What’s A Library Without Good Ideas?

Reading & Writing

I’ve spent the last couple of evenings in two very different libraries. The low turnout figures in summer make you feel that this is a bit of a waste of time. You usually only get a handful of people coming along, and they’re predisposed toward libraries anyway, but it’s important to connect with readers at a local level.

In Deptford, traditionally a working class neighbourhood with a largely Afro-Caribbean/ African ethnic mix, the High Street is a disastrous pile-up of chicken takeouts, boarded-up pubs and white drug addicts, but they have a wonderful new library that has been rebranded a lounge, and it seems to work. The all-glass ground floor allows passers-by to see in and come inside to attend the event easily, and it seems plenty of local kids are using the place. In our case it also helped that the evening had been organised online, and created a full house. If people see something interesting is happening for free, they might come in without having to be cajoled into attendance.

By contrast, in well-heeled, well-read Islington the library is a forbidding, gloomy Victorian building with a front entrance that has been barricaded shut. The only way in is around the back and hidden from the main road. Worse, the events are held in a room at the rear of the first floor, and merely finding it requires determination. I hasten to add that this is not the fault of the excellent organisers, but presumably stems from decisions at a council level. Inside, the children’s library was certainly very busy.

I love libraries but it’s a tough challenge luring anyone (including me) from a summer street to an event that might turn out to be horribly dull. The visibility of the Deptford Lounge cleverly made the inside event appear desirable to outsiders, but obviously a Victorian building can’t compete.

I do think the day of sitting listening to someone read a passage from a book is over – we should be getting local kids to act out stories, we should be giving as many books away as possible, but nothing’s as easy as it looks. I took a huge pile of books into a London library and was told I couldn’t leave them. I needed to provide a list and submit it, and then wait for someone to approve certain copies. The librarian was apologetic, but her hands were tied.

A few years back, Clerkenwell Literary Festival hired an acting troupe to perform my story as I was reading it and the effect was amazing, not least of all to me. The idea had come from a librarian, and the festival had given her instant approval and a budget. What’s needed is fast approval by individuals, not committees, so that those library employees with innovative thinking can get quick, responsive results.

If they have to go through a town council for every tiny change, libraries will never be able to react fast enough. Kids are used to getting speedy responses online, and it’s time librarians with vision were allowed to get their way.

7 comments on “What’s A Library Without Good Ideas?”

  1. Cid says:

    You mean that Islington Library is closed at the front so fewer people can find the entrance, so the council can justify eventually closing it? That’s pretty bloody low, if it’s true.

  2. FabienneT says:

    Incredibly in these days of recession and culture phobia, Southend-on-Sea where I live seems to have become aware of the importance of culture (and how good it could be for the economy). Metal, a cultural organisation whose boss is Southbank director Jude Kelly, opened their Southern headquarters in the city a few years ago and organise great stuff, cultural festivals, literary Salons and festivals, etc.; a new cultural centre has just been plonked at the end of the pier, and I cannot wait to see their programme for the forthcoming months; the work on the BRAND NEW LIBRARY and exhibition centre is well under way – and it’s going to be big. And we might even get a brand new museum on the seafront! We cannot really believe it, and it’s really encouraging!

  3. Alison says:

    Our library in York has rebranded itself as ‘Explore’ and is now packed to the rafters with cafes, computers, play corners etc, and it seems to be doing pretty well. One of the biggest innovations has to be the introduction of the self-scan machines, since not only have they cut down on the queues, but they also freed up a massive amount of space by removing a huge check-in desk. They’ve moved stuff around, generally lightened up what is a rather beautiful building, and made maximum use of all space. All in all, I think it’s a veritable hit, and I honestly think it’s the way libraries need to go. In these days of electronic media and short attention spans, books will never hold the affection for the young in the way they do for the slightly more – er, mature – generation, but at least by enticing them in with games and cafes and computers and such, the young are being introduced to the concept of reading. It’s no bad thing.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    The Vancouver Main Branch is 7 floors of great stuff with computers on each floor, good information people and movable storage (no attempted murders as yet). They have those self check-out units but a desk as well. The atrium has coffee and pizza shops, Gutenburg’s cafe is just around the corner, and there is art display space as well. The whole building does look like the Roman Coliseum but we don’t really mind any more.
    The librarian in charge in Burnaby when we got our new main branch didn’t want computers or signage on the beautiful bookshelf ends so you had no idea which section you were in or how far from your goal. That didn’t last long, fortunately. There’s a huge lawn with trees and gardens outside and people are always there with books and children. We’ve been told we’re the most heavily used library in the country. Libraries live.

  5. Shuku says:

    We have a beautiful, -beautiful- well-stocked national library in the city where I live – unfortunately it’s fairly impossible to access via public transportation (don’t ask me why this is so, I suspect the town planners were on crack). It’s located right in the centre of the biggest traffic jam snarl in the entire city, parking space is dismally limited, and for all the years I’ve been living here I’ve never been able to actually GO visit it due to the transportation issues involved. I sometimes wonder if the city council deliberately stuck the place as a plan to keep the populace away from books in general, given that intelligent, informed people ask questions (which usually involve questions our stupid government doesn’t want to answer).

  6. Helen Martin says:

    I don’t understand people who make libraries difficult to reach or use. Apparently the New York central library is to have a makeover to make it more of a “community gathering place”. In order to do this they are warehousing a large percentage of their books. Feeling on the matter, we are told, is running rather high. I don’t mind libraries being made comfortable, a cushy chair and a good light are great for reading, but I wonder how long the wait will be on requests for items in storage. I’m in the process of re-doing some research I did a number of years ago and I just hope my university library hasn’t weeded my source material.(If you write something, no matter how ephemeral, make sure you keep a copy.)

  7. Shuku says:

    Amen on the ‘don’t understand’, Helen. I really, really don’t get it myself either – the point is to have people GO there but I think the planners in this part of the world just didn’t get the agenda. Good luck on the source material!

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