I gave my first talk in a library yesterday, at Bawtry Community Library, near Doncaster. It had been requested by Claire Holcroft and George Spencer, of Doncaster Library Service, and immaculately organised by Lesley Gilfedder at the library itself. Despite the rain and the fact that it coincided with the local school play, about twenty people attended. It was a lively and appreciative audience; most of its members had read more crime novels than I have, even though I’m a self-confessed addict, and several of them had detailed personal knowledge of the part of Lincolnshire which I write about. I felt that I learnt at least as much from them as they from me.
I gave two short readings, one from In the Family and one from Almost Love. I was asked about the characters and, especially, about why I’d chosen to make a dysfunctional family the focus of In the Family. We talked a lot about the atmospheric qualities of the Fens and about past writers who have described them, especially Charles Dickens and Dorothy L. Sayers. We discussed plots and plot construction, how to make them work, whether it’s possible to change the plot mid-novel and how to avoid inconsistencies. Several of the audience kindly bought copies of the books.
I took some cakes (I’ve decided to make this one of my trademarks!) and, when the organised part of the evening was over, no-one was in a hurry to leave. Lesley, ever efficient, made tea and coffee and we all stayed to talk.
Of course, I know about public library cutbacks, but I had no idea how swingeing they have been in some authorities or how magnificently local communities have responded in order to save their libraries. Bawtry is a lovely library: it has a cared-for look; there are bright paintings on the walls; the stock is impeccably arranged and there is a large children’s area where the floor has been carpeted in multi-coloured tiles to aid the playing of games and telling of stories. It keeps full opening hours and, as last night, is also sometimes open late. All of this is achieved by volunteers. It has about ninety of them, typically working three-hour shifts. As well as manning the library, they clean it and care for the grounds. They’ve been operating this arrangement for eighteen months and, so far, not one volunteer has dropped out. I understand that most of the other libraries that come under the aegis of the Doncaster local authority are also run in this way, though not all manage to keep such long opening hours as Bawtry.
I am amazed and full of admiration, tinged also with a little bit of shame. The public library charter entitles people to the right to borrow books from a local library, yet the people of Bawtry would not be able to do this if so many of them were not prepared to give up their own time to make it work. It is both a huge local achievement and a national scandal that this state of affairs should exist.
I’d therefore like this post to stand as a tribute to the wonderful people from Bawtry whom I met yesterday and to all their friends and colleagues who continue to make the library the vibrant hub of their community. Thank you. And especial thanks to Lesley, for all your unobtrusive hard work behind the scenes.