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‘If there’s nowhere else to go, this is where they come’: how Britain’s libraries provide much more than books | Libraries

‘If there’s nowhere else to go, this is where they come’: how Britain’s libraries provide much more than books | Libraries
‘If there’s nowhere else to go, this is where they come’: how Britain’s libraries provide much more than books | Libraries


When, one Thursday morning last winter, I arrived at Battle library in west Reading, the library manager, Terry Curran, was sitting at the front desk writing a quiz. “It’s not a hard quiz,” said Curran, who was worried about attendance. “Often just the same two ladies turn up, and they don’t pay attention.” Still, he hadn’t lost hope. He’d even put posters up in the Tesco round the corner.

The phone rang. “Yes, we have a children’s craft session at two,” said Curran’s colleague Amanda Giles, her voice warm and encouraging. “Just come along.” They’d already received an urgent request from the housing team at a nearby council, about someone who had to scan a form by 2pm if he was going to be housed before Christmas. Could the library help? They didn’t usually offer scans, but Battle would make an exception – and they wouldn’t charge.

A man carrying a plastic bag rustled up to the front desk. He twitched as he spoke, and he spoke at great speed. “Do you have a magnifying glass?” he asked. Curran disappeared into the office and returned with a small purple magnifying glass from a children’s game. The man thanked him and made for the computers. An elderly gentleman with a courtly air had a question about the library’s irregular opening hours. “They’re difficult for me to understand,” he said. “They’re hard for me as well,” answered Curran. “This library is a very friendly type of place,” added the man, unprompted. “I’ve written a letter about it.”

Another man, in late middle age, took a seat at the quiz table and started reading a Mick Herron novel. Curran turned to me and stage-whispered: “Yes! There’s going to be one other person!” In the event there were five: the Herron-reading man, the elderly gentleman and three women, who seemed to be friends, taking a break from errands. As the time approached, Curran began to panic that his questions were too easy. But it was too late to change anything, and at 11am they were off.

Giles largely stayed at the desk, working through lists of books, preparing displays, monitoring the gaggles of children and parents wandering around looking for treasure-hunt clues. The building hummed.

Suddenly, an explosion of swearing came from the direction of the computers, where the man with the plastic bag was on the phone to what sounded like officialdom. “Fucking do your job!” Curran’s eyes flicked toward the CCTV screens on the main desk, but he did not seem worried. No one else reacted. The man rustled back to the desk and asked Giles, with scrupulous politeness, for a cup of tea, then walked out of the building carrying it, muttering to himself. “I hope he brings it back,” said Giles, quietly. He did, shortly afterwards. Later, Curran said that he knew the man, and that there was nothing to fear – he just struggled a bit sometimes.

The quiz ended with prizes all round: boxes of donated chocolates and biscuits, a lurid bottle of rosé. “Thank you,” said the elderly gentleman, choosing some Lego for a grandchild. “When’s the next quiz?”

There was much about this scene that would have been recognisable to a library patron 20 years, or indeed 115 years ago, when Battle, after an architectural competition and an injection of cash from the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, became home to Reading’s first dedicated library. But there was much that was entirely new.

The average public library is not only a provider of the latest Anne Enright or Julia Donaldson: it is now an informal citizens advice bureau, a business development centre, a community centre and a mental health provider. It is an unofficial Sure Start centre, a homelessness shelter, a literacy and foreign language-learning centre, a calm space where tutors can help struggling kids, an asylum support provider, a citizenship and driving theory test centre, and a place to sit still all day and stare at the wall, if that is what you need to do, without anyone expecting you to buy anything.

You can borrow more than just books. Libraries from Newcastle to Portsmouth loan out Fifa-grade footballs. Cambridgeshire offers free hearing aid batteries, ferrules for walking sticks, and winter coats. Wisbech hosts a food bank, while Brixton lends outfits to people doing job interviews. There are clubs for knitting and coding and gardening, for board games, junk-modelling and stitching. There are breastfeeding groups and play-reading groups and choirs. There are autism and bereavement cafes. Library premises are hired out for children’s parties, visa processing, life-drawing, NHS health checks and English language lessons. (Eighty languages are spoken in just this small area of Reading).

Part of the magic of a library, as I was reminded over and over again in the days I spent at Battle during winter and spring, is its capaciousness as social infrastructure. It is very important, Giles said to me that Thursday, that there is “somewhere where everybody can come”. In its disparity of needs and personalities and ages sharing a common space, its tolerance and resilience, the modern library has the potential to feel, as it did on that wintry morning of the quiz, like nothing so much as a big and rackety family.

