On the people who use libraries

A library users blogs his discovery of his local library and the people who use them.

The idea to start using the library came to me when it started to turn cold. I had been studying from home but was finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate as the temperature started to fall in the September and October months. Sticking to my self-enforced rule of no heating before 5pm and putting on another layer of clothing becoming no longer practical I had no choice but to relocate my operation. With the promise of free electricity, heating and access to free newspapers I packed up my books and sandwich bag pencil case and headed to the book house.

I pull out a chair and take a place at one of the desks. I unpack my things with the precision a doctor lays out their tools before surgery. Paper check, pen check….after ten minutes I glance up to find out what kind of company I’m in. The characters I see before me are not who I was expecting to see down the local Library.

Two old women sitting together, elbows touching, reading from the same page, occasionally remarking on what they have just read; a bearded man with a red/black chequered laundry bag one side of him and a sleeping bag the other, busies himself taking various books from the shelves; replacing them with another stack once his interest has been satisfied ; various elderly gentleman dotted around the room leisurely leaf through the pages of the paper they have loyally read for years; a small group congregates in a circle in front of the large print section and talk away the hours and most intriguingly a young black man with a sleeping bag stands over unattended papers and mumbles and chatters to himself in a language I don’t recognise. I get the impression that none of them probably even own a library card.

Over the coming months I saw these same faces and many more again and again. It was apparent that for many people the library was the only place they had left to go and the only place where they might not be alone. I watched a man walk by, stopping to aimlessly turn the pages of a paper left open on the desk before moving off in another direction, in the hope there was some place else he had to be. Another patron tips a book back on the base of its spine with their fore finger, gives it a quick cursory look and pushes it back into its slot. At the end of one particular day a short stocky man with a back pack enters and starts to straighten the place up and is quite obviously upset at the way people have abandoned the papers and magazines sprayed across the tables, and the chairs which have now escaped from under their desks darting off in all directions. He is not an employee and I never see him again.

The black man has a smell that says he has no home. He wears the same teal coloured woollen sweater, grey trousers and worn out black leather shoes every day. He appears and disappears; I wonder if he lives behind one of the book cases. Each time I see him I think this is the day he will do something crazy, however his behaviour never gets more out of hand than occasionally breaking the quiet with some stifled laughter at something he has just read or talking to himself. On the days he joins me at my table I begin to imagine a relationship starting between us; my Robert Downey JR to his Jamie Fox, like in the film ‘The Soloist’. Talking to this mysterious man, I learn he is a brilliant man but cannot read English. Setting my own studies aside we agree to meet at the library every day at 11am and we go through the alphabet and he learns to read and write English and I nurture his talents and buy him food and find him a place to stay but he is an illegal and cannot stay and……of course I can’t even get up the nerve to say, ‘hi’ and I keep my head down until I am certain he has gone again. I am gobsmacked one morning when I see a man walk by and say hello to him and without looking up from what he is reading in perfect English, he quickly says ‘hello’ back.

With the government still on its austerity drive, many of our public services have now had their budgets cut and many of our libraries have fallen victim to these cuts and forced to close or be community run by volunteers to keep them going. 493 libraries (411 buildings and 82 mobiles) are currently reported as either likely to be closed or passed to volunteers since 1/4/13 (source: www.publiclibrariesnews.com) When a library does close apart from losing a rich resource to the community where you can do anything from check out a book to register a birth or death, I wonder where those people who depend on the library go; where else provides a warm and safe environment that asks for nothing in return? A place where people go to meet and socialise, not just learn. I think this is what troubles me most.

I only realised just how important the library is to some people’s lives when I started to use it regularly and saw for myself the vital service it provides.

When researching libraries I found this quote which summed up perfectly what I see when I am there:

‘Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries’ – Anne Herbert.

Written submission to the Sieghart Panel on Public Libraries

The attached response was submitted by Voices for the Library in response to the William Sieghart Panel call for evidence to inform the report on public libraries.

