Loan rangers: Looking at toy libraries

There are some 1,000 toy libraries across the UK, and since the demise of the National Association for Toy Libraries and Leisure, it’s all on the volunteers to keep them running. Robert Hutchins explores their importance and talks to the people behind them.
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At the heart of the Charlton community, there’s a close-knit club with doors open to everybody.

It boasts a library that has no ‘keep quiet’ rules or stuffy librarians, but instead encourages laughter, activity and play. To its patrons it is known as the Charlton Toy Library, and it is one of some 1,000 toy lending groups in action across the UK.

While we live in the age of crowdsourcing, Kickstarting and LEGO lending systems like Pley, toys and community driven schemes are far from recent bedfellows.

The UK’s first toy library was opened by Jill Norris in 1967 in order to give parents access to specialist toys and equipment at low cost. Six years later, the initiative was widespread across the country.

While the likes of Kickstarter and Pley have enjoyed millions in investment in recent years, the UK’s toy libraries have only been met with Government funding cuts and the disintegration of its organising body, the National Association for Toy Libraries and Leisure.

Today, they are widely run by volunteers and part-time workers from their local communities, who juggle day to day drop-in play sessions with balancing the books and organising fund raisers. It all seems to beg the question, have UK toy libraries seen their heyday?

“Absolutely not,” Pauline Henniker, the former CEO of the National Association for Toy Libraries and Leisure, tells ToyNews.

“I don’t think toy libraries will ever die out. They work because volunteers see the strength of them and work hard to keep them running. As long as communities need them, local people will want to run them.”

So what do these libraries offer communities?

“Toy libraries are about people and people’s involvement in the local community,” continues Henniker.

“They are all about offering a level playing field; everybody can join thanks to low membership fees and everybody can borrow the latest fashionable toy, you don’t have to have money.

“They are more important now than ever for people with low or no income, and it’s not just the borrowing.”

For Janine Khoshnevisan, treasurer of The Charlton Toy Library, it is the social impact of the toy library movement that offers her the greatest reward.

“At Charlton Toy Library we don’t just offer toys and safety equipment. We also run free music groups, we have language specialists come in and wealso support women and children in women’s refuges.

“We are here to help families that need it, and break that cycle of deprivation to bring normality back to their lives.”

For as little as 20p for a monthly toy hire, or a flat yearly fee of around £15, toy library members across the UK have access to a wealth of toys, knowledge, support and resources.

But while funding and day-to-day costs present a formidable foe for toy libraries, perhaps the movement’s biggest adversary is the stigma brought on by their reliance on public donations.

Matt Watson Power, a father of four and an active blogger, has been a champion of his local Harrogate and Knaresborough Toy Library for ten years. He has now taken it upon himself to help dissipate the slur attached to the term ‘toy library member’.

“There’s a perception that toy libraries only offer the dregs of what charity shops leave, but that’s not at all the case,” he tells ToyNews.

“There’s a lot of thought and care that goes into the toys, and a lot of higher end, higher priced products.

“Toy libraries are looked at like they are just for disadvantaged families, but they’re not. It would be good if that perception could change.”

Alan Dunham, general manager of Buckinghamshire Play Association and Boomerang Toy Library, suggests that one way of altering that perception is through raising public awareness of toy libraries.

This is something he does actively through fundraising events and work with local retailers.

“We are very proactive in raising awareness and money for our toy library,” he explains.

“We have held sponsored walks, half marathons and balloon races.

“We have also tapped into John Lewis before and have received donations from Tesco and Sainsbury’s.”

But the greatest achievement would be to form a partnership with the toy industry itself.

He adds: “For the amount of toys that we buy, if there was a toy company that was willing to give us trade prices or donations of end of line stuff, we would bite their hands off.”

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