Battle library on Oxford Road in Reading. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

The trouble comes when libraries – and the underpaid, overstretched people who work in them – start to become sole providers for all these things: when years of cost-cutting mean that the state has effectively reneged on all but the most unavoidable of its responsibilities to the troubled, the poor, the educationally challenged, the lonely, the physically unwell, the lost or the homeless. “We risk becoming a social care safety net,” said Nick Poole, the outgoing CEO of the library association Cilip, and “our staff are not clinical staff”.

Libraries themselves, of course, have not escaped the filleting. About 800, or almost a fifth, of the UK’s libraries have closed since 2010, while national spend on libraries has dropped by more than 25%. Some libraries are now run by volunteers – but volunteering, said Poole, “really only works where there’s a quantum of free time and sufficient affluence, and it just doesn’t work where the need is greatest”. These days there is so much need, and not enough help. “And if there is nowhere else to go,” Curran said to me one day, “this is where they’ll come.”

Battle library, which sits on a stretch of road that in a single block offers a veritable United Nations of food options, as well as the Tesco and a pawnbroker, is small enough that you can see most of it from the front desk. Curran, 41, has been manager since 2018. He does, as he puts it, the “manager-ish things”: meeting tradespeople or signing off on admin, and often taking the louder, flashier roles, such as leading rhymetime sessions for young children. He is aware he isn’t the most organised, and is grateful for Giles’s handwritten lists, the order she imposes. He’s a “really good manager”, Giles told me one day – while also getting me to promise that I wouldn’t tell him that she’d been saying nice things about him – but “so untidy! I sort of come after him and sweep up afterwards.”

There is an unfussy kindness to Curran. Libraries occasionally have to impose bans for antisocial behaviour, “but you don’t want to ban people”, he told me. “I kind of feel bad for them because it’s often related to something they’re going through.” Giles, 58, who has a softness of demeanour that belies a central steel, is more likely to give the bigger welcome, but also, she’s “a lot tougher than me”, said Curran. “And scarier.”

Giles and Curran met 16 years ago, at another branch in Reading. Giles, who grew up in the town and has three children, had already been working there for five years. Curran was 24 and partway through a PhD on Samuel Beckett and BS Johnson. “I thought, ‘I’ll get this job and just read while I’m there.’ And of course it was nothing like that.” Back then, he was “very in himself, nothing like he is now”, said Giles. “I didn’t used to speak to people much,” agreed Curran, who these days is confident and approachable, though eye contact is still something he avoids. “I remember getting told to smile: ‘You might be the only person they’ve seen all day.’”

They have been friends ever since. Curran eventually abandoned his PhD (“It wasn’t really for me. I do better with a bit of structure”) and spent a decade performing and recording gothic country music with hip-hop inflections as an act called 13D. But gradually a thing he was doing while “waiting for something else” became the surprisingly satisfying something else. Giles, who is now a grandmother, has been working at Battle library since 2020. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “I’m so happy working here.”

Battle now runs as a kind of double act, with various walk-on parts. Curran and Giles talk over each other, contradict each other, finish each other’s sentences. They bicker and argue (“which must be very wearing for everyone else”, said Curran; “He makes lots of silly jokes I just ignore,” said Giles), but there is clearly a deep underlying care and warmth. He checks with her often. “Hey, Mand, what did I read last year?” he called across Reading Central library one day. “What do you mean, what did you read? You read lots!” she replied. In fact she knew exactly what he meant: they have an informal book club that usually consists of the two of them, meeting outside work. Mandy, Curran said to me a few weeks after my first visit, “is my best friend”.

For days over the winter and spring, I installed myself at the front desk and watched as Giles and Curran performed the music of public libraries everywhere. Books requested, books borrowed, books held and returned. As in every library, there was the occasional flamboyantly late book: a Winnie-the-Pooh, recently, that had been borrowed in 1970. And not long ago, a mystery: a spate of strips torn off the bottoms of pages, “like a lawnmower had ripped through”. The culprit was tracked down through borrowing histories and confronted, and had not been back. (“Some sort of nervous thing, maybe,” Curran speculated.)

Above this steady beat ran the unpredictable melody of questions and comments and requests. May I join the library? I’ve lost my card. I’ve come to fix the blinds. Can I print something? How do I do it? Do you have a number for Reading Museum? Can you turn the heating off? Can you turn it on? I need to learn English. I reserved a book. I’d like to donate some books. Do you have bin bags? Do you do passports?

Most days, there was someone there the minute they opened. Once it was a man in sports kit who literally sprinted for the new Lee Child. Another day it was a mumbled request for sanitary products. (A charity called All Yours distributes them free through libraries and community centres in the south-east.)