The independent report was commissioned by The Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Specific areas that respondents were asked to address included:

  1. What are the core principles of a public library service into the future?
  2. Is the current delivery of the public library service the most comprehensive and efficient?
  3. What is the role of community libraries in the delivery of a library offer?

Written response by Voices for the Library to Sieghart Panel call for evidence

Grayling Ban on Books in Prison

Banning prisoners from being sent books unfairly restricts their access to information. (Image c/o banlon1964 on Flickr.)

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has announced changes to the punishment and reward system in prisons, stating that prisoners will no longer be allowed to receive books, magazines, birthday cards and other small items. Voices for the Library strongly oppose this decision. This move to view the prison system as wholly punitive in ethos rather than as serving also as rehabilitative and restorative is short-sighted and counter to the ethos of prison libraries and those who work in them.

Access to books and reading is important for many reasons. It has been found to support people’s development by extending opportunities for social participation and contributing to the development of cognitive thinking skills. Caddick and Webster (1998) suggest that access to the communicated thoughts and experiences of a wide range of others through reading enables individuals to become more aware of the ways they interact with and make meaning of the world. It expands their ability to think about alternatives and evaluate their options, which may lead to strategies for avoiding criminal behaviour. They also state that a core part of developing a feeling of inclusion and identity with others, and feeling a responsibility towards others is literacy, through which people develop an ability to reflect on their experiences. Through education and access to reading, “Prisoners see themselves differently; they gain confidence and self-esteem. They talk about having hope for the future, often for the first time. They feel able to envisage a different future and develop new aspirations for themselves.” (Prisoners Education Trust 2008, p.2) The right to be sent reading material and other items is also a way for prisoners to feel less isolated and cut off from the outside world, to which the majority will return.  Limiting access to books as part of a regime of incentives and earned privileges is counter-productive and more likely to reduce the likelihood that prisoners will respond to the scheme, which requires the reflective awareness that so often comes from reading.

Every prison in England and Wales has a legal requirement to provide a library service for prisoners. They provide access to books and other reading materials and provide support for prisons’ Education Services and other projects, such as Storybook Mums and Storybook Dads, which are charities that work to encourage prisoners to build relationships with their children through storytelling. Although there are currently no suggestions that prisoners’ access to libraries will be removed, prisoners’ access to the library is extremely limited. Furthermore, most prison libraries are part of the public library service provided by local councils, and their book stock belongs to the library system. As we know, across England, libraries are being removed from the public. Funds are being cut, which has significantly affected the amount of new and up to date books which can be purchased. Branches are being made volunteer run and their stock is no longer part of the shared library system. Other libraries are closing and their stock is being sold off in bulk. These books are no longer available to anyone, including prisoners. It is therefore important for prisoners to still have the opportunity to receive books via other means. Access to information is a universal, human right, and removal of any means of access to information by the government suggests a lack of value placed by the government in this right.

Guest post: No one seems interested in feeding the minds of the young people

The following guest post, written by Annie Creswick-Dawson, comments on the current situation of Birmingham’s Bloomsbury Library in Nechells.

Nechells is a ‘deprived’ area of Birmingham where the Bloomsbury Library provided a study space, community room and library facilities.  Refurbished in the 1990s, it had deteriorated by 2013 and there were urgent repairs required for which funding had been agreed. However, at the last minute the funding was withdrawn. Following the theft of lead from the roof, the building was so badly damaged by heavy rainfall that neither the heating nor the lift could function and in October the Library was closed.  Although there had been an arrangement with a nearby community centre for temporary services to be run there during the repairs, the library service has so far been unable to provide any alternative service there. It is not yet even providing the service of a library van which they ’hope’ to provide once a week.

I had visited the Library in 2013 to record the sculptures on the exterior of this attractive library building and was disturbed by the obvious state of disrepair. It was warm and there were a lot of young people working away in the study area, and the staff were friendly and helpful, which makes the whole sorry story seem even sadder to me. Saddest of all was when I started to look into the situation this year only to find that it had been closed and no adequate substitute provided. It is just appalling that, after initial complaints, there has been little or no opposition because people in the area ‘have got used to services being withdrawn’.

This seems to be a prime example of Councils being able to withdraw services because people have been so used to the deprivation that they see no point in complaining. Protest has no effect and they have other priorities: there is a food bank in the area but no one seems interested in feeding the minds of the young people and helping them to get the best education possible by having a quiet study area in a local place.

My interest stems from my visit and the fact that I was visiting to record the sculptures by my great grandfather Benjamin Creswick. He was a Sheffield knife grinder, a job in which the life expectancy was about 30 years of age. Making efforts to get other employment, he visited Ruskin’s Museum set up for the working men in Walkley, Sheffield. Ben became a pupil of Ruskin, who recognised his talent and supported his family, teaching him how to find commissions amongst other help. After some time in London, Ben became the head of the Birmingham School of Art where he stayed for nearly thirty years.

It is ironic that Ruskin inspired sculpture celebrating the life of ordinary people at work and at play and in the close knit family unit. This included a more formal panel showing the civic pride of Birmingham with the arts representing the city’s wealth in industry. It also featured the real wealth in the youthful figures presenting the city with the fruits of their work. Ironic because this sculpture now stands witness to the dismantling of the systems which sustain the people who are the very lifeblood of the city.

While my interest started in the history and the wish to preserve the sculptures, it seems now to demand the protection of the library service and the recognition of its utmost importance to the communty. I am sorry for the length of this diatribe but it seems so important to see if I can help to raise awareness of this dire situation and hope it may help to make sure it is not just allowed to be another case of library closure.

If anyone in the Birmingham area could put me in touch with local commmunity groups I would be most grateful.

Library sculptures

Annie Creswick-Dawson was born in Edinburgh and spent most of my formative years in my grandparent’s studio. My grandfather, trained by his father Benjamin Creswick, was a bronze founder and silversmith and he trained his wife who worked with him in the studio as a jeweller. She worked in the studio as a general helper and had a very liberal arts education which has led to a lifetime of interest in the arts and crafts.

Having been an amateur artist working mainly in gouache and watercolour, she recently became interested in working with natural materials and now runs courses in this interesting type of work. Annie has spent some years in researching the life of Benjamin Creswick and his connection with the great Victorian John Ruskin and it was this research that brought about her interest in the Bloomsbury Library both for the sake of the sculptures and the tragic loss of the library service to the community.

Data protection and volunteer-led libraries

In 2011 the Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries raised privacy and data protection concerns,via their blog, regarding the use of user records by volunteers in ‘community libraries’:

“Library records contain information about people’s addresses, details about vulnerable people – for example the housebound, and exemptions such as exemptions for foster children, fines and borrowing history.

As paid, trained, library staff who are CRB checked, are set to be replaced by volunteers, alarms bells started to ring. I wrote to Library Services Manager, Sue Laurence, several months ago (21st April) asking if volunteers in the community libraries would be able to see these records because if so, unless a suitable policy was in place, then they could potentially use the record for nefarious reasons.”

Further concerns have been raised in terms of the role of volunteers in administrating the ‘Books on Prescription’ scheme. These books are prescribed by local GPs to patients with mental health conditions which are then collected from the local library. There is the potential for both embarrassment and raise issues around privacy, particularly if the person picking it up lives next door, or just down the street from the person issuing it.As Catherine Bennett noted in her recent opinion piece for The Guardian:

“In the short-term, this might be less of a problem than the embarrassment, anticipated in smaller community libraries, of ordering from a local volunteer with a hazy grasp of data protection a title such as Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, Overcoming Binge Eating, or Break Free from OCD. All the above, with many other frank self-help titles, feature on Books on Prescription, a collaboration between GPs and libraries – and 33,000 volunteers. Is the service confidential? Totally, of course. But if in doubt, just ask the untrained and inexperienced librarian at the desk.”

Some councils may have allowed full access to user records on their Library Management System (LMS), but others like Warwickshire have restricted it because they obviously have concerns in terms of their obligations under the Data Protection Act 1988.

Many, or most councils, now see volunteer-led libraries as sitting outside their statutory remit and offer varying degrees of support or none at all. This support could initially include training on data protection, but who knows how comprehensive and ongoing this is?

Paid, trained and experienced library staff are given constant reminders, briefings and training on data protection and other related matters. Paid staff must also adhere to a ‘code of conduct’ which includes ensuring that they respect their obligations towards maintaining confidentiality. Furthermore, they are bound by ‘customer care standards’ which cover all aspects of communication, including the sharing of information. They deal discreetly with personal details and enquiries on a day-to-day basis, it’s the way they are wired, part of their ethos if you like.

Now, we are not saying that public library workers don’t make mistakes or abuse their trust - some do, but the vast majority do not. If they were to abuse this trust, and if such activity is discovered, they would be held accountable for their actions under relevant legislation and could potentially lose their jobs. Of course, this is not to suggest that the majority of volunteers are anything but trustworthy.  But they are not subject to the same scrutiny as paid, trained and experienced staff. And the implications for this could be very serious indeed.

These issues remain a serious concern, as illustrated by this recent comment on an article about proposals to extend the use ofvolunteer-led libraries in Swindon:

“Presumably all the training that you refer to has gone on bringing volunteers up to speed on IT…What does this training involve exactly? And are all volunteers CRB checked, up to date with health and safety procedures, confidentiality, data protection and so on?”

We suppose the only way we’ll ever find out about the extent to which volunteer-led libraries meet their obligations under the Data Protection Act is if something goes wrong or someone blows the whistle.  Until then, many library users will just have put their trust in a fragmented and unregulated service.

We Need Libraries – The Video!

Back in December, One Man and His Beard requested pictures of people holding their library cards for a video he was planning. The response was phenomenal and the result of everyone’s efforts is now available online, just in time for National Libraries Day! The video features a whole host of library supporters with their library cards…see if you can spot someone you know! Be sure to read the text scrolling along the bottom, put together by Ian Anstice of Public Libraries News and do share as widely as possible! It would be great to get this going viral for National Libraries Day!

National Libraries Day 2014 is almost here #NLD14

National Libraries Day logo

It’s less than a month away until the 3rd National Libraries Day. This year it’s on Saturday 8th February. It’s an opportunity to celebrate all the great things libraries in the UK do, highlighting why they are so important, no matter what type of library they are – public, academic, business, health, specialist libraries, or any others. It will also be a great chance to sell the benefits of libraries, to both non-users and also those who hold the purse strings and can make a difference to how well funded libraries are. Even though the majority of activity will take place on National Libraries Day itself, in previous years library staff, users and supporters have also run activities and events in the lead up to it.

We’d love to know what you’ll be planning this year, so that we can help you promote it before and on the day itself.

If you’re not sure how to celebrate National Libraries Day why not take a look at the National Libraries Day site - it’s got plenty of fantastic ideas on there. Also, don’t forget to add any events to the map on the National Libraries Day site.

We’re also keen to get people involved in doing something based on the Library A to Z – the aim of the A to Z is to highlight that even though books are a core feature of library services, libraries are so much more than this – whether this “so much more” is as a result of the benefits of reading, or beyond this focus. For example, this is a snippet for the letter E:

Everyone (is welcome)
Enquiry service

Take a look at our original blog post for more details. If you do create anything for it please let us know.

Another way you can get involved is to help One Man & His Beard with a music video for his National Libraries Day song. All you need to do is send him a photo of yourself holding your library card ( weneedlibraries@gmail.com ) as soon as possible.

So, whatever you’ve got planned for your local library don’t forget to let us know.

Finally, if you’re on Facebook, you can also join/like the National Libraries Day event on there, and if you’re on Twitter, the hashtag to use is #NLD14.

Miranda’s story

Libraries mean a lot to me.
I am 9 years old and I remember when I got my first library card.  I also remember picking out my first ever books from the library.  I used to sit down by a big book box and scatter through them to find a suitable one.
A library is a place where I can sit down and take a book off the shelf and read.  I like sitting down on the carpet in silence and reading in peace. A library has variety of all different types of books that you can learn from not just enjoy.  I love reading and the joy of picking it off the shelf.
So please don’t shut down any libraries!

Loans or sales?

In this post author Kathryn White shares her perspective of libraries as “cultural gold”.


In December 2011 the National Literacy Trust released figures that of 3.8 million children in the UK, 1 in 3 do not own a book. Seven years ago only one child in ten was thought not to own a book.

Sadly, it is schools from deprived areas dealing with overcrowding, language diversity and financial constraints that are unable to buy books or engage authors/illustrators; seeing their priorities, quite rightly, as the basic needs of their students. However these schools are those most in need of cultural support in order to bring children into and insure their positive development within the community. Reading not only teaches language skills but more importantly, social skills. There is a definite correlation between better reading and more tolerance and understanding between varying cultures and religions. Children attending deprived schools do not have the same exposure to external creative input; which often facilitates for alternative viewpoints and values. Students in higher income areas where parental input, community governors or public support enable staff to engage external creative tutors, invariably gain greater understanding and engage in open discussion. Yet it is poorer catchments, where students face greater financial and social hardship that is often starved of quality literature at home which would encourage empathy and tolerance.

Books in schools are frequently used purely as instruments of learning data; chunks are bitten off and digested as required to fit in with the national curriculum. Books are not viewed as a whole experience, a potential means of mutual discussion and support for mental and social health. Books are a window to the world; they challenge and teach, guide and often help children comprehend what is happening around them, easing isolation during times of change or crisis.

Where schools are unable to provide a comprehensive book list for children, public libraries can adequately fill that gap.

My role as an author visiting a school is to insure that children see books not only as number crunching, information providers but as a genuine pleasure, encouraging imagination, fantasy; escapism without the external control of a computer or tv screen. Stories where a child’s imagination can do the illustrative work, visual character building, are wonderful for developing independent thought and confidence. Authors love to sell their books and I used to endeavour to do this by lugging my heavy suitcase filled with stories for all ages across the country on school visits. However, I was beginning to resemble an ageing body builder or at best careworn salesperson, rather than a writer. I found the whole experience, exhausting and distracting from my main focus; providing enjoyable story sessions. I now only take books into schools upon specific request and if I am driving and not at the mercy of public transport. This makes the availability of libraries for the children I am visiting, vitally important. If I can’t offer my own books for sale, then I can at least direct children to their local library. “It’s great!” I say, “It’s full of amazing books you can read because you want to – about anything or anyone you’re dying to learn about. And guess what? The books are free to borrow.”

For me, as a writer, libraries are cultural gold and sharing this precious national commodity with children in schools is something that gives me immense pride and pleasure. Long may their shelves be full and their doors open.

Kathryn White.


Kathryn White specializes in children’s and YA fiction. She has written over thirty books and often presents at literary festivals and in schools throughout the UK and abroad.

Paige’s story

I was shy as a child and so I used to escape into the library at primary school at break-time.  The librarian there never failed to fill my arms with books I loved – tales of girls falling back in time, strange new worlds, and anything about misfits of any description. I can still vividly picture the yellow and orange beanbags, the blue-green carpet, the dusty sunshine coming in through the windows.  You can imagine how proud I was eventually to ‘join’ the staff, working at the circulation desk stamping out books for the other children.  The library was my sanctuary and my ticket to a better place, and it still is. From the very start it was an environment that nurtured my lifelong love of reading and writing, which still keeps me sane decades later.