A second wind for The Living Library

About a year ago, I thought I had given my final live reading from The Living Library. What a journey it had been: 2 years of working on a personal project, in between writing, researching and training full time was an ordeal. What started as a simple ‘might be nice to do this’ activity after work had mushroomed into a mammoth project spawning blogs and features on my residency, a prologue to my book, over 400 pictures, interviews with dozens of people, over 30,000 words in notes, a book proposal, a couple of live readings and me becoming a volunteer news reader for KR Talking News. In short, Kirklees took a punt on me, and the punt has paid off. It’s been a fruitful relationship, not least because I think the library service relies on my fines to keep the lending library ticking over. Just after I did my last reading, I attended a meeting of the Society of Chief Librarians (Northern region) where we all discussed what we could do with the pile of information I had gathered. We’d been unsuccessful in an Arts Council application, which in a way freed us to be as creative as we wanted with the material. The Chiefs were hungry for something to use, so we thought about producing podcasts from the stories I had gathered. But we needed money to hire the studio and pay the technicians to record them. After doing the equivalent of looking down the back of the sofa for loose change, the Chiefs found some money. It was the tiniest sprinkling of pixie dust sent from the heavens.

Life and my new job took over and, to my shame, I haven’t touched the manuscript since that meeting last December, so the podcasts have taken a back seat. That was until I was invited back as a guest speaker at an annual library event celebrating the contribution young volunteers make to library projects. I shared my experiences of volunteering overseas, as well as extracts from my dusty manuscript, and the brilliant response from the audience, as well as the kindness, humour and support of the library staff reminded me why I started this project in the first place. My daily mantra is: I will finish those podcasts and get them recorded. So now I have a second wind, and I hope it helps me finish what I started. Of course, the real moral of this story is how pixies are so very generous with their dust and how they never lose faith in you.

"Can you say something inspiring?" said the lovely lady from the library.

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"Can you say something inspiring?" said the lovely lady from the library. "Er...inspiring? Er..."

"Yes! You know, about your volunteering experience, and your library project and how it's helped your career?"

"Er...I'll do my best." And here it is, an edited version of my 20 minute keynote speech at an event celebrating the achievements of young volunteers who have helped Kirklees libraries in recent weeks:

Can I start by saying what a great thing it is that you’ve done by volunteering at the library. Volunteering can be hard. I know, I’ve done it. You give your time, your energy, your passion for the subject and your skills to an organisation who, in this case, really couldn’t have done that particular thing without you. Sometimes, in the chaos of the day, it feels as if you get very little recognition in return, but that’s only if you end up volunteering in a company that doesn’t really understand what you can bring to an organisation, or how best to nurture you. I happen to think that you’ve hit the jackpot by volunteering at the library, but then I’m biased.

I’m also quite loyal to the ethos of volunteering because, if I’m honest, it was the making of me. I was 27 years old when I applied to volunteer overseas, which might seem a million miles away from where you are now, but who’s to say you won’t do the same in years to come? I ended up spending almost 4 years living and working overseas in the international development sector, and it has led me down a very rewarding path. So although volunteering can be hard and full of challenges (especially if you do it for a long time) I’ll say this, you only need to put a few hours in for it to become a powerful driving force for change in your life.

People say it’s useful to put volunteering on your CV, and yes, they’re right, but it’s not just about ‘getting that job on your CV.’ Reducing your volunteering experience down to 'just a job' means that you forget to acknowledge how it gives you confidence, how you've learned about the workings of an organisation (if you’re paying attention and not on Facebook that is) and about organisational politics, and how you've learned make new connections and expand your network – all of this matters because when organisations are looking for someone unique and committed, they’ll think of you. They’ll think of that volunteer who turned up on time, made an effort, spoke to people with a smile, asked questions, and was interested. They will think of you.

