Mobile Libraries: Past Successes; Future Directions?

Thanks to Richard, a former mobile librarian in the Scottish highlands, who sent us this post highlighting the importance of mobile library services.

 

Coincidences can be serendipitous. The other day, a chance encounter in town found me chatting to Marie; one time head of a primary school on my old mobile itinerary, and now like me retired. We caught up on the intervening years, and recalled the many happy and productive days of our previous association. Later the same day, while visiting my centenarian mother in her care home, I was delighted to see a new resident, Annie; a partially disabled lady for whom I had undertaken regular home visits with books. Now ninety three, her mind remained sharp and clear; a reminder that a fondness for light romance need not dull the brain!

These two meetings brought home to me, not just the personal joys of my life as a mobile librarian in the Scottish highlands, but also a very real sense of the good my colleagues and I were able to achieve in our work. Today, when the speed and uncertainty of change threatens the very existence of mobiles, past achievements may hold pointers to a continuing future. Once, our remit was to supply the widest possible range of library services to rural communities; a situation we recognize to be no longer sustainable as a whole. But, exemplified here in the stories of Annie and Marie, there exist areas within which I believe a mobile library service offers a positive, cost-effective way forward.

Marie was the best kind of primary teacher; an enthusiastic polymath who drew no false distinctions between art and science, inspiring her pupils to learn through the shared joys of the spoken word: in debate, song, drama and reading aloud. She always encouraged me to play a proactive part in school life, and thus I became in addition to my normal library duties a storyteller, a shennachie in the local scots; a role I was able to develop to include all the dozen or so schools on my regular round. Issues soared. Beginning with simple stories for nursery classes and pre-school groups, I expanded my scope to include all ages up to twelve; giving readings of classics old and new, poetry, even some of the more dramatic exerts from Shakespeare. I have a particular abiding memory of holding one class spellbound by a recitation of Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.

Writers like Kipling may be anathema to modernists, but the themes of courage and resourcefulness displayed in tales such as Rikki bear comparison with those seen in, say, The Gruffalo; and can be equally enjoyable, both to read and to hear. The key to that enjoyment is the human voice and its use to convey all the excitement, colour and meaning which a given text may contain. Once you establish the links between the written word and the endlessly vivid world of a child’s imagination then the act of their learning to read becomes a pleasure, and, once achieved, a lifelong joy. Those manning mobile libraries with school clients are uniquely placed to provide such inspiration, having all the necessary resources to hand. Where a suitable bond of trust has been created, teaching staff are only too delighted to accept our assistance.

Mobile library comes to Beckford (Jonathan Billinger)

Mobile library comes to Beckford (Jonathan Billinger)

Trust, and the human voice, is just as important at the other end of life’s spectrum. Annie, recently widowed and with her family far away, lived in relative isolation in an anonymous housing scheme. As the years passed and her health deteriorated visits to the mobile became more and more difficult; a situation mirrored in the experiences of many of our older customers. Whereas a dedicated housebound mobile served the needs of the city of Inverness no such facility existed for the country areas. I began to adjust our timetables accordingly, in order to accommodate home visits. These were well received, and, as word spread, we began to receive requests to visit from folk who had never previously been able to access library services. Once again our issues climbed. More than that, we found these visits to be doubly rewarding; not only were our clients able to enjoy their books, but they also gained from regularly seeing a friendly face and a few minutes of craic – not to mention the odd cuppa. And, for our part, many lasting friendships were forged; together with the occasional sadness as time took its inevitable toll.

Dear gentle Annie passed away only a short time after her admission to the home; despite crippling disabilities she had managed on her own for nearly twenty years beforehand. Did our home visits play any part in helping her stay independent, happy and content; and perhaps less of a burden to the exchequer? Accountants, necessary though they are, cannot quantify such factors, any more than they can supply a monetary value for improved reading performance in schools; but my answer would be a resounding yes, just one factor amongst several, no doubt, but a vital one nevertheless. Marie has no doubts either, yes she saw the mobile primarily as another tool in her workshop; but that is surely a good thing, a good place to be. What seems too often overlooked is just what a powerful tool that can be.

There has always been a tendency, in Britain at least, to view mobile libraries as slightly eccentric, a bit of an anachronism, certainly expendable once the financial chips are down. But, give them the opportunity to show what they can do, how much they can achieve, and a very different picture emerges. I do not doubt that I was fortunate; I had the advantage of an enlightened management, willing to indulge my hunches, allowing me space and time to experiment; nor was I alone, with other colleagues from within our fleet of twelve also happy to respond to changing circumstances. But the bottom line rests with the individual; you have got to want to do it, to be prepared to move the boundaries and to make the time.

That time has passed for me, but I am happy to report that, despite some inevitable cut-backs, mobile usage here remains healthy. Suzi, my successor, continues to make improvements and adaptations of her own. New faces at Marie’s old school make her as welcome as ever, and utilize her skills to the full. The numbers of older and disadvantaged folk following in Annie’s footsteps will carry on growing. Mobiles are not only uniquely valued; more to the point they are needed. But, if you are going to make that point, and make it stick, you are going to have to demonstrate its inherent value.

And there is only one way to do that; get out on the road and prove it. Get the results in loans; printed, pictorial, digital; get the backing of public and professionals alike; use the media, local papers love positive stories; don’t wait to be asked, volunteer where you see a need you can fill; above all, be prepared to give of yourself. Mobiles can have a real future; and ensuring that future is a task that can be immensely rewarding – to all concerned.

2 thoughts on “Mobile Libraries: Past Successes; Future Directions?

  1. Fran

    I’m of the opinion that we should be expanding our use of mobile libraries to serve those communities for whom local councils see a fixed library as unnecessary. There’s so many ways that mobile libraries could be used creatively to offer an important service to these communities, but the chance will end up being wasted because the importance of mobile services is constantly underestimated.

    Reply
  2. Carlsbad Handyman

    I guess I can see why there may be opposition to funding mobile library systems and even brick and mortar libraries for that matter as well. With access to the internet and all of the subsequent information at the fingertips of anyone who would normally require the resources of a library, it can be easy to fall back on that as an excuse to not put money into these long standing public systems. I feel that even with the internet, libraries provide a wealth of information that might not be found easily on the web and are an excellent place of community and for young students to use as a place of learning, when the home, unfortunately, may not be a suitable place for academics.

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