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.