I love a captive audience

What you’ve shown in taking part in this scheme is commitment, not just to the library service and the people you’ve worked with, but to everyone you’ve invited to be here with you tonight. You’ve shown what you’re made of to your wider circle of family and friends. And it doesn’t matter that no one else you know does this kind of thing, what matters is that you do, and the fact that you’ve made an effort makes a difference. It’s made a difference to the children you’ve worked with to see that people of all ages remain enthusiastic about books, about reading, and about being part of this unique public service.

I said earlier that I think you’ve hit the jackpot volunteering for the library service, and that’s not just because they seem to have a limitless supply of tea, biscuits and cakes, but because you’re in the perfect place to research ideas for the type of careers you want to pursue in life. So my advice to you is don’t limit yourself to one thing. This public institution, this unique, chaotic and slightly smelly building is a one-stop shop for advice and knowledge. There are things here at your fingertips that could lead you down several fruitful paths in life, if you know where to look. And if you don’t know where to look, trust me, a librarian can find you anything you need to know.

I didn’t realise just how far librarians go to make sure people get the information that they need until I started working here as a writer in residence, making me part of this brilliant institution. Incidentally, my writing residency was a voluntary activity. I’m a writer and researcher by profession, and this was just a small project that I wanted to do for myself. Two years later, and I’m still engrossed in it. It’s led to work from more clients, opportunities like this to meet like-minded people and speak about the library service, a blog series, a series of podcasts on the way, and me becoming a regular volunteer news reader on the KR Talking News. It’s also led to me feeling part of the local community, which is important.

In short, I’ve created my own opportunities through volunteering, and that’s my advice and my wish for you too – that you create your own opportunities. Don’t wait for your ideal jobs to be advertised. Use this institution to discover what you really want in life. The access you have to free literature will give you ideas about how to live your life, about options you may not have considered or may feel out of reach, about the bravery and stubbornness of generations before, and about how you can carve out your own successful future.

So, congratulations on successfully completing your volunteering placements here at the library. You’ve all earned this evening of recognition. I hope to see your faces around the library in the future and thanks for listening.

The Library Book (published by Profile Books in support of The Reading Agency)

Confession: when I read the press release about The Library Book last year, I approached Profile Books on a whim, hoping they would be interested in including extracts of my Living Library research as an ‘epilogue.’ I knew I was living in la-la-land just clicking the SEND button, but to quote my brilliant mum ‘if you not ask, then you won’t be getting...” I got my quickest rejection to date: 3 minutes for a ‘no thank you and good luck’ (I posted an extract here instead, and found out last month that it got a readership of over 3500). So, when The Library Book finally made it to the shelves of my local library, I couldn’t wait to review it. The library, of course, had to jump through hoops to get it: justify the spend on this book, approve the spend, order it, receive the order, catalogue it, ring me to tell me it’s arrived, put it somewhere for me to pick up. This process took 4 months. Good grief, I could have handmade a copy in that time. But I have it now, and it was worth the wait.

The book consists of memoir, essays and extracts of novels. Many are testimonies to what the libraries have given the authors, whilst others present fictional worlds, or form the backdrop to pivotal events. As with any collection of writing, some contributions are more engaging than others. The standout piece for me was by Bella Bathurst, simply because I recognise so much of what she writes about in the libraries that I visited during my residency. She gathers stories from librarians and patrons (which no other contributor does) to bring the modern public library to life. My other favourites include Zadie Smith, whose account of the library as a ‘gateway’ for her entire family is beautifully written and gathers pace to question the concept of Big Society. Caitlin Moran too provides a similar argument with lightless. Anita Anand and Hardeep Singh Kohli offer engaging insights into the immigrant experience (again, I can relate to this), and Val McDermid’s reliance on libraries as a writer echoes my own. Fictional work by Julian Barnes and Kate Mosse are superb, and Susan Hill’s memory of accidently meeting E.M. Forster and T.S. Elliott is spellbinding (I think I held my breath for the last two paragraphs). Robin Turner’s interview with Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers provides a much needed departure from some of the more clichéd appreciations of libraries (and is tightly written), and Karin Slaughter’s call to action makes for a sharp conclusion.

