The Carnegie library is about five minutes walk from where I live. It’s hard to spot because it’s been hidden inside an office block for the last two years. An A-sign outside on the pavement advertises the relocation firm on the second floor. The only way you can see it’s a library is when you get right up to the door and see the council logo etched on the glass. How many of the families busily watching their way across the pelican crossing to the Odeon on the other corner even know it’s there? Blockbuster v hidden doorway – which is winning? Sometimes official planning does not go quite far enough.
I will take the stairs to the second floor. One or two librarians are waiting just inside, They can show you how to swipe your library card in the mouth of one fo the three registration devices which are in tasteful dark blue, lightly illuminated. The librarians show you to place your returned books one at a time within the wide “book slot. This amazing machine will “read” book details without any need to open covers. If requested, it will print out a list for you. The staff will show you the slot where you can pay any fines and the shelf where you can place your returned books.
When leaving with your book hoard, the same people will help you back through the system, though books can no longer be stamped. “You can always write the date in yourself,” the librarians suggest, without visible irony. The librarians have obviously been told to smile a lot, which to me seems a bit like smiling as you show your executioner how to use the axe. I am a “trained customer” so do not need to be greeted, but I wonder if being “retrained” each time might keep one of them in a job.
Who will be there, using the library? The middle aged, the old and the older. Young parents with children. Students studying. People using the computers by the hour. Immigrants using the library services to help learn English. A scattering of folk just sitting about, reading, and probably more of those if it was our cold northern winter. A fairly low-key low-finance mix, all in all.
Young, dynamic people with trendy carrier bags and money to spend? Crisply preserved mature management? No, not really. Does this mean that the people who use the library aren’t those who count, who don’t register as “driving the economy”?
Dear Ed Vaizey, I have a confession. I am, in government policy terms, a rebel. I do not go there for Information. I do not even think of a library as Learning Resources. Though I use my library for random research, I also go for the pleasure and enjoyment of fiction. Today I will be returning “Ordinary Thunderstorms” a novel by William Boyd, and "The Tarot Bible" used for light research.
As I browse my way around, I will come to the display stands that ask me to fill in a form if I want to be a “Friend of the Library” and/or another form that asks if I want to be a “Library Volunteer”. I am offered the chance to raise funds, to help with events and so on, but their wording troubles me. Will either help our library long term, though just now both seem attractive ideas?
During my last visit, I lingered in the children’s section, where a pair of sixth formers were enthusiastically signing up children for the Summer Reading Scheme. I was glad they enjoyed their time, and was pleased to think how it would look good on their university application CV. I chose to ignore the fact that when volunteers don’t turn up, they cannot be held responsible for the gap, or wonder whether all volunteers are required – as schools so often require authors - to pay for and be CRB checked.
Readers, I sighed. I’ve done author events in past summers and know that most children’s librarians welcomed the summer as their big opportunity to meet children and families. The Reading Scheme helped them get to know children and encourage them to become regular users and therefore regular readers. Where are these constant librarians now?
I suspect that they- the ones not already removed by cuts - must be using their experience to sort stock or stand by the blue machines or otherwise administrate. What fun that must be! Must make their job feel so much more rewarding. I spy another form, It gives me options for future opening hours. Vote now!
In about a month's time, my walk to the library will take ten minute as it will have been returned to its original Carnegie Library site. This gloomy edifice will have become an impressively improved premises, and probably have staff dressed to match the colour scheme.
Even now, above the scaffolding, I can see a huge lantern window set high in the roof. This is intended to let light right down through the whole building.
If only it would send light into the minds of some of the big Big Society enthusiasts who are probably the kind of people who have designer carrier bags and money to spend. Hey, they probably have staff to do their essential reading and writing for them, these people who see no need to support libraries.
So, how are things in your local library?
Penny’s latest novel, A Boy Called Mouse, will be published by Bloomsbury at the start of October.