Do libraries still have a role to play? You decide.

Use it or lose it.

Use it or lose it.

One of the questions we are trying to ask at Dawn of the Unread is whether a library can become a focal part of the community again rather than just a warehouse for books. Digital technology offers immediate access to ideas, people and places, meaning the need to inhabit physical spaces appears to be diminishing. Why go to a library for a debate when you can watch something uploaded on Youtube? Why listen to an author read when everything you ever wanted to know can be found via a search box? The world is literally at our fingertips and Google is our God. But like all Gods, Google is never physically present and we are, after all, sentient beings. We crave physical contact with the world and each other. But do we still crave that contact in libraries?

Not in Worksop it would seem.

We had a library talk booked there last week with no less than three writers: Alison Moore, Nicola Monaghan and John ‘Brick’ Clark. Alison was shortlisted for the Booker, Nicola won a Betty Trask Award for her debut novel The Killing Jar – about life on a tough council estate, and Brick, in addition to being a political cartoonist, has recently co-edited a graphic novel anthology about WWI called To End All Wars. Paul Fillingham was also in attendance, an expert in digital cultural trails who has just created A History of Mining in Ten Objects. I thought this was an exciting and varied line-up. Obviously not.

And it makes me furious. Ahhhhh!

Not because it could be perceived as two fingers up at our project but because Worksop is exactly the kind of place I want our project to engage with. It’s one of those towns that have been left to rot and is in desperate need of investment. It’s also where Alan Sillitoe was sent as an evacuee during WWII. There’s literary history everywhere if you look hard enough. Library staff don’t have the training nor the time to market these events efficiently to the public so it is little wonder they are poorly attended. The cuts, combined with a general apathy towards libraries, make it almost impossible to entice people to such events.

This Saturday I’m off to Mansfield Library with our script editor Adrian Reynolds and Paul Fillingham to spread information about our graphic novel and explain how one user has the opportunity to appear as a character in the final chapter. We are happy to offer advice on how to write for graphic novels, how to gain funding and anything that may help a young aspiring teenager on a career path that avoids the army or poundstretcher. So if you know anyone who this might appeal to, please pass on the details. The working classes have been left to rot for too long and it’s important we help install some hope.

So this talk isn’t just about promoting what we’re doing. It’s hopefully about inspiring others to do similar. But it is also about whether libraries are the right forum to hold public debates and engage with the local community. And only one person can answer that question: You. At 2pm on Saturday 19 July at Mansfield Central Library.

Mansfield Library, Four Seasons Centre, West Gate, Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, NG18 1NH

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3 thoughts on “Do libraries still have a role to play? You decide.

  1. We were chatting with the staff while we waited, at which point one of them made a slightly disparaging remark about how people might have come if it came with a free Gregg’s pasty. That kind of attitude possibly doesn’t help. As I said at the time, I think the issue with areas like this is at least in part, a lack of confidence. They have been left to rot and the legacy is a lack of engagement but also lots of fear.

    Despite the Gregg’s pasty remark being a bit flippant, I think that there is some truth underneath that. There needs to be something about the event that makes people feel at home. Sadly, I think stuff like book prizes and literary renown probably scares people off all the more. Perhaps just the way of packaging events is what needs looking at. And, sure, librarians aren’t marketers but aren’t there council employees who are? These people perhaps could get involved a bit more. I also think that librarians like Sheelagh are invaluable. She talks to people on a personal level and persuades them to come along to these things, and reminds them. Someone on the ground drumming up support can make all the difference. Admittedly, she has less of a hard sell at Beeston library, but I think she’d make a difference wherever she was.

    Just some thoughts. I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m suggesting dumbing down – I’m not at all. But just perhaps thinking about what the demographic is likely to respond to best.

  2. I couldn’t agree more with the above from Nicola. There are plenty of examples where libraries are fulfilling an important role in communities squashed by the social juggernaut of historic and current political trends, but their levels of success are totally down to a proactive staff (within the library and local authority) who are passionate about the power of books. In my limited experience of doing workshops and giving talks in these places, I am regularly impressed by the imaginative ways and means librarians have developed to engage with the public, often attracting into the library the last people one might imagine would be interested in literature.

    A library with excellent facilities like Worksop might start by programming events of immediate appeal to the local community that have nothing at all to do with books. I can think of one library that offered its gallery space to a local sixth form college for their end of year art show, and had an ‘opening’ for parents. On the same evening, different students from the same college performed a series of one-act plays they’d devised, and in another room, a local school choir performed. Apparently the place was heaving with parents, most of whom had never crossed the threshold of the library.

    That evening the entire library staff was in attendance, weaving through the crowd with leaflets, talking to people about some of the things they were planning for the immediate future, like a readers’ group, a book cover design workshop (linked in with a small poetry publisher who guaranteed to use the best), and so forth. I have since been back to that library twice and at one of my talks found an audience of nearly 100 people, a handful of whom apologised that they had to leave during the Q&A because they had a two hour drive home!

  3. Pingback: West Bridgford Library | Dawn of the Unread

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