For all the weightiness of the subject matter, it is a light read. I clearly have my favourites, and there’s enough in this slim volume for you to discover your own. You get the gist, this is a book worth reading.

3 Unwritten Rules I Think You Should Know About Using Your Library (It Wasn’t Like This In My Day)

At Hudderfield Library last Saturday, we celebrated World Book Night two days early and during the day. Here's an edited version of my reading, taken from The Living Library: If you think back to when you went to the library as children, you’d be forgiven for thinking that libraries have changed beyond recognition. The buildings remain the same – big and imposing, or small and intimate. And perhaps the decor remains the same, with yellow, peeling walls coupled with a familiar smell that lingers. Yet all of this is largely cosmetic. Visiting the library is different now, and it’s different because the rules of using your library have changed. By rules, I don’t mean the number of forms you have to fill in, or how to book yourself time on the computer, I mean the Unwritten Rules. So, to help you make sense of these rules, I’ve put together a list of things I think you should know, helpfully titled: 3 Unwritten Rules I Think You Should Know About Using Your Library (It Wasn’t Like This In My Day).

Rule No1: pretend to be silent without actually being silent. Remember when libraries used to be sanctuaries, places of quiet reverence where the hushed tones and the sleepy atmosphere helped cure your insomnia? (Going to the reference section of Leeds Library is like drinking a warm cup of milk before going to bed.) Remember when you daren’t breathe for fear that just the sound of your breath would make heads turn? And not just any head turn – no – what really frightened you was turning the head of the librarian, making her eyes bulge out of her head in disapproval. Then you’d suffer the humiliation of being told to SHUSH; a simple sound that held so much power and brought so much shame. Remember the sanctuary of it all? Libraries are still sanctuaries, but now they come with a cloud of white noise, what I like to call ‘non-silence’ silence, that wasn’t there 20 years ago. This includes, and is not limited to, sounds of the tap-tap-tapping of keyboards, mobile phones buzzing, and entire conversations happening for what seems like hours on end. The noise is endless, but it’s an unwritten rule now that being silent actually means having a conversation. So now you know that next time you visit the library, the rule is: pretend to be silent without actually being silent.

Rule No2: make sure you have the right equipment for visiting your local library. The only thing I needed to bring with me to my library as a child was a 10p piece in case of emergencies. On the odd day, I’d have a pencil case. But now you need a bit more if you’re to make the most of your visit. The right accoutrements will make your visit to the library much more efficient. You’ll need 4 things in particular: 1. A phone. Why would you need a phone I hear you ask? Well, you have to pretend to be silent don’t you? And what better way to do this than shout ‘I’m in the library, I can’t talk now’ and then just have your conversation anyway? 2. Bags, assorted. Bags are good for hiding things in, and for putting other bags inside them. You can kid yourself, and others, by thinking you’ll need a bag for putting your library books in, but really you need them for the third thing, which is... 3. Food. You definitely need food for the library, preferably something that involves licking your fingers clean. And that’ll just make you thirsty, so the final thing you need is... 4. A drink. The slurpy kind that comes in ‘super-size me’ buckets. Fluorescent colours are best if you want lots of attention and enjoy the sound of pensioners tutting through their dentures.

So, that’s your accoutrements sorted.

It’s not just what you bring to the library that is subject to rules. It’s also what you use it for, which brings me to the third and final rule:

Rule No3: don’t bother with books, there’s better things to be getting on with. As a child, I used the library to read mysteries about missing pets and to play on the cushions in the children’s library. As a teenager, I used it as place to do my homework in peace, and to complete my university applications in private, so I tend to recognise this in others when I see patrons making use of the library in similar ways. But what else do you use the library for?

