This month I shall be lucky enough to give talks at four Lincolnshire libraries: Horncastle, Mablethorpe, Long Sutton and Sleaford. The first two are on Thursday. In the first instance they were arranged by Lynne Kershaw, who has welcomed me to Gainsborough Library several times. When I was last there I asked Lynne and her colleagues to describe what it means to be a librarian.
On 24th May, it was my privilege to be invited to give a talk on crime fiction at Gainsborough Library in North Lincolnshire. I had visited the library before and was looking forward to the warm welcome that the librarians, Lynne, Fabi and Jill, always provide.
Between them they have devoted fifty-one years to the library (Lynne has worked there for twenty-six years, Fabi for nineteen and Jill, seven). I asked them what inspires them. What makes them so committed to their jobs?
They said they love reading and books, being with people and helping those who use the library. They are much more than advisers about and dispensers of books: their patrons confide in them and often need their support to help sort out problems.
“There’s a lady who’s been using the library for a long time who told us she had been bereaved. She was very lonely and needed to get more activities into her life. We put her in touch with people who could help her. Now the only free day she has is Tuesday.”
These librarians are particularly devoted to helping children. “We want to inspire people to read. It’s a real joy when children want to come in and choose books to read. There are still many families who have no books at home.”
The library has set up a writing group of a special kind. Led by a journalist, it aims to provide therapy for people who are depressed or suffering from a disability. And many people who visit the library regularly come to use the computers. Being able to access computers has become a crucial element of all library services since applications for government benefits switched to online. Often people who are entitled to benefits don’t have computers of their own and, quite frequently as a result, they don’t know how to use them. The librarians have had some training in assisting with this, but the technology is always changing and it’s sometimes hard to keep up with it. A ‘computer buddy’ therefore offers sessions in the library on Mondays and Tuesdays. The library is made available to other groups and societies who want to use it, too.
Lynne, who is the library manager, said that her mum used to bring her to Gainsborough Library when she was very small – she thinks from the age of seven. Recalling what the library was like then, she remembers that all the books were catalogued in card index files and there was always an old bloke smoking a pipe who had come in to read the newspapers. (The library has kept its collection of old newspapers.) After she left school, she worked in a bank; then, when she had her first child, she looked for a job in the library and has been working there ever since.
They organise as many events as they can cope with. ‘My’ event was obviously about crime fiction. Many events are intended to keep children reading: they were preparing for a sequence of Platinum Jubilee events when I was there. They will also launch a Summer Reading Challenge, which will last for six weeks. A separate event is planned for each week and children are encouraged to read six books in the period. Each time they read two books, they receive a prize, and a certificate when the challenge finishes.
Despite all this activity – and very hard work – the librarians say that it is sometimes difficult to explain how librarians and libraries add value. They are continually having to justify their existence to the government and others who scrutinise the (relatively modest) costs of running a public library service. “It’s hard to define qualitative work.”
As an author, I can say librarians have certainly added shed loads of value for me – and, I’m sure, for other authors, too. It’s not just the joy of being welcomed to a place where my novels are really appreciated or the buzz of being invited to talk about writing – though both are of course important – it’s achieving the holy grail of being able to interact with readers in the flesh, of having the chance to ask them what they like to read, who their favourite authors are and what they think of individual books. In my experience, readers pull no punches – but they are also amazingly generous. The amount of time they are prepared to spend on reading my books and afterwards thinking and talking about them is truly humbling. It may sound trite to say it, but readers are the lifeblood of writing; and authors would attract far fewer readers if librarians did not devote every day to promoting their books.