Darren Taylor remembers his Lewisham school days very well. He remembers the other kids calling him Tramp. He remembers his ambition to start his own business and work in IT. And he remembers being told to dumb down his ideas.
Taylor was dyslexic and could barely read, so his teachers didn’t think he was going to achieve much. They were wrong. Now in his 40s, he has run a number of businesses and worked as the IT manager at one of London’s biggest marketing companies.
Initially driven by a desire to wear a suit and “put two fingers up” to all the kids who teased him, he now has more philanthropic goals. Today, he is directly responsible for keeping three of Lewisham’s libraries open in the face of seemingly endless budget cuts, and for opening one more.
Taylor spent much of his childhood summers in his local library. His dad, a bus conductor, was sick of him endlessly ringing the conductor’s bell during school holidays, so he would simply drop his son off at the library. Here, Taylor spent his time looking at picture books, but nobody encouraged him to read.
Encouragement didn’t come until he was 23 and engaged. His future mother-in-law gave him a book, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.
“I thought, ‘oh dear, this is when they find out I’m stupid, I’m going to get dumped’”, he remembers. “So I had a choice, and I made the choice to buy a thesaurus and dictionary.”
Two weeks of constant reading later, and Taylor was finally able to give the book back. As he’d feared, his future mother-in-law asked him questions. But having studied the book line by line, he was able to answer them. What’s more, he had actually enjoyed the book.
Literacy was a turning point and he soon realised how much he’d missed. “I thought, ‘gosh, why couldn’t this happen when I was a kid?’ I wouldn’t have gone through school biting my nails cause I couldn’t read in English classes and things like that. And I would have been more prepared for the future.”
Today, helping to prepare people for the future is what Taylor does. Having taught himself IT skills, how to run businesses and how to read, Taylor is now using all three skills to help others.
The community library business model he has pioneered is keeping libraries open. No longer do these buildings just offer shelves of books, they now also feature computers, Wi-Fi and IT help to get disadvantaged people online. At one of Taylor’s community libraries you can expect to find older people being shown how to go online for the first time, young people learning to read, new arrivals to the UK learning to speak English, and the unemployed looking for jobs.
The jumping-off point was Eco-Communities, the not-for-profit company Taylor set up to revitalise old computer equipment and give it to those in need. The company quickly outgrew the building the council had provided and the next place he was offered in Deptford wanted £35,000 a year in rent. Taylor thought it over and came back with the Community Library model. He would re-open the building as a library – as it used to be – and install a café and computing equipment. Operating costs would be covered by the computer recycling downstairs. The council loved it, and gave him the building for £36 a year.
In 2011, just a few weeks after Lewisham announced five libraries would be closing, Taylor’s community library opened. At the launch he joked to a council member that he could take over the closing libraries using the same model. It’s a story he clearly enjoys telling: “He said, ‘can you put that in writing?’ I said, ‘well you know I’m dyslexic, don’t you? I could do some bullet points’.”
A few months later, Lewisham’s Crofton Park, Sydenham and Grove Park avoided closure by becoming Community Libraries run by Eco-Communities, staffed by volunteers. But not everyone was happy. Save Lewisham Libraries campaigned to stop the transformation, arguing libraries require professional staff and the security of council management.
Five years on, and it could be argued that some of those fears have come true. Lending rates at libraries across the country are falling, but at Community Libraries in Lewisham, the fall has been much more marked – collapsing by as much as 90 per cent in some cases.
Through the controversy, Taylor remains defiant. He cites those his libraries have helped: an elderly man on an oxygen machine with nowhere else to go; a woman discovering the world of online bread-making recipes. “I didn’t care about any campaigns or people who didn’t like what I was going to do,” he says. “For me it was about the people who use these services. It’s about empowering people.”
Eastlondonlines has been following the development of Lewisham’s community libraries, read the most recent news here and see more about how the council appointed Taylor to run the community libraries here.
Follow Douglas Pyper on Twitter: @douglaspyper