As the days grow cold and dark, many families are struggling to heat their homes due to rising costs of living. Now, libraries across the United Kingdom have a plan to help: They’re becoming “warm banks,” which are spaces for people who need a place to keep warm in the winter.
Many libraries already function as de facto community centers for their communities’ underserved residents. Now, they’re providing free clothing, warm drinks or soups, hygiene products and more in anticipation of growing demand this winter.
“No one’s going to come if it’s just a warm space. You wouldn’t want to say: ‘I’m going there to keep warm,’ because of the stigma,” Mandy Grimwood, manager of the Gainsborough Community Library in Suffolk, tells the Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman. “We’re totally nonjudgmental. Anyone can come in and do anything they like. We’re not going to say: ‘Shh—this is a library.’”
Grimwood explains that a “warm bank” is designed to be a friendly, welcoming space that encourages folks to linger. The goal is for someone to come in for more traditional services—like the free Wi-Fi, phone charging stations or computers use—and then stay long enough to get cozy with a free hot drink in a warm space.
One mother tells the Guardian that she brought her daughter to the Gainsborough Community Library—which also gave away 30 winter coats last month—to avoid the black mold spreading in her apartment.
Many libraries and nonprofit organizations began planning these services months ago, knowing that they would see increased need this year. U.K.-based financial journalist Martin Lewis, who has around two million Twitter followers, first posted about warm banks back in July: “Can’t believe I’m writing this, but I wonder if this winter we’ll need ‘warm banks,’ the equivalent of ‘food banks’ where people who can’t afford heating are invited to spend their days at no cost with heating (e.g. libraries, public buildings)?”
Soon after, he commissioned the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) to create A Warm Welcome, a guide for libraries and communities who would like to set up their own warm banks. The guide includes best practices on setup, safety, financial planning, hygiene, disability services, hosting and more.
While libraries are using volunteers and donations to create these space, they often end up shouldering the extra costs. In a September survey of libraries in England, Wales and Northern Ireland by the group Libraries Connected, some 60 percent of library leaders said they were considering operating a warm bank, but only 4 percent expected to receive extra funding to support the endeavor. Another Libraries Connected survey found that 80 percent of library leaders expected an increase in people using libraries to get warm this winter.
In recent years, libraries in the United States have also ramped up their social services to support vulnerable populations—from patrons experiencing homelessness and financial insecurity to substance abuse and mental health issues. As the American Library Association notes on its website, “with no safety net to speak of, homeless citizens often turn to the library for help.”
In the U.K., IT developer Jason Baldry created an interactive warm bank map, which allows users to zoom in to their towns and cities and see what resources are available. Any location operating a warm bank can register on the site.
“People started signing up fairly slowly and then word spread,” Baldry tells Metro’s Tom Sanders. “We’re over 1,000 listings on the map now and they’re still coming in thick and fast.”