We received the following blog post from Hannah Bailey (UNISON Assistant National Officer) about her recent visit to Winsford Library.
Like many people, some of my earliest memories are of visiting the library with my parents and siblings (Bawtry library in Doncaster, now sadly facing the axe, was our local). From these visits I harboured a childhood ambition to be a librarian – I think it was the satisfying clunk of the stamp that did it. So my work at UNISON on the libraries campaign has been the next best thing, but despite spending large chunks of my work days thinking and writing about libraries, it occurred to me that I had only ever been on the ‘other side’ of the counter. Shouldn’t I really get out there and see what working in the library service is really all about? Ian Anstice kindly stepped in and agreed to let me shadow him and his staff for a day at Winsford library in Cheshire. Emailing to make arrangements beforehand, Ian politely laughed at request to see what a ‘typical day’ in a library was like – no such thing as a typical day he assured me…..
An early train journey and bus ride meant I arrived at the library just after opening time on a sunny Thursday morning, the last week of the school summer holidays. Ian and I are in regular email contact, but have never met in person; however I clocked him straightaway putting out posters to advertise the library’s coffee and cake morning that day. Getting inside the library there were already a steady stream of people coming in, many to take advantage of the cakes on offer (I duly sampled a raspberry crumble muffin) whilst returning items and using the PCs.
The coffee morning is run regularly by friends of the library, who all volunteer their time to take part in fundraising activities and events. The positive relationship between staff and volunteers was clear, and it was also clear that they were providing a supplementary service that staff would be unable to undertake alongside their daily duties. Complementing staff and playing a role, but not replacing them. This has always been UNISON’s view and it was good to see it working in practice. Later that day, Ian discussed with the treasurer of the friends group how the funds were looking and the possibility of buying some new furniture for the children’s library – clearly their effort is having an impact.
First activity of the day was story time for the under fives, with a (mostly!) captive audience of twenty or so youngsters and a selection of parents and grandparents. Not for the last time that day I was reminded of the pleasure of being read to, something which seems to stop as soon as you leave school, but I will always love. Rounding off with a selection of nursery rhymes (including requests from the floor) story time was a reminder not only of how pleasurable reading is, but also the importance of starting young with literacy – it really is never too early and libraries play a huge part in getting families and kids into reading, which stays with them for life.
Meanwhile on the counter, a constant stream of people were coming in and out, putting paid to the rumour that nobody uses libraries anymore. Remember earlier this year when John Redwood MP made some startlingly ill-informed comments about libraries after a brief visit to one? Anyone deeming themselves worthy of comment needs to spend at least a day in a library before drawing any conclusions. After all, a visit to an uncharacteristically quiet supermarket at 10pm wouldn’t lead one to conclude that modern retail as we know it is dead would it?
Mid-morning behind the counter was of the highlights of the day for me – a young man aged no more than about 12 came in on his own to return a stack of books he’d read during his recent holiday. Checking the books back in, Ian reminded him he had a few more out and did he want to renew them while he was here? He agreed, telling Ian that he was halfway through one of them, ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’. Settling his small fine, he then left. This is the kind of kid we’re supposed to believe aren’t interested in reading anymore, too busy playing computer games or hanging round the streets making a nuisance of themselves. I was truly heartened by this – and you can bet if it’s happening in Winsford, it’s happening at libraries all over the UK.
Books returned over the course of the morning soon started to stack up behind the counter, so any spare time was spent by staff re-shelving items ready to be borrowed again. All the while the eight or so PC’s in the library were constantly occupied by a range of different people, from teenagers checking the latest updates on Facebook to people printing off e-tickets for impending holidays. While the volunteers packed the cakes and coffee away, members of the Mid-Cheshire Camera Club were busy mounting a small exhibition of their work near the entrance. The works are for sale, and as of one the members filled out the council’s insurance form, he explained to me that the library is the last open exhibition space available in the town centre to groups such as theirs.
An open building – it sounds obvious but it’s what libraries are all about. Still it was one of the points that struck me on several occasions as the day went by. Whilst downstairs the children’s library was buzzing and noisy, upstairs in the reference area there was an altogether quieter and calmer feel. I was told there is one man comes in every day without fail to read the newspaper for an hour at lunchtime. Then there were the groups of teenagers, in town and looking for something to do, drifting in and out. One man spent most of the day in the library, helping out the volunteers in the morning and staying for the afternoon. The library for him is a safe space, a place where he is welcomed and not judged.
After lunch I was invited along to join the RELISH group – read, listen, share – which is a reading group for people with mental health issues. There are seven regular attendees to this group, which staff told me was a real achievement. People who are ill and may already have chaotic lives drift in and out of groups like this. But here you have seven people who attend week in, week out, to read together and discuss the books. Everyone who feels comfortable takes a turn to read aloud, and after a few pages a member of staff poses questions to get the conversation going. It sounds simple enough, but seeing it in practice and the impact it has is powerful stuff.
Later in the afternoon there was some respite for staff on the counter to undertake other tasks. This was when I was introduced to the mysterious ‘back office’. Many critics argue that too much is spent on the ‘back office’ and that this should be cut in favour of the frontline. This obviously varies from area to area, however what was clear is that a varied selection of books don’t magically appear on the shelves, nor do titles which are seldom borrowed grow legs and walk off, making room for more popular titles. It all happens in the mysterious ‘back office’. And contrary to what some people believe, new books appear on the shelves every week in your average library. So for those who bemoan that the latest titles aren’t available, perhaps you should get down to your local library or hop online and find out. I’m guessing you’ll be surprised.
Winsford library is open until 7.30pm on Thursday evenings, the day I was there. Ian told me how later on in the day is when there is most potential for trouble, with the town centre emptying of shoppers and bored teenagers hanging around. Again the library is open to all – staff work on the presumption that people know how to behave, and only if someone is causing offence or disturbance to someone else will they intervene. But it does happen, and staff are often at the receiving end of anti-social behaviour. Not exactly the picture of a sleepy library in a leafy suburb that some would paint, but the reality nonetheless. It’s bad enough that paid staff have to endure such incidents, but would you volunteer to put yourself in this position?
So if I had to sum up my day in the library in a few points, what would I say? After spending the day working alongside a friendly and committed staff team, it was clear to me that:
- Libraries are busy, vibrant community spaces open to people from all walks of life
- Reading for pleasure is alive and kicking – you’re never too young or too old
- Libraries are about books, and the knowledge, comfort and power words give you
It all sounds fairly obvious, but the impact of savage cuts on local authorities seems to mean that many people want to trivialise the importance of libraries and library staff in order to justify their decisions. Anyone who disagrees with the three points above really should go and spend an hour or two at their local library and see if it changes their mind.
The views expressed in guest blog posts are those of individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect those of Voices for the Library