Three great librarians and what makes them tick
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.
National Libraries Week
It is National Libraries Week (see Libraries Week). This is a great occasion for public libraries in the UK to showcase all their brilliant initiatives and demonstrate how much they do to support their local communities. Each year, National Libraries Week adopts a theme; this year’s is ‘Taking Action, Saving Lives’.
Given the unprecedented events of the last (almost) two years, it could hardly be more apposite. Like almost every kind of institution, public libraries here closed down for a few weeks during the first lockdown – and, like millions of people, I immediately noticed this left a big draughty gap in my life. Some people felt the loss much more acutely – both practically and emotionally, they really had lost a lifeline.
We were fortunate that most libraries continued to be resourceful, even in lockdown – my former school friend, Jane Barber, who works at Stamford Library, told me how she had quickly mastered how to run story-telling events and competitions online. Staff at the British Library searched their world-class collections to dazzle and entertain members with a stream of online displays and exhibitions and, as a result, I have discovered more about maps, newspapers, oriental art, Anthony Gormley, ‘killer bunnies’ and many other topics that I would otherwise never have explored. Wonderful as all these things were and are, it was with great joy that I received the notification on 17th August that the British Library Reading Rooms were open again – with no need to book. Long may that last!
I have written many times on this blog about how libraries have supported me and my books by inviting me to take part in readings and other events and, most importantly, by also finding great audiences to attend them. The last event I took part in – ‘The Body in the Library’ – was at Stamford in late January 2020.
Shortly after that, Stamford and every other library in the country had to cancel events and shut their doors. As I’ve said, the libraries didn’t stay completely closed for long – they operated click-and-collect facilities, allowed patrons to enter in limited numbers and developed other ingenious stratagems to provide essential services. Events, however, remained untenable. First to disappear from the library schedule, they have also (of course with good reason) been last to be reinstated.
I was therefore delighted last week to receive an invitation from Sharman Morriss, librarian at Spalding Library, to kick off its celebrations for National Crime Month by taking part in an event at the library on 4th November. Sharman and I had a call about it earlier today, during which she gave me total carte blanche over what form the event should take. So far, we have just agreed that it will start at 14.00 on 4th November and last perhaps for one-and-a-half or two hours. My editor and I will come up with a programme for it shortly and, after Sharman and her colleagues have approved, I’ll post more details about it on the blog. If you’re in the Spalding neighbourhood on that day, I do hope you will find time to come! More than anything else since the lockdown regulations were relaxed in July, Sharman’s invitation has persuaded me that we’re back on the road to normality.
In the meantime, I shall scrutinise the National Libraries Week website avidly each day and celebrate the huge variety of events that librarians are sharing to celebrate it. Sharman said that earlier today she and her colleagues had welcomed guide dogs to Spalding Library. Other libraries are posting details about initiatives that support the housebound, prisons and mental well-being. There will be more as the week progresses.
I know I’ve said this before, so I hope you’ll forgive the repetition: Librarians and booksellers are the (largely) unsung but nevertheless peerless civilisers of modern existence. They deserve our support; we’d be lost without theirs.
Lancs and Lincs
The turn of the month from April to May was delightfully busy. On 23rd April, I returned from a business trip to the USA (World Book Day as well as St George’s Day, the day the booksellers bring their stalls out into the streets in Barcelona – stuck in a tube in the sky, I missed them), anticipating the privilege of the three Christina James events ahead of me. Three in eight days, no less!
As the first of these was at Adlington Library, near Chorley in Lancashire, I was very close to the smallholding kept by my friends Priscilla and Rupert and so was able to relish the double pleasure of visiting the library and staying with them as well.
I’d been invited by the Friends of Adlington Library, an energetic and committed group who have put a huge amount of effort into keeping the library open after government cuts. I’ve already written about local determination to keep underfunded, understaffed library services open in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. Lancashire is encountering similar problems and fighting back with just as much dedication.
The event was scheduled to last an hour and a half. The time flew by: the Friends, led by Margaret and Philip, offered me a large and very responsive audience, many of whom had read my books; several had also bought them or bought copies during the event. As I’ve said before, an audience can pay a writer no great compliment than to give feedback on her or his books. Readers are always perceptive and it is fascinating to hear their accounts of other books they like and why; additionally, in this instance, Adlington’s readers opened up on the evil characters, both real and fictional, whom they had encountered.
Just four days later I was heading for Gainsborough, a North Lincolnshire town that was totally uncharted territory for me. As soon as I stepped out of the car, I realised that this was my loss: Gainsborough is a wonderful old town with a mediaeval manor house at its heart, reputedly haunted by Lady Jane Grey. One of my audience – a local woman who now lives in Australia and was visiting family in the town – told me she had seen Jane’s ghost wandering the house when she was a child (intact, with head on – I did ask!).
Gainsborough’s library earned the unique distinction of providing me with an audience that expanded during the afternoon, drawing in more and more people as the session unfolded! The library itself is a building of palatial proportions – huge for a small town – and the librarians make excellent use of the space they are able to command. The event ran on way past the allocated time, until eventually we were invaded by a party of primary school children who had come for a reading session.
I am indebted to Lynne and her colleagues for organising this event and would like to thank them again for the really beautiful bunch of flowers that they gave me. I felt truly spoilt!
Just three days later, came the last of the trio: a different kind of event this time, held for a writers’ group in Woodhall Spa, another North Lincs town that I’d never visited before. The home of the Dambusters, it’s a picture postcard place, and was gearing itself up for the 75th Anniversary of the Lancaster bomber raids in WWII. (There’s a café just a few doors up from the library, full of Dambusters memorabilia – well worth a visit.)
The library itself is tiny – the smallest in Lincolnshire, apparently – but librarians Jude and Deborah have organised it extremely well. Like Adlington and Gainsborough, it has a well-stocked children’s section and a children’s activity area – they’re trying to make the Guinness Book of Records by creating the world’s largest pom-pom! Jude and Deborah gave me a very warm welcome indeed. I loved their shoes – yellow and orange respectively – worn as a gentle, tongue-in-the-cheek protest against having to wear a librarian’s ‘uniform’ of sober navy that wouldn’t be out of place in an old-fashioned girls’ school.
The writers in the workshop and I talked about what makes a good evil character (is that a tautology?!) in fiction; how fictionalised serial killers differ from real-life ones; and how various authors have depicted them in very different ways. As I had expected, the members of the group were both perceptive and a fund of anecdotes about their own observations and experiences. I was particularly intrigued – not to say horrified – by the account that one man gave me of evacuee children sent to the county from London who were literally starved to death. He said that the local community closed ranks and ensured that no-one was ever prosecuted for the crime.
I am honoured that the people of Adlington, Gainsborough and Woodhall Spa not only took time out of their busy lives to meet me, but also prepared for the events with such care. Thank you all! And special thanks to Margaret and Philip, Lynne and her colleagues and Jude and Deborah.