It appears that some people think that it’s perfectly acceptable, romantic even, to meet at the library for clandestine love trysts. I didn’t know where to look whenever I accidently stumbled on an amorous couple. There’s some serious smooching going on amongst the stacks. On one occasion, I even saw a box of Milk Tray being presented to a girl by her suitor, and she started cooing at him and fluttering her eyelashes. Poor girl, I thought, Milk Tray... I hope for her sake he’s managed to upgrade to the vastly superior Thorntons range.

What I also saw was that people use the library as a port in a storm, and there’s more about that in the book. So, these are the unwritten rules, for now at least:

Rule No1: pretend to be silent without actually being silent.

Rule No2: make sure you have the right equipment for visiting your local library.

Rule No3: don’t bother with books, there’s better things to be getting on with.

The aim of these rules isn’t to mystify, they’re just there to help you make sense of a diminishing world. Don’t let the changes happening to your library put you off using them, just make use of your library while you can.

World Book Night reading

In less than 3 weeks, I'll be reading from The Living Library, a work in progress. The fabulous bods at Huddersfield Library are busy promoting the event with this lovely poster.

And guess who's going to be there......Michael Stewart, author of the award-winning King Crow, also reading from his book. I'll be giving away books from the World Book Night list too.  Hope to see you there.

The Living Library gets its first airing

Yesterday, I learned three secret ingredients to a good book reading: 1. Free tea and coffee 2. Free biscuits 3. A warm room

You simply cannot go wrong if your audience is fed, watered and warm. It makes them a captive audience, and there is nothing sweeter for a writer than reading to a captive audience. So, with a belly full of Viennese Whirls and tea up to my eyeballs, I began reading extracts from the first chapter of The Living Library. They laughed, clapped and asked me questions, and came out with some gems of their own:

Mrs H: I remember being taken to join the library by my teacher when I was 7 Me: Where was that? Mrs H: In Leeds, next to the school. I started working at the school as a teacher when I got older. I remember the smell from when I was a child. Still smelled of wet knickers.

At the end of the reading, one of the women gave me hug and a few others came and told me that they would happy buy the book, ‘but I expect it’ll be the library for free, so there’s no need to buy it.’ And with that, they were all gone.

The clever bods at Huddersfield Library have now hit upon a cunning plan for me to read from my manuscript throughtout the year, as it progresses. ‘It’s different from us hearing the final product,’ said the mastermind, ‘which is what usually happens.’ So watch this space...

This has been a big week on the writing front with the reading and also the creative writing group beginning again. Two hours a week for the next six months. SIGH. Oh my, how I’ve missed it.

What a year, eh?

Warp speed is an understatement. The prologue and first chapter of my library residency book, entitled THE LIVING LIBRARY (yeah, I am pleased with the title, thanks for asking) are ready! And you can read the prologue here. I’ll also be giving a reading from more bits of the manuscript on National Libraries Day in February, so stay tuned. This year has also been the year of the rush job, i.e. Nilam, can you just rewrite this paper/chapter/module/case study/donor report/exec summary, I need it next week, is that ok?

So now, I’m ready for a break and won’t be looking at the computer screen for a while. Bring on the Christmas boxsets! Happy doodah everyone.

NaNoWriMo begins today

For the uninitiated, that’s National Novel Writing Month. I have signed up. I have no idea why, except that I work well to deadlines. When someone says ‘write a 50,000 word novel in a month,’ I say, ‘OK, I will.’ But I’ve already decided that I’m using it to bang out new work that I can come back to next year. In the meantime, my manuscript on the library residency continues and the December deadline I set myself is hurtling towards me. Watch this space...

That’s all folks (not really)...

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last two weeks, it’s that library staff know EVERYTHING, and I don’t mean which books to read if you want to do a loft conversion. I mean they pick up on much more than you realise. Not only do they know what you eat and drink when you think they are not looking, they know your reading habits, how often you come in, the time of day they are likely to see you, and the way you walk, talk, behave and smell. This means that if, for some reason, you suddenly disappear, they start asking questions. It means that they care enough to find out what has happened to you – they are a real ‘social service' showing that what they do is sometimes above and beyond the call of duty. How many institutions can say this about their clients? The start of Summer Reading Challenge yesterday marked the end of my formal writing residency, but I’ll be back over the summer to top up my research as I write my manuscript. So you’ll get some more library stories over the coming months. Stay tuned and thanks for reading...

