The peel of laughter from children in story times, the chatter of problem-solving in a computer class, lunchtime music recitals, the gurgle and hiss of coffee machines. . . libraries are no longer the silent, studious places we’ve always known. Certainly in the towns and villages of Suffolk, they are vibrant community hubs as valuable for making friends and trying out new activities as for getting information and advice and borrowing books.

“There’s a massive range on offer,” says chief executive, Bruce Leeke of the 45 libraries, three pop-up libraries and three mobile libraries he oversees. “From a radio room for young people in an Ipswich library, to table tennis at Beccles library or adult education classes in Latin and medieval history at Aldeburgh library. There are so many things you wouldn’t expect.

“Sewing therapy, fashion shows, music gigs, baby weighing facilities. We have tablets and eReader devices available to borrow, and an eLibrary of eBooks, audio books, downloadable newspapers and magazines, free music and films. We have a Post Office in the library in Stradbroke, and Gainsborough Library sells low-cost health fruit and veg bags to local people every week.”

Great British Life: Chief executive Bruce Leeke oversees 45 libraries, three pop-up libraries and three mobile libraries.Chief executive Bruce Leeke oversees 45 libraries, three pop-up libraries and three mobile libraries. (Image: Suffolk Libraries)

There’s access to Citizens Advice Bureau and St Elizabeth’s Hospice, help with mental health and wellbeing issues from Suffolk Mind and Survivors in Transition, and Barclays Bank for financial advice. There are Open Space weekly drop-ins, community fridges, a Pride and Periods scheme to tackle period poverty, and a Phone a Friend service to reach out to people who might feel isolated or alone.

Reading Well books help people with conditions such as depression, anxiety or eating disorders, the Summer Reading Challenge encourages a love of books in children, and the Home Library Service takes books to people unable to travel. The list goes on, and in recent months Suffolk Libraries has attracted national coverage for how it is responding to the cost of living crisis in its communities. 

Bruce was interviewed on breakfast television when the service was one of the first organisations to offer its buildings as ‘warm spaces’. Other initiatives include low cost food, free warm drinks and ‘kindness racks’ where people can donate warm clothes for anyone to pick up and take away. “Whether it’s for books, or for a warm room, or for something completely different, we believe the library is there for people in the community when they need it,” he says.

Great British Life: Since 2012 Suffolk Libraries has run 91,000 events in libraries.Since 2012 Suffolk Libraries has run 91,000 events in libraries. (Image: Suffolk Libraries)

Delivering more and more with the well-documented diminishing resources available to our public services is an ongoing challenge, though. Suffolk Libraries is a charity, formed 10 years ago, and is contracted by the local authority to run the library service. Though an additional two years will run due to the pandemic, a new agreement needs to be negotiated by July 2024 and Bruce is already accumulating statistics, measurements, facts and figures essential in proving the worth of the organisation. They trip off his tongue.

“Since 2012 we’ve run 91,000 events in libraries,” he says, “with over 1.3m attendances. And 25 million books and other items have been borrowed – that’s 33 books for everyone in Suffolk. Suffolk Libraries has saved Suffolk taxpayers £25million. It generates £2million of social value per annum from just three of our regular activities, and we save the NHS well over £284,000 annually.” They are impressive numbers, but the personal stories are priceless. Suffolk Libraries recently invited team members to ‘Share your story’ by giving examples of their interactions with library users and acknowledging what important work they do.

Great British Life: Children doing crafts at Gainsborough LibraryChildren doing crafts at Gainsborough Library (Image: Suffolk Libraries)

“It’s everything from a lady losing her passport and us somehow enabling her to meet her son in Australia for the first time in two years, to a man who turned up at Brandon Library lost and bewildered," says Bruce. "He thought he’d been at a music festival, but he was an elderly gentleman. Our staff helped calm him down, hosted him for four or five hours and, after being in contact with the police, found that he was man from Wales who had been missing from his family for three weeks.”

