Last week, I began a writing residency at Huddersfield Library, which ends this Saturday (9th July). But the title of ‘writer-in-residence’ is misleading; I’m not running writing workshops in schools or community centres. Instead, I’m listening to people’s stories about why they use the various library services, watching their routines and, in a sense, writing about what happens in a library. I confess that when I approached the library about doing a residency, I had very few expectations. I just wanted to sit there, listen to people and write about their lives, which is why I have approached the research as a personal project. Now, after only four days of moving between the various sections – lending, local history, knowledge transcription service, reference, sound and vision, childrens, art gallery – my head is spinning somewhat.
When Voices for the Library asked me to write a short piece about my research, I became paralysed with indecision. How can I possibly convey the value of the library as sharply as the librarians, bloggers and researchers who are encouraging the groundswell of public support against library closures? Do I write about how, on my first day, I waited outside the library steps at 9.20am for the doors to open, and watched a small crowd form, eager to get to the computers, get that job application sent, pay their bills online, or return that book. Or maybe I could write about how, last week when I sat in the reference library, 32 people entered in an hour to either locate someone using the professional directories and the internet, apply for jobs online, use the computers or fax, or the free scanner, ask for reference material, and read the newspapers and specialist magazines for free. Or maybe should write about what happens in the Light Reading Room and the success of the coffee mornings and the PALS (Practice Activity and Leisure Scheme) Art Group for stroke survivors.
‘Where else could you hold these sessions?’ I asked one of the organisers today.
‘We couldn’t,’ was his answer.
Maybe I could mention the children’s library, where pre-nursery sessions last week brought in new members, and where a registered child-minder with 16 years experience brings the children she cares for every single day. She plans their reading according to what is happening in their lives, such as having a new baby brother, or going to school for the first time.
‘I sell this place to everyone,’ she explains, ‘the parents see a difference in their children after they’ve been coming here a while.’
Then there’s the transcription service, and the team of four women who should be given medals for the work they do for the visually impaired. You name it, they Braille it, then record it as a podcast. Their volume of work is staggering. I should add my own example of how, as a researcher and writer with just an idea in my head and no money to support it, got a unanimous ‘you are welcome here,’ when I approached them. ‘We want you to succeed in your project,’ one staff member said, ‘we like to help writers.’
So, as a researcher, I already have a lot of rich data, and as a writer, I can make something of this data. Researchers often aim the findings of their work at policy makers, hoping to change policy. But who will listen to these voices? Will it be the mid-level policy adviser, fast-tracked through the civil service graduate scheme, who now finds himself in the midst of the library storm with his hands clapped firmly over his ears? I hope someone’s listening. I also hope there is a rich patron out there – I make no apologies for this shameless ‘wanted’ ad – who can help me extend this research throughout Yorkshire for a while longer.
In the meantime, some stories will appear on my blog this week, and the manuscript for a non-fiction book will be written over the coming months. If you would like me to visit your library, then please get in touch.
Nilam Ashra-McGrath is a writer and researcher for the non-profit sector. She is blogging about her residency at http://nilamsnet.wordpress.com/