Summer Reading Challenge 2011

Yes, you could spend money on one of the new titles being promoted by the Richard and Judy Children’s Summer Book Club, or...you could sign your children, nieces, nephews and grandchildren up for the Summer Reading Challenge and its Circus Stars reading campaign. I’ve worked out that even with the half-price discount currently being offered for the Richard and Judy books, the price tag, if you chose to buy them all, would be just shy of £50. Thereare 6 books in 3 categories: Read Together (£19.94 for 6 books), Read By Yourself (£14.44), and Fluent Reader (£13.44). I know, I know...you’re not likely to buy all six books at once. Maybe you’ll buy one, as the others aren’t quite right, and wonder where to get something more appropriate. You know where I’m going with this, don't you?

Don't get me wrong, I think that the books being promoted are great, and it’s important that the authors earn a living from their writing. My point is this: why limit the children to just the books being promoted in the shops, especially, when they get the reading bug, they tend to devour books? One book per week may not be enough for the 6-week holiday.

Sitting in the children’s library today, the decibel level was as you would expect for a Saturday, but there was extra excitement amongst the little people about being able to choose LOTS of books to read over the summer. A boy came and sat next to me on the sofa, clutching his chosen books to his chest.

‘I got my books,’ he beamed, and showed me My Family, Trucks, Fire Engines and Alien Tales. His sister walked away with 4 books too, but they each had the freedom to choose up to 15 books. Next was a boy who walked away with 8 books, and I later saw him reading his Harry Potter whilst waiting for his dad to make his choices in the lending library. Another lay prostrate on the floor reading Roald Dahl, and there were plenty more like him. So, even if you decide to buy books recommended by other reading campaigns, please remember to sign your children up to the Summer Reading Challenge - they can never have too much choice when it comes to reading.

A small space

Space is a real issue for libraries: everyone wants a piece. The town and branch libraries use every inch of space for poetry groups, basic reading groups, a PALS (Practice Activity and Leisure Scheme) Art Group, children’s storytime, a birdwatchers group, a visually impaired reading group, school visits, coffee mornings with guest speakers, knitting groups, parents groups, Mumsnet groups, Manga groups, and much more besides. And these are just the groups who meet informally. I have asked organisers where else they could meet, and the answer has always been ‘we couldn’t, not without this place.’

During storytime in the children’s library, a woman asked me if there was any space for some groups she works with to meet at the library. It turns out that one of the local community centres has closed because of spending cuts. This means that 14 separate groups (run for everyone from women and children to asylum seekers) who once had a home, have been turfed out onto the street. Their first port of call for help was the library, in the hope that they would be able to continue offering their services, if only they could find a small space. Many groups already use the library to meet and run informal activities, but an additional few groups may well place a strain on the halls and committee rooms. From my experiences as a writer-in-residence, I know that the library is possibly the one public service organisation that will do all it can to remain inclusive. We are lucky that libraries are so very resourceful and accommodating.

The Little Library That Could

British Asians of my generation had very little freedom growing up. We had pushy parents who wanted us to become doctors, lawyers or accountants, we were definitely NOT allowed boyfriends and girlfriends, and going out with friends involved spinning any number of yarns about studying for tests, just so we could be ‘normal’ and go to a school disco. As our lives revolved around studying, our parents saw the library as the one respectable place that we could be trusted to go to by ourselves. Imagine, then, 22 years later, sitting with a careers adviser at one of the branch libraries today, and discovering that we both went to school in Gosport, a year apart, and spent much of our spare time in Gosport Library.

‘It was a big, smoked-glass building with a massive anchor outside’ he said, still dazed from nostalgia.

