Readers in Residence: Big Book Hunt

Category: Reading

It's a leap of faith, to send a book out into the world all by itself and hope that it does OK. I used to release books on BookCrossing every so often – a lovely website where you can send books out and see where other folk have released books for you to find. Each book comes with a tracking label and an encouragement to pass it on once you've finished, so sometimes you can see a wandering book travel the world – but often it vanishes into the ether, into the big bookshelf in the sky, or, hopefully, to a much-loved reading pile next to someone's armchair.

So when I wanted to do a big promotion for West Lothian Libraries, where I'm currently working as Scottish Book Trust Reader in Residence, I came up with the idea of releasing 100 books into the wild as a surprise gift for West Lothian readers. It became the Big Book Hunt, a literary treasure hunt for Book Week Scotland.

It's a leap of faith, to send a book out into the world all by itself and hope that it does OK

To gather a collection of books together, I rode around with Andy, who drives the van between libraries distributing books, and picked a variety from the remaindered stocks shelves. This was also a chance to chat to all the library staff about the project. Andy's got a wealth of information about the area, and we had many a good yarn about the challenges facing libraries as we travelled the back roads and roundabouts of West Lothian. I tried to bring together 100 books that would appeal to all sorts of readers and show off what the libraries could offer, so we had children's board books, YA and adult fiction, health books and travel books, audio books and comic books – all sorts for all tastes!

Each book was given a hand-signed book plate explaining that it was a present from the finder's local library, with a wee note about the Reader in Residence project and information about the library services. Then it was wrapped up in two sealed sandwich bags (this was November in Scotland, after all) and given prominent stickers announcing “Free Book!” and “Take Me!"

Then was the difficult part: distributing 100 books around West Lothian. On the first day I loaded up my saddle-bags with 50 books and jumped on my bicycle, a trusty and battered red Specialized city-bike that only complained a little about the weight. I'd planned to take in all the libraries in Livingston, and Broxburn too if I could manage, taking in half of the 14 libraries across the region. Livingston has really great bike paths, thanks to a bit of New Town urban planning that criss-crossed the town with wide leafy paths and underpasses, separating cyclists and pedestrians from the road and giving them plenty of space round each other. So I zoomed from library to library, hiding books under benches, in tree branches, at the feet of metal sheep, dangling from railings – anywhere they'd be just noticeable and a fun surprise.

On the second day it rained. Quite a lot. Very kindly, Kay, who's been helping manage the Reader in Residence project, was able to drive me around the remaining libraries that would have been a little harder to reach on the bike that day. She even got into the fun of hiding books around the towns, which is just weird enough to be exciting, just friendly enough to be fun. We posted clues to our event website, announced on social media that the hunt was on, and waited to see what might come back.

Every single book was picked up by someone. Some of them vanished without comment, we hope to a happy place for books, but many folk responded with emails and comments on social media. One person in Linlithow posted on Facebook that they loved finding the book and decided to replace it with one of their own; another person posted about how excited their daughter was to find one. My favourite email came about a children's book I'd left in what I thought was a park, but turned out to be the sensory garden of a local special needs school; a teacher wrote to me thanking us for the surprise of finding the book, but also took the opportunity to give us really valuable feedback about improving wheelchair access in the local library.

I zoomed from library to library, hiding books under benches, in tree branches, at the feet of metal sheep, dangling from railings

There are definitely things I might have done differently. A few books ended up handed back in to the nearby library – some folk thought they'd been lost or abandoned! So I needed clearer stickering, and also needed to make sure all staff were fully briefed about what was happening, as not everyone was clear on what the hunt was about. I'd also maybe have involved more folk in the initial distribution so as to get it done in one day, because by day two a lot of the books on day one had already been found. And while it was fun to do for Book Week Scotland, a sunny spring or summer hunt might make it easier for more folk to enjoy. But all in all, we were really pleased with how it went.

We had nearly a thousand website visits over the course of the hunt, and nearly 100 shares on social media, and a lovely write-up in the local news. Of course, you can't measure the success of these things in numbers: really, this was about bringing a bit of surprise into people's lives, in a way that would let more folk know that their local library could be a place for them. Those things are intangible, and part of a longer and trickier process: talking about the importance and vitality of libraries, making them accessible and welcoming to all, defending their resources, and ensuring they're serving the needs of people who need them. But I hope that our hunt, which only took three or four days of work to pull off and was very cheap indeed financially, was one small move in celebrating those centres of our communities: libraries.

Harry Giles

Harry Giles is currently Scottish Book Trust Reader in Residence for West Lothian Libraries.

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