Saturday, 14 August 2010

Today I will mostly be visiting the Library: Penny Dolan.

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.


Miriam Halahmy said...

Won't be long before we are greeted at the door by a robot. Barnet libraries are quite good but the thing I most hate about modern libraries is the noise. Even in the British Library. What happened to total impenetrable silence?
Lovely post!

Sue Barrow said...

Funny you should ask Penny, as I asked our village librarian the same thing yesterday. Thriving, came the reply - 16,000 books borrowed in July. No chance of closure then, thankfully, though there are cutbacks. Stationery - elastic bands can no longer be ordered and she was v grateful when I dropped in a huge bag my son had abandoned after a holiday job folded early! I'm researching for a book for younger readers (new ground for me) and the staff have been incredibly helpful. Without my even asking one took it upon herself to dig out half a dozen books she thought might be of help. Honestly I wish I could nominate my library for an award! I do agree with Miriam about the noise, but think it may just be my growing levels of intolerance!

Stroppy Author said...

My library was closed for about a gazillion years for refurbishing. It opened without involving any of the many local published authors I know, and with murals painted by a non-local children's illustrator. It has a lot of books, and a lot of technology, and is all very smart, and I use it a lot - but it doesn't make much effort to engage with the massive number of professional authors in the area (Cambridge).

catdownunder said...

My local library is a de facto community centre but the local council does not really appreciate that fact...mmm blog post I think.
I feel for you!

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks for all the comments and observations. Cat & Sue, these little community libraries can be so vital. I know of a tiny one-large-sitting-room sized library in Wanstead that is a gem with friendly, interested staff and a good supply of books especially for children and is very well used. But not a glamorous or prestige site, so I fear it might be easy to rationalise.

Miriam, I'd agree that a bit of hush is needed, but worse than noise can be smell. One large city library I popped into a while age reeked of burgers from the adjoining caff. My stomach nearly left before I did.

Anne/Stroppy Author, Agree!!! I wonder if this "ignore your local authors" is some vague general library policy? Is it because officials have decided that local authors can probably be met anywhere, doing their own thing, whereas faraway authors need encouragement to visit and will be exciting "new" voices? Is it some lure of distant glamour? Or possibly some funding policy that has money for distant visits but not local writers? Which leads to the policy that "if we cannot pay them, it's wrong to ask them in or get involved." So many mysteries!

But I am full of admiration for how good librarians keep their enthusiasm through what seems to be a state of re-organisation/all on hold/next re-organisation.

Leslie Wilson said...

We should definitely be campaigning to keep libraries. As a kid, I would never have been able to keep up my reading habit without one, and even nowadays, when I'm more of a book-buyer, it's great to be able to get one out without committing to the purchase price, and then if you don't like it, just take it back. It makes one a more adventurous reader. I'm heading for the graphic novels next..

Elaine AM Smith said...

You know the bar game "Who would you most like to meet?"
In the dead category, my answer is Andrew Carnegie.
Gotta love a man who understood the power of books and tried to get them out to the public.
He found(ed) a place in my head, and my heart, one rainy day in KENDAL.

Savita Kalhan said...

Great post. Wycombe library many moons ago was where I learnt to read - and boy did I read! It was an old building, huge and full of books and hush, just the way it should be. My local libraries are tiny in comparison and their choice woefully limited. However, they are still open...