It all came back to me in an instant. I went there every Saturday, and began by laying out my books, pens and notes in one of the cubicles, so that it looked like some very serious studying was taking place. Then I’d wander off into town for a couple of hours before returning refreshed and ready to read. I used to borrow tapes of bands that I wasn’t allowed to listen to, and worked my way through all the Agatha Christie books. One afternoon, I saw a crowd of old ladies huddled around a particular set of shelves. I’d seen this phenomenon before, and had paid no notice, but this time I went over. That was my introduction to Mills and Boon.

Reading about Gosport Library now, I see that it was revamped in 2005 to become The Discovery Centre. It’s website states that it is now ‘four floors of books, reference materials, art, local history, museum exhibits, film, music, events and a coffee shop,’ and it sounds fantastic.

I remember it very much as a safe haven from parent and peer pressure. I remember it as a place to hide and to reflect, a place where I could complete my university applications in private, and a place to plan my route to freedom. I hope it continues to give its members the crucial breathing space it once gave me.

Sophie Hannah/Readers Group Book of the Year Event

Sophie Hannah
Sophie Hannah

If you want to learn how to pitch your book to someone, and I mean really hook them in, make time to see Sophie Hannah next time she’s in town. After another intense day at one of the local libraries, I was ready to collapse in front of The Apprentice, but roused myself in time to attend the local Reading Group Book of the Year event, where Sophie Hannah was giving a talk about her writing, and announcing the group’s favourite read of the year. They chose The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver as their winner (one of my favourite reads), and Sophie threw in her two recommendations of Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson and The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield for the group to read next year.

Sophie has an annual routine of publishing one book a year, writing for approximately 6 months each year and mainly touring the rest of the time, and she also has a daily routine of writing for around 7 hours each day. She described one way in which her ideas take shape: she likes to take a cliché and twist it, so that it becomes a springboard for her plot. As a crime novelist, she is intrigued by ‘impossible mysteries...if I’m intrigued, then others will be too.’

Sophie is a great speaker; generous with her advice, informative, down to earth and funny. She is a professional, and her status as a best-selling author is well deserved.

A safe haven

A mother comes in with her young daughter, and it looks like an ordinary enough scene: they enter the large, square room that is the Children’sLibrary, the daughter runs to the brightly coloured table and chairs in the centre to do some colouring in, whilst the mother sits at one of the tables in the corner. The mother nods and smiles at the librarian, looks at her phone, then pulls out a text book and reads quietly. After about 30 minutes, the daughter comes to her with a choice of children’s books and they speak a little. The mother puts down her heavy text, picks up one of the brightly coloured books offered to her, and begins to slowly say the words on each page. But something about this scene is different, and it’s only when I see the spine of the mother’s text book that I fully understand. The textbook is English for Beginners, and what I have been witnessing is, every few words, the daughter correcting her mother’s English.

After watching them, I am left with many questions: what is this woman’s story? Why does her daughter know more English than her? Where would they go to do this, if not here? I didn’t approach them, as my blundering attempts to engage would have burst their contemplative bubble. But that scene has stayed with me, and more than that, it’s shown me that this space is a safe haven for people to come and work, in whatever capacity and with whoever they like, without any judgement.

Writer-In-Residence, with a twist...

What started as a rant about World Book Night and library services being cut (see World Library Night Parts 1 and 2) has turned into something quite wonderful for me. I am to be a Writer-In-Residence at Huddersfield Library for the next two weeks. But this is a residency with a twist. Instead of going out to schools and community groups to encourage reading, writing and the take up of library services, I’ll be writing about the experience of using the library and what it means for its members. This has been a personal project of mine for a while and I am in bits with excitement. In one day, I have already caught a glimpse of the herculean lengths to which library staff go in their daily working lives. The general public really do have a staggering range of requests. Add to that the many groups who use the spaces on all four floors throughout the week; this place really is a hub. Over the coming weeks, I’ll also be visiting Birkby, Lindley and Deighton libraries to get a sense of what these smaller centres mean to local residents. And after the two weeks? Why, a book, of course…