With threats of closure many libraries are now turning to innovative ways of trying to staying open. CARYS THOMAS looks at what the libraries in Gwent have to offer.

LIBRARIES are just one of the services which are facing difficulties across Wales as Gwent councils alone are facing cuts of £33.6 million for next year. To combat this many libraries are pooling services to one building to create community hubs, a trend which is likely to increase with the decrease of funding to local authorities.

Gwent has a total of 45 libraries with three in Torfaen, 18 in Caerphilly county, six in Monmouthshire, six in Blaenau Gwent and 12 in Newport. Library visitors in Wales have increased 11 per cent since 2003 from 13.25 million to 14.72 million in 2011-12, according to the Society of Chief Librarians.

The Welsh Assemblies Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee published their report Public Libraries in Wales in July which called on the Welsh Government and local authorities to do more to promote the wide range of services on offer.

The report found that libraries contribute to many areas of community life, including health and wellbeing, education, and tackling poverty and social exclusion. They can also bridge the ‘digital divide’ by providing free internet access, something the committee believes should continue.

It recommended potential revenue raising opportunities outside of essential services, and co-location of services in one building.

Christine Chapman AM, chair of the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee, said: “With continuing cuts in public spending, the committee recognises that many local authorities are looking at either closing facilities, or offering reduced services with volunteer support to save money.

“We believe libraries play a crucial role in many communities, contributing to areas including health and wellbeing, education, tackling poverty and social exclusion. There are many excellent examples in Wales of how local authorities are using co-location to improve the services they offer, and we believe these are examples to be learned from."

She added: “We also want to see the Welsh Government and local authorities do more to promote these services, as well as examine opportunities to raise revenue to protect these vital facilities.”

Caerphilly council has bucked the trend of closing libraries in Wales by opening up a new library in the town centre. The Caerphilly library last week opened a Gwent Police service desk, which is one of the ways in which libraries are becoming community hubs.

The council has been running a library investment programme in which over the last 10 years it has renovated all of their libraries. It began with the refurbishments of Machen Library back in 2001 and culminated with the opening of the £5.4 million facility in Caerphilly this year.

The council say the focus of the revamped libraries has been on creating multi-use community hubs offering residents a one-stop-shop of useful services with customer service points for residents to pay bills and museum space.

The library in Abercarn, which opened its doors in May 2012, forms a key part of a social housing project in the village, and hosts a community café operated by local volunteers.

The derelict listed Risca Palace building, which was originally a cinema built in 1912, had been lying empty for three decades before the building re-opened in 2011 to house a library. The site also boasts a joint customer service provision, rejuvenating the old site and attracting 129,000 visits last year.

It attracted 121, 534 visitors in 2012-13 which rose to 125,251.

The Newbridge Memo received £5.6 million to restore the building and transform the downstairs lounge into a library. It has a computer learning suite with 17 free public-access computers, and an event space for talks and community activities.

The Newbridge Institute and Memorial Hall, which is a grade II listed building was first opened in 1908. The refurbishments which also include renovations of the Memorial Hall, including the cinema and ballroom, are due to be completed next month.

Newbridge Library closed in May 2013 and moved to the Memo, it has increased its visitors from 17, 144 in 2012/13 to 33,546 in 2013/14.

The number of visitors to the libraries in Caerphilly on average have increased from 2012-13 to 2013-14 including for Abercarn Library from 18,297 to 20,701 and Machen Library from 19,077 to 19, 575.

Blaenau Gwent libraries had 306,790 people visit in 2013-14 for the six libraries which are Tredegar, Ebbw Vale, Cwm, Brynmawr, Blaina and Abertillery. The libraries this month will be run under trust status.

The council say there are no planned changes to the library service under the Life Leisure Trust, an organisation which will cover sports centres, community education centres, arts and cultural venues and heritage for the county.

The authority has benefited from the Welsh Government's Community Learning Libraries Grant Funding Programme, with four of the six libraries being refurbished.

Anthony Hughes, managing director of Life Leisure Trust, said: “We acknowledge that library services are vital for community engagement and to support informal learning across the county borough, providing the ideal infrastructure, community links and promoting social inclusion for all ages. Library services in Blaenau Gwent are instrumental in the delivery of outcomes that are closely linked to local and national agendas, including safer communities, equality, access to democratic processes, promotion of Welsh language and education and skills.

"Moving Libraries into a Trust environment will enable the service to work more flexibly with external funders and explore the commercial opportunities that will help to sustain a quality service to the public in the long term.”

There were 490,228 visitors to the 12 libraries in Newport in 2013-14 compared with 589,172 in 2012-13. The 12 libraries in the city are the Central Library, Reference, Bettws, Caerleon, Carnegie, Maindee, Malpas, Pill, Ringland, Rogerstone, St Julians and Tredegar House.