Great British Life: Suffolk Libraries provides safe spaces for parents and children.Suffolk Libraries provides safe spaces for parents and children. (Image: Suffolk Libraries)

Library users have also written to express their appreciation of the staff and service. “Lowestoft Library has honestly saved my life,” wrote one. “Being able to go to the library and be around books helps with my depression and anxiety. The staff are like family to me.”

Another person was helped to use the library computers while studying for an Open University course. “Ipswich Library helped me overcome OCD and study. I eventually achieved an OU diploma which then enabled me to get a job which I love.” The library is seen as a safe and recognisable resource in our communities, and it is something Bruce has experienced for himself. 

“I took my children to the library when they were babies,” he says, “and this was my first encounter with the library for many years. I had a great time, but I met a lot of people who weren’t doing so well. You could see how people were struggling, but having the network on offer through the library they were able to cope with some of the challenges facing them.” 

Great British Life: Suffolk Libraries has tablets and eReader devices available to borrow and an eLibrary of eBooks, audio books, downloadable newspapers and magazines, free music and films.Suffolk Libraries has tablets and eReader devices available to borrow and an eLibrary of eBooks, audio books, downloadable newspapers and magazines, free music and films. (Image: Suffolk Libraries)

Bruce was, at that point, at home with his children while his wife worked. He had had a successful and varied career but it had taken him away from the family home. When he was based in Chesterfield and his family were in Suffolk he decided to make a change. It wasn’t long before he saw the job advertised at Suffolk Libraries and decided to apply.

It seemed he was perfectly suited for the role having gained expertise from his other positions working in his early career for a council and then for various commercial and charitable organisations. He had run event management for large media companies, was chief operating officer for the Institute of Fundraising. Most recently he was regional director of St John’s Ambulance, responsible for some 20,000 volunteers. 

He joined Suffolk Libraries as chief executive in 2018 and now, working with a team of professional staff, volunteers and Friends of the Library groups, Bruce hopes to be pioneering in all that the library service can offer to the community today.

“We have many unique offers,” he says. “For example, we were the first one of three or four library services to become a national portfolio organisation of the Arts Council so our work is being recognised as culturally significant.

“People still value books but they tend to be in a different format, and they don’t have to come into the library building for that. We run more services than ever before, we’ve got longer opening hours, we’ve opened a new library, we are running libraries in 12 prisons across the country. All our libraries are run by professional staff. We’re a great success story.” 

Suffolk Library facts

Since 2012, Suffolk Libraries has kept all the county’s libraries running, with an additional 11 branches opened.

Most frequently borrowed books (since 2012)
The girl on the train by Paula Hawkins
Make me by Lee Child
Personal by Lee Child
Night school by Lee Child
Even dogs in the wild by Ian Rankin
The sunrise by Victoria Hislop
The ghost fields by Elly Griffiths
The silkworm by Robert Galbraith
Elizabeth is missing by Emma Healey

Unusual event: Friends of Framlingham Library once organised the Framlingham World Button Pairing Championships

Festivals: Suffolk Libraries runs two crime writing festivals – Slaughter in Southwold and Skulduggery Crime at Stowmarket Library

Smallest library: Moreton Hall Library, Bury St Edmunds, (also the newest in Suffolk, opening in August 2022)

Oldest library: Sudbury Library, built in 1840 as the Corn Exchange. Ipswich Library will be 100 years old in 2024. It’s Northgate Room can be used for weddings and other ceremonies. Hadleigh Library used to be a police station; Broomhill is a former civilian air raid shelter and gas decontamination centre; Woodbridge Library used to be a school.

More than just books: Suffolk Libraries Jumpstart January campaign offers free online and in person fitness and wellbeing activities including yoga, pilates, sit and stretch, POUNDfit, creative dance and wellbeing workshops. Suffolk Libraries is the only library service with its own mental health and wellbeing service – this offers Pride and Periods (free menstrual products from libraries), drop-in sessions, a perinatal service, self-help wellbeing books and provides people with information about health and wellbeing issues.

Big choice: There are 700,000 items on the Suffolk Libraries catalogue and 15 million items available from the eLibrary (including film and music tracks).