What is a library?

VftL are delighted to present a guest post by C. Horne.

What is a library?  Do you see a municipal red brick building, slightly tatty, maybe a bit unloved, possibly could do with a bit of attention?  When you walk in is the inside rimmed round with shelves all of which are crammed full of battered plastic covered books?  A few computers on some slightly dingy desks in the reference area, looking slightly out of place.  Behind the counter, a member of staff is dealing with a query about an overdue book.

All this is superficial – you aren’t seeing the real library.  Look deeper.

Over in the children’s library are some pushchairs crammed against the wall, their occupants balancing on their parents’ laps – slightly precariously in some cases – ready for the library’s ‘Bounce and Rhyme’ session.  The library assistant is perched in front of them, leading a group sing along to ‘Wind the Bobbin up’.  She has probably done this every week for months, but loves watching the look on the babies faces.  Recently they have been incorporating baby sign language with the bounce and rhyme which has proved to be very successful.

In the reference section a middle aged gentleman is seated at a computer.  He has headphones on and the fingers on his left hand trace over an embossed piece of paper.  The keyboard that his right hand is typing on has brightly coloured plastic keys and he hunts and pecks for the right letters.  It takes a little while, and he often pauses in between periods of typing.  Getting closer a faint voice is audible from the headphones.  It isn’t an audiobook that he is listening to with such concentration, but a screenreader which is enabling him to use the computer.  Under the desk his guide dog shifts position slightly.

A poster on the wall of the library advertises the Young Adult Reading Group which meets on the first Monday of the month.  This month’s book is a title about the different influences on a group of fourteen year old’s lives and how they deal with them – school, family, gangs, friends, drugs, bullies, church..  The author of the book has been invited to come to the library and discuss her book and the poster now bears a large red banner headline – FULL!  The library is planning to start a second YA group.  When the group meets, there will be an assortment of teenagers of all shapes and sizes eager to discuss their interpretation of the hero – or maybe the antihero – of the book, and his influence on the other characters, with the author, to see what she had in mind when she created him.

Another poster with a large image of a book, advertises a reading group with a different theme.  This reading group reads texts with a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender theme and meets every fourth Friday of the month.  It is a very popular group and they have a list of titles on their reading list that they plan to read over the next year.  The library is introducing two more books groups from next month due to popular demand – a biography group (which has already had special requests not to read any that are ghost written or by people under thirty – which may limit the market) and a science fiction group.

Of course the library also has the standard book group – which is – as they oddly tend to be – female dominated, reading books that vary from Barbara Kingsolver to Lionel Shriver, Herman Melville to Haruki Murakami.  They sit in a circle, discussing their latest read, what they thought of it, who their favourite characters were, whether the ending was good, bad or indifferent, too abrupt or too drawn out.  Everyone has their own opinion and they aren’t afraid to voice them.  Every year the members of this library’s book group will read a title from the Orange Prize List.  They will discuss their title with other library book groups who have done the same and vote on who should win the Orange Prize.  Sadly their votes have no power over the Orange Prize judges but occasionally – very occasionally – they are right.

The faint murmur coming from the other end of the library shows that it is storytime.  The bounce and rhyme session has ended but the children have settled in to hear the story.  More children join them as it is the school holidays and there is nothing better to do.  It is dry in the library and raining outside, despite the fact that it is meant to be summer.

On the walls of the children’s library are clowns, trapeze artists, elephants, lions –  all types of characters advertising the Circus Stars summer reading challenge.  Children only need to read six or more books and get rewards and incentives if they do so.  Drawings by children and comments about the challenge cover the walls.

In the corner of the children’s library is an area designated ‘Homework’.  This is where the Homework Group meets one evening a week.  As it is the summer holidays, the area is deserted, the PC is unused and the books are neatly displayed on the shelves.  It won’t look like this nearer the end of the holiday when the children start panicking and want assistance to get that essay done for tomorrow…

A lone PC has a banner headline stating that it is only for the use of people looking for community information or the library catalogue.  An elderly woman wanders over to it and sits down, looking rather unsure.  The library assistant nearby walks over and asks if she needs help.  Five minutes later the woman leaves with a page of evening classes for internet use for beginners – helping silver surfers to get online.  A student sits down almost immediately and starts looking for a reference book for their coursework.

Back by the door of the library are more posters advertising community events, dances, homework groups, author visits, book groups…

This is your library

All human life is here.

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