Two libraries were closed in the last year including Stow Hill in March 2013 and Brynglas House in July 2013. The original proposal was to close both Stow Hill Library and Maindee Library at the same time but Maindee has remained open.

Stow Hill attracted 12, 339 visitors in 2012-13 compared with 48,464 who used Maindee Library and 7,786 for Brynglas House Library.

A Newport City Council spokeswoman, said: "Newport City Council believes libraries have an important role to play in the community and help to improve people’s lives. However, it is important that they meet what residents want in the 21st century and Newport’s libraries have adapted to these changes.

"Libraries should be hubs of the community playing an active part in community cohesion and development."

A consultation with library users and non-users in Newport by the council has revealed that the most important elements are free books, access to information, access to ICT resources and facilities and expert, approachable staff.

Visitor figures for Central lending show a decrease in users from 206, 642 in 2012-13 to 143, 494 in 2013-14. Rogerstone library increased its visitors from 18,050 to 37,201 in 2013-14. Tredegar House library visitors fell 66,476 to 18,715 in 2013-14.

Community run libraries are becoming an increasingly popular trend in England with more than 400 now in place according to the Welsh Assemblies Public Libraries in Wales report.

Stow Hill Library has been closed since March 2013, the Handpost Communality Library Association have been fundraising and raising awareness to re-open the library. Thanks to their efforts the library will become a community run arts centre with a library service, children's book corner and gallery.

Alan Roderick, chairman of Handpost Community Library Association, said: "We signed the lease on Friday morning. We now have a chance to put our vision for the building into practice.

"It will hopefully become a micro arts centre where we can hold cultural events. We will be making every effort to find out what the community would like to be there. It’s a place the community can invest in."

The arts centre will be called Cwtch and the campaign group now have charity status. The volunteers have been fundraising including holding open mic nights.

Mr Roderick said: "Libraries are vital for the mind and literacy education. It was unfortunate that Stow Hill wasn't an Andrew Carnegie library such as the one on Corporation Road as they are exempt and must be protected.

"The council are between a rock and a hard place in trying to save money with the squeeze from central government and the government in Cardiff. Newport has been relatively lucky compared with councils like Rhondda Cynon Taff who have cut so many libraries - it's happening all over Wales."

"The group of volunteers have done a lot of hard work. We are very lucky with the commitment they have given. If you want to keep the library open time and effort needs to be invested into them.”

Library visits increased last year in Torfaen from 352,533 in 2012-13 to 371,337 in 2013-14. The county has three libraries; Blaenavon, Cwmbran and Pontypool.

The libraries run therapeutic shared reading sessions for various community groups including Age Concern, Torfaen MIND and Book Cwtch in Cwmbran. The majority of libraries now have IT courses to help improve computer skills such as 'Computers Don’t Bite', which takes place in Cwmbran Library.

Cllr Lewis Jones, deputy leader of Torfaen council, said: “Torfaen Libraries have a great deal to offer the community and we know they are one of the most valued and well-loved council services.

“Like all public services, libraries has been forced to find more efficient ways of delivering its service with less and less resources, but it is certainly rising to the challenges it has faced, moving with the times. Whatever your circumstances, Torfaen Libraries certainly has something to offer everyone.”

Libraries have changed over the last few years with the introduction of e-books and e-magazines, as well as online resources. Figures taken from the CyMal, the Welsh Public Library Standard's annual report show physical visits to Monmouthshire libraries to be 509,440 for 2013-14 with 82,000 virtual visits to the website.

While Monmouthshire council haven't closed any libraries in the past five years, Usk Library has been threatened with closure in 2013. The council has said that they are committed to maintaining library provision in Usk and are in consultation with local communities to investigate shared delivery of Community Education, Library and Youth Services in the town.

They will be withdrawing from the current library building to Maryport Street to form a community hub. The building which is currently the youth centre will house the library, community education services and the youth service.

Julie McGowan, author and chairwoman of Save Usk Library, said: "Although the library will be moving across the road it will be a juggle to fit three services in one building. We don't want the library to continue at this site to the detriment of other community groups who might have to fold due to the lack of space.

"The library is the only council community building in Usk, we don't have anything else - there is no community centre or leisure centre. We have an ageing community who not only go to the library to borrow books but to have the space to read papers, have company and engage with people.

She added: "Libraries are of vital importance, especially in a community like ours where you have to hop onto a bus for 10 miles to get to anywhere else. It is important to the ageing community for services to be on their doorstop."

The introduction of self-service machines has made borrowing and returning books more accessible.

Mrs McGowan said: "One of the most important things is staff who are engaging with members of the community. Self- service machines are a good addition alongside staff but it would be a shame for communities to lose face to face contact with staff members all together.

"Usk is a very busy library considering its open three days a week. We in Usk have a very articulate community - if we don't want something it's not going to last."