And beyond all this, in a descant of care and ingenuity, Curran and Giles were planning activities and making displays. Displays are their speciality, and they are gorgeously, wittily constructed. On my visits, I saw a snowy crime scene, complete with tiny clapboard house, police tape and bloody footprints built to top a selection of Scandinavian thrillers (Curran) and opposite it a tree shivering with delicate gold stars (Giles). At Christmas, Giles made a red postbox, and they encouraged children to write Santa letters – to which Curran wrote individual replies in beautiful calligraphy. In the spring, Giles built a Formula One racing track that wound around the children’s library.

And in the main library, nestled among the hardbacks, are the book nooks Curran made when, during lockdown, he found himself in charge of an empty library: small 3D reconstructions of scenes from novels. A train carriage with tiny adverts on the walls and an abandoned handbag; a prison cell; a tiny piano under a stained-glass window, complete with sheet music; a snowy scene visible through a wardrobe. There’s a prize for guessing all the stories represented, but no one has yet won it.

One of the library’s ‘nooks’ – handmade dioramas depicting scenes from classic novels. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi/The Guardian

It’s all extremely inviting – and that isn’t even to mention the children’s section. When, about 16 years ago, Battle’s then-manager, Marjorie McClure, won a National Lottery grant, she spent part of it on creating a cosy space for children to play and curl up in with a book. Parked in the centre of the high-ceilinged children’s section, in front of the tall, bright windows, is a maroon-and-yellow wagon. Inside are low cushioned benches, and under the benches small cupboards; the windows have red gingham curtains. McClure also commissioned murals, and a small amphitheatre for storytimes. To this, Giles and Curran have added a handmade ferris wheel and detailed attention to every possible corner a child might look into: starlings perched on picture frames, notes about coding clubs stuck knee-high to the sides of bookshelves, dinosaurs complete with Latin nomenclature and information about their habitats. When schools visit, Curran and Giles let the children use the old-fashioned library stamping machine, tell them about the board games, the treasure hunts, the crafts – all while repeating that it’s free, it’s free, it’s free. Some parts of Reading are well-heeled, but not this. Anything for which other branches might charge £1, Battle does not, because otherwise no one would come. Among all the wit and play and invention, their display of books intended to help manage the cost of living was striking for its plainness.

“In my belief,” Giles said, “if you start off with them as children, they’re always going to use the library.” And they begin as early as they can. For four hours every Tuesday, mothers bring new babies for their government health visitor checkups. They are asked to wait for their appointments in the children’s library. Many know it already, but others have never noticed its existence, or been in before. “I was surprised,” a local woman named Natalia Duca said to me, one rainy Tuesday. “I didn’t realise it was so nice!” Leeds Central Library recently established something similar, moving NHS antenatal, smoking cessation and perinatal mental health services into adapted pods around the edges of the library, and giving midwives training sessions on how to encourage families to return to the library when their children are born – a deliberate intervention aimed at improving early-years literacy.

Curran and Giles are always trying new things. When a recent report on the parlous state of the British library system was published, the thing that jumped out at Curran was the libraries that lent footballs. He wanted to do that. He had already applied for funding to run a Lego club. Reading Borough Council provides about £70 a year for the craft supplies Curran and Giles use in weekly clubs. Everything else they go shopping for together, with their own money, in their free time, or order online. (It’s worth noting, here, that library assistant jobs start at around £23,500.) Curran, who often worked on displays on days off – and on one especially stressful occasion taught himself balloon-modelling in order to take a morning of requests from children “who inevitably wanted a horse, which is the hardest one to make” – had a reputation among his colleagues for never being ill, and hardly ever taking leave.

And this was only what was visible on the surface. Poole described what he called “slow librarianship” – the process of coming to understand a specific community, and catering to it specifically. Watching the front desk will show you busy people, said Poole, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. “What you won’t necessarily see is the care they’ve taken over the preceding six years, to make sure that when somebody walks in and says, ‘I’m trying to learn about this,’ or, ‘Have you got any books in Chinese?’ we can say, ‘Yes,’ and it’s the right thing. It’s a really diligent job that requires serious skill and dedication.”

Many visitors I saw took it all for granted, but many did not. Like the man who came in and said in a low, apologetic voice, “Please, I’m a student; I’d like to come in to study” – and within 10 minutes had been issued with a library card and was at a desk. “He was quite surprised you didn’t have to pay,” said Curran. This was a familiar reaction. One father, whose child had picked up an outline of an alligator in the children’s library and coloured it in, came to the desk to ask, “Please can he take this away?” Yes, of course, said Giles. “Thank you. You’re great!” said the dad. Another father, with a sad, deeply