From Our Home Correspondent: Doing Some Sticking, by Jane Labous
One cold April morning in Poole, 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 would we also 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 mother took me to the library, mainly because our household budget in the early Eighties didn’t stretch to buying books. From the mobile library that parked every fortnight at the top of our road, promising a multitude of worlds up its short flight of steps, to the summer, aged fourteen, that I filled my bag with slightly dubious Danielle Steeles, I have very specific library memories.
Nowadays public libraries tend to languish on the grey edges of council budgets, a troublesome yet legal requirement on officials trying to balance the accounts. There are good libraries, and there are neglected ones. Today our own seems to languish on the neglected side. An elderly man wanders in and reads/peruses a 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…,” remarks 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 reply, and my daughter and I return, storyless, into the bleak morning.
On our way we meet a fellow mum who 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 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 enters 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 expensive to do things with so many children, and it’s nice to do something here 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.
Caroline and her colleague Carole are the only paid staff here, aided by a team of volunteers. Together they keep the library open on most days, and run poetry groups, the 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. Here, the sun is out. In the shade of a cluster of pines, the community library sits amid snowdrops and pink cyclamen. The gardening here, and everything else, is entirely managed by a team of elderly volunteers. They’re led by the indefatigable Linda, a retired librarian who took on Colehill Library when the council wanted to close it five years ago.
From behind the shelves smiling retirees pop up, waving. Toddlers use the crayons in the kids’ section. These two groups are the core users of libraries now. Linda shows me the crate of children’s books she keeps under her desk in case a child wants a particular story – a nice idea, perhaps undermined by old-fashioned choices; Enid Blyton, Beatrix Potter, Charles Dickens.
This tells its own story; our libraries propped up by unflinching armies of female volunteers. The Lindas and Carolines waving their flags in the face of the state, as most of the rest of us pass by the libraries that remain.
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 Lolaand Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls and Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World, then… who knows where that might lead?
This essay was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 From Our Home Correspondent on 22nd April 2018.