Library Idea of the Month: Inverclyde's Pop-up Library Project

Two boys browsing through books at one of the pop-up libraries

My name’s Francesca and I’m a librarian. I think my obsession started at around age eight, with a questionable library book called Disco King borrowed from a building with no toilets (unless you counted the obligatory trip downstairs to the dodgy Jolly Roger pub). It was here, in Greenock, that I fell in love with libraries in 1986 and it was here in the summer of 2016 that I renewed my library vows by taking our services into the heart of two Inverclyde communities through a pop-up library for children and families.

‘Booked Out’ re-affirmed the importance of our work and showed how much families value libraries

Libraries are great. They are life-enhancing, life-changing, life-affirming. When I do ‘My World of Work’ talks with local schools, the kids go away thinking that my job is way more exciting than that of the poor fire-fighter sitting out in the playground with her big fire engine and siren. Being a librarian has taken me on a journey backstage with Dolly Parton, to Berlin to study fairytales, to massive warehouses spending loads of money on books, to book award panels schmoozing with famous authors and to national conferences presenting on ground-breaking pieces of library work.

But sometimes working in libraries can make you feel like a bit of an underdog. Austerity measures and swingeing cuts have left many library services with a dangerously fin de siècle feel, and it’s hard to keep up the Pollyanna perspective all of the time. Here in Inverclyde, however, libraries are going strong, with massive backing from stakeholders and partners. More than 80% of Inverclyde Council Citizens’ Panel reported that they were either very satisfied or satisfied with public libraries.

 

The ‘Booked Out’ pop-up libraries project

Last summer I was involved in an outreach project called ‘Booked Out.’ Initiated by my colleagues Katharine Mulvenny and Geraldine Bergin, it re-affirmed the importance of our work and showed how much families value libraries.

I met families who were desperate to engage with our services, yet often they had not been into a library for many years, if ever

To begin with, lunch clubs – linked to Scottish Government’s Attainment Challenge – were planned for Larkfield Upper Tenants Hall, Greenock, and Craigmarloch School, Port Glasgow. Every parent knows that the summer holidays can feel like a long time to keep children engaged and well fed, and so these clubs were promoted to families attending schools and nurseries within the Attainment Challenge areas. The lunch clubs were managed by enthusiastic colleagues from Early Years Education with strong support from Libraries, Community Learning and Development and Barnardo's.

Inverclyde Council wanted a fun literacy element at the clubs, and that’s where our Booked Out pop-up libraries came in!

The stock we brought to Booked Out had to be high quality, relevant and attractive. We’re talking Star Wars, Lego, Monster High, How to Draw by Jacqueline Wilson, but also simple Early Readers that families could enjoy together, and picture books with text that wouldn't exhaust mum and dad at the end of a long day. Pants, Who’s on the Loo and Sing a Song of Bottoms were crowd pleasers and children had lots of fun making librarians read these aloud. Again and again.

We really wanted family involvement with Booked Out to lead on to involvement with our traditional library services, so building the library habit of borrowing and returning was a key part of the experience. Children loved checking out their books, chatting about what they had read and working with us and their parents to pick their next book. Unfortunately, IT challenges meant we did not have a remote library management system, so we had to keep it old-school, with paper and pen. At least this lengthy process gave lots of time for conversation!

Through Booked Out, I met families who were desperate to engage with our services. I met parents who were eager to visit the library. I met children who loved reading stories and had a massive appetite for books. Yet often these families had not been into a library for many years, if ever. 

This was a major game-changer for my thinking about libraries. With visitor numbers experiencing a national decline, I had been tempted to buy the myth that that people may not – gulp – need libraries anymore.

Booked Out showed a very different reality. Children and adults wanted what we had to offer, but there was something going wrong between the desire and need for our services and actually gaining access.

There were a lot of reasons for this: geography problems, timing issues, busy lives, administrative barriers in terms of fines and lost books. I have tried for years to understand why so many of the children I speak to at school seem so desperately keen to join and visit the library but then don’t make it over the threshold, despite my pleas for them to nag their gatekeepers. Why would any adult refuse a child who asks to go to the library?

Our Booked Out work revealed that there are important and significant challenges facing many families who want to use libraries, but there are also achievable ways for us to address them. So here’s what I learned about perceptions of libraries from the Booked Out project:

Library staff

People who come to libraries like library staff. We are all very nice. But if you haven’t been inside a library for a generation, you may not know this. In that case, we should reach out to you and spread the word.

We worked with adults and children who were sometimes genuinely surprised to find us friendly and approachable

Nice people work in libraries: it might just be our Unique Selling Point. And members of the public enjoy coming in to chat to us. Often, the chat is about books. Often, it’s about help with the Internet, a new phone or tablet, or various other information needs. Sometimes it’s just for a natter about the world around us, and that’s okay, too.

At Booked Out, we worked intensively with adults and children who were sometimes genuinely surprised to find us friendly and approachable. As library staff, we actually don’t want to overwhelm anyone with rules and regulations – we know ourselves that it’s hard to keep the baby from chewing up the board book or the dog away from the plastic cover. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that we might be anything other than pleasant and relaxed. But some people were nervous that we were going to rake up the past, name and shame them for that book they’d borrowed about The Jam decades ago and never returned because of an unexpected house move. In future, I’ll know that we may need to tell people we are nice and not scary!

Because we’d met families in person and on their turf, they got to know us and our library ways and, crucially, decided in future to make the effort and the financial commitment to bring several children on a bus to see us back at the library.

Location, Location, Location

We’ve known it for a while, but one of the major challenges to families accessing our library services is their location. When the library is a long walk from where you live, when buses are expensive and you may not have access to a car, then the chances of you visiting us are instantly reduced. You can easily forget that a free, wonderful service is somewhere in your locale when it’s not necessarily on your beaten track.

Working at Booked Out was proof, if any was needed, that children were delighted to read when all the right ducks were in a row

Our two Booked Out pop-up libraries were in locations that had previously hosted traditional library buildings. Families loved having us right there in their communities. And when we arrived on the doorstep, we were a roaring success. 

Children, many of whom were striving to complete the Tesco Bank Summer Reading Challenge, wanted to and did read all of our books. Parents were interested in finding out more about what the library could offer adults. It was thrilling to see that families had a massive appetite for our services.

But geography is a major challenge for families accessing libraries in the Attainment Challenge areas and beyond. This deterrent is simple to understand but hard to address. However, the Attainment Challenge team has since funded transport for parents to attend library events and we have seen a massive increase in parental involvement in school visits to the library. For example, hundreds of parents came to our Bookbug P1 gifting in November 2016 as opposed to a handful the year before.

Some Inverclyde schools are now planning to regularly walk pupils to the library for the joint achievements of literacy work and Physical Education.

We need to make sure that families see us as a credible leisure venue, up there with soft play and the cinema, but different in that we are totally free. That way, they’ll be more likely to find the fare for a visit.

The Success of a Story

Peddling the myth that children don’t enjoy reading is short-sighted and wrong. Working at Booked Out was proof, if any was needed, that children were delighted to read when all the right ducks were in a row. Those 'ducks' included the family will to succeed, access to an attractive library with appealing books and committed staff, and input and encouragement from trusted partners.

Of course there are many families solvent enough to buy their own books. But families living in poverty are not struggling for cash because they’ve spent it all on books. Sometimes we think that children don’t want to read simply because they don’t have adequate opportunities to do so. And that is incredibly dangerous. Similarly, families who are comfortably off may not be buying books, and they need libraries, too.

From personal experience, children love ICT and can get absorbed in an app or a game to a degree that little else can offer. That can have its benefits and its risks. Helping children to love reading can often be much more alchemistic, requiring guidance, encouragement, gentle pressure and repeated attempts at success. Libraries have the capacity to provide an endless supply of the stories that will help children to become readers. Our outreach library work took these stories to communities and helped to nurture reading. And children and families loved it.

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So just before Christmas I was stood outside in the pouring rain doing Bookbug Sessions to promote the library services and support a new wintry community venture. Between sessions, my mind drifted and I started to wonder why, after all these years, I’m still standing outside a library in a fleece trying to persuade kids and their parents to come inside. And then, in the distance, emerging through the mist were two families with eight children between them coming to take part in the storytime, because they’d liked our work at Booked Out over the summer and wanted to keep in touch. It felt great and it reminded me just how important our libraries are and why I wanted to be a librarian.

Loved this library idea? Check out this blog post for ideas to get people through the library door, whether you're a school or public librarian!

Have you run a library activity or project that could feature in our Library Idea of the Month? Send us an email and let us know!

Francesca Brennan

Francesca Brennan is is a Young People's Services Librarian in Inverclyde.