LITERATURE Word on the street

South Shields’ new library has ambitious plans to become a national centre for the written word. Patrick Kelly reports 

In the beginning was The Word. At least that’s the hope of South Tyneside council, which has just invested £16m in a new building to help regenerate one of the more run down town centres in the North East. The Word is a brand new library for South Shields, but the local au- thority and Arts Council England believe it will be so much more than that, which is why they have also called it the National Centre for the Written Word.

An ambitious moniker, but council leader Cllr Ian Malcolm says the new building is a vote of confidence not only in libraries but in the ability of the town to embrace the 21st century. So The Word will not only feature books and music, but also a range of facilities including exhibition space, a computer gaming area, digitised archives and a children’s immersive storytelling area. It also boasts the first exhibition devoted to the work of local boy Sir Ridley Scott, famed director of Hollywood megahits from Alien to Gladiator.

To mark the launch, a free mass participation dance performance jointly commissioned by The Cultural Spring and South Tyneside Council was delivered by Southpaw Dance Company and Event International to an audience of up to 5,000 outside the venue.

“The Word is about lots of things – it will be a centre for digital media and equipping people to handle technological change, while also ap- preciating the rich history of South Tyneside.”

It will also be the centrepiece of other physical transformations in the town with a new cinema and trans- port interchange planned, as well as new housing and offices. The idea is to bring back investors to an area that has been hard hit by economic recession. “If the public sector leads, the private sector will follow” says Malcolm.

“Our creative industries generate £8m an hour for the country so spaces like The Word are incredibly important in nurturing the talent of those who want to work in these in- dustries” says local bestselling author Ann Cleeves (below), creator of the award winning Vera TV series. Speaking at the opening of The Word, Cleeve credited libraries for her success, joking that they were among the few buyers of her early books.

Another enthusiast was comedian and writer David Baddiel, who also spoke at the opening event, and praised the council’s ambition. “The Word is not just about books, to have a whole building dedicated to storytelling in all its forms is just amazing” he said.

More importantly, though, the project has an avid supporter in the chief executive of Arts Council England, which has put £100,000 in for the programme and £35,000 for art- work. Darren Henley has been to South Shields three times to lend his backing to The Word and is enthusias- tic about the council’s ambition.

“Libraries are not just about books and technology but they are also fan- tastic cultural hubs, gallery spaces, events, workshops and so on, which can bring people together, and all you need to access that creativity is a library card.”

He admires the scale of the council’s ambition and compares it with the National Glass Centre in Sunder- land, which is now an ACE-backed national portfolio organisation. Henley sees that and The Word as the template for a number of centres of excellence all around the country.

ACE has also recently extended its support for the North East’s Cultural Spring, an ambitious programme that aims to improve arts participation in disadvantaged areas. A £1million grant will see the two year project carry on for another 12 months.

Henley added that although he understands the tough budget decisions that councils have to make, the lesson is that “those who stand by the arts, we will stand by you”.

For Tania Robinson, head of marketing and culture at South Tyneside, The Word has been a passion since she was asked to contribute to a proposal to rationalise the council’s stock of buildings. On the books was South Tyneside central library, stuck rather awkwardly on to an unloved and dreary 60s office block that loomed over the South Shields town square. “We thought we needed something that was not only better and more at- tractive as a building, but which took the concept of a library into the 21st century, celebrating the written word in all its different formats”.
The long opening hours, the extensive programme of events, workshops and competitions, the lab devoted to writing digital code, the first in an open public building, are all designed to make the Word the centre of local life, says Robinson. It’s a big commitment, she admits, but the council’s earlier decision to combine a new library with a local council office has dramatically increased town centre footfall. “Using a cultural building as a catalyst for regeneration does make sense” she says.

There is no doubt that The Word is a beautiful building – open, bright and airy, with fabulous views of the River Tyne (the council bought the land between the library and the riverbank, just to keep the view). Whether it will manage to do the job that’s asked of it is another question.

It’s up against it. Though South Tyneside has seen improvements in employment levels, it still ranks as the 23rd most deprived part of England. The town has suffered badly from deindustrialisation, with major employers such as shipbuilding and mining disappearing and many jobs at Barbour, the upmarket clothes maker, being outsourced abroad. Even Marks and Spencer upped and left the main shopping street last year.

Bringing investment and prosperity will be no easy task, nor will it be easy to create a national profile for the project without a string of big names trooping up to South Shields to lend their backing.

But there is a spirit of “never say die” that is infectious in this part of Tyneside and the good news is that re- action from the locals has so far been overwhelmingly favourable. So The Word might just be the beginning of something, after all.


Picture credit: John Short


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