, or used withdrawing access to the computers as a sanction, to great effect.'

For Urquhart, Sighthill's initiative 'reinforces the huge role that departments such as culture and leisure have to play in tackling antisocial behaviour'. It's something that may or may not appeal to the typical library worker, but – with library usage falling, and the pressure on councils to make their library services more socially relevant – they might have little choice but to change.

At Sighthill, they've already done it. 'When people from other agencies come down here looking for all the young people, and get told you'll find them down the library, they don't believe it,' laughs Milne. 'It's the last place they'd expect them to be!' They've achieved that, says Wallace, by 'going way beyond merely surviving in difficult circumstances, and making that really difficult leap'. Or, as the Sighthill team would more modestly put it, by offering an extra wee bit of help.


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