The library now welcomes over 80,000 people each year and offers a busy programme of groups and activities for all ages. The library’s motto is ‘A Big Hello’, giving a warm greeting to everyone, including those who may not always feel welcome elsewhere. Young people play an active part in the library, running groups for younger children, helping in the Coffee House, meeting and greeting at the front desk, and participating in specific groups like the podcast club.
Blackfen has a close-knit community and, in general, people and families experience good life chances compared to other parts of London. But there is hidden disadvantage, and when the team surveyed families ahead of their programme development, they found that many young people have acutely poor mental health.
Rhiannon Rees, a young staff member, has seen first-hand the negative impact of social media use on local young people’s mental health and wellbeing: “In some ways social media is a good thing, because during lockdown a lot of teenagers had no other way to communicate with each other,” she says. “But in other ways, if you’re bullied, for example, you need a bit of a break but you can’t shut off from it. It’s never been a harder time to be a teenager, but it has probably never been easier for an adult to look down on young people and say they have an easy life.”
Young adults like Rhiannon, aged 28 and now a qualified youth worker and children and families lead, play a central role in running the library. She moved from Scotland to Bexley in 2012 during her gap year, when she worked with New Generation Church to support young people at risk of youth violence. She was apprehensive about the move, which was a big change in her life, but soon began to thrive. “I was very shy then,” she says. “I’m from a small town in Scotland so everyone knew each other growing up. When you move down to a place like London it’s a bit overwhelming. I think just knowing that there was this space to get to know people in a safe way, make friends, and gain experience of leading – when I didn’t think I could do anything like that – was quite special.”
Rhiannon is proud of what she has achieved, and the difference she makes to the young people she works with. She now works full-time at Blackfen Community Library and is responsible for coordinating the library’s outreach and activities for young people. One of her proudest achievements is running ‘Shine’, a seven-week personal development course that helps girls develop a strong sense of personal identity, confidence, and purpose.
“It’s funny looking back because when I started my gap year, I told myself ‘I can’t lead, I’m not a leader’, but now I do that. Running Shine has been amazing. I learned how to lead a team around me and work with schools that wanted to partner with us. It’s amazing to see the journey that those teenagers go on. Helping teenagers find a safe place and seeing them develop their self-esteem and sense of self-worth is what I’m most passionate about.”
Blackfen Community Library has supported Rhiannon’s journey, providing a supportive workplace and a welcoming space to grow. The library’s positive learning culture has meant she can make mistakes and still feel be valued and accepted by the wider team.
The team are working with schools and partners to support more young people through the library’s youth and family programmes. The library is also developing a steering group of young people to help grow new projects and initiatives for younger generations in the space, like the new film club, set up by younger readers. The team are always looking for young people with ideas that they can help make happen. At the heart of this for Rhiannon is making sure there are young leaders like her who care about what is going on in young people’s lives and are there to offer support.