BBC, Radio 4,
From Our Home Correspondent
Doing Some Sticking
By Jane Labous
Producer: Simon Coates
Coffee is expensive these days, which is why one cold April morning, while perusing one of the shabbier roads of Poole in Dorset, my daughter and I dive into our local library. We’re fond of the place because it’s warm, and because the dressing-up box provides half an hour’s distraction. And where else but the library might you find shelves of wizard schools and snowy wardrobes, friendly dragons and pirate princesses, all accessible for free?
Inside, my daughter zooms off to raid the children’s section, and I’m left remembering how my own mother took me off to the library, mainly because our household budget in the early eighties did not stretch to buying books. From the mobile library that parked every fortnight at the top of the road, promising a multitude of worlds up its short flight of steps, to the summer, aged fourteen, that I filled my bag with ever so slightly forbidden Danielle Steeles, I have very specific library memories.
Nowadays public libraries tend to languish on the grey edges of council budgets, a troublesome yet necessary commitment for civil servants trying to balance the accounts. All this means there are good libraries, and there are neglected libraries. Maybe it’s the weather, maybe just a sign of the times, but today our own seems to languish on the neglected side. An elderly man wanders in and reads the newspaper near the window. In the children’s section a poster advertises story-time at half past ten, but half past ten comes and goes and we’re still reading Lola Plants A Garden on our own. ‘I can come over if you want…’ frowns the librarian, checking her watch. Clear in her face, the fact she’s not paid enough to tell a story for a single child. ‘It’s ok,’ I insist, and my daughter and I depart, storyless, into the freezing morning.
On the way back we meet a fellow mum who admits that she finds our library ‘lacklustre’. ‘It’s no-one’s fault,’ she shrugs, ‘there’s just no money.’ I feel angry, all of a sudden, that our library should have gone downhill; that libraries should have become a political ping pong ball, such a money or no money issue.
Another sunnier day in Essex, and Writtle Library is bustling with children. Under the cheery supervision of Caroline, the librarian, they cluster around a table, sticking pipe cleaners and glittery bead jewels onto a large cut-out paper cat. A grandmother wanders in pushing a pram, followed by Roshida, a local mum trailed by her brood of five: two girls aged ten and six, a boy of four, a toddler and a baby in arms. ‘Here they can amuse themselves for free,’ Roshida says with a smile. ‘It’s so expensive to do things with so many children, and it’s nice to do something in the community.’
‘Are you going to do some sticking,’ Caroline asks my toddler, who doesn’t need a second invitation. ‘The beads come out of my own money,’ confides Caroline with a rueful smile. ‘There’s barely enough cash for staff, let alone crafts!’
Caroline and her colleague Carole are the only paid staff here, backed up by a team of volunteers. Together they keep the library open on most days, and run poetry groups, chess club and cinema evenings. ‘Village libraries are very much at the centre of the community, you know,’ says Caroline. ‘I think sometimes people come and talk to us because they’re not quite sure where to go. Which is very nice, isn’t it?’
A Thursday in Colehill, near Wimborne in Dorset. The sun is out. In the shade of a cluster of pines, the community library sits amid emerging snowdrops and pink cyclamen. The gardening here, and everything else, is entirely managed by a team of elderly volunteers - led by the indefatigable Linda. Linda is a retired librarian who took on Colehill Library when the council wanted to close it in 2013.
From behind the shelves smiling retirees pop up, waving. Toddlers use the crayons in the kids’ section. Linda shows me the crate of children’s books she keeps under her desk out back – a nice idea, rather undermined by old-fashioned choices; Enid Blyton, Beatrix Potter, Charles Dickens. Just in case a child desperately wants a particular story, Linda explains, and it’s already been loaned.
In many ways it all seems unsettlingly Victorian; our libraries propped up by this unflinching army of female volunteers. The Lindas and Carolines of this world waving their flags in the face of the state, as councils resign themselves to letting our libraries go to the dogs, as misty-eyed people in offices reminisce about their library experiences, aged eight. But maybe that’s it! Maybe libraries are all about feminists now, and if Linda would only fill her box full of girl power and Rosa Parks, full of Lola and Goodnight Stories For Rebel Girls and Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World, then… Now then we’d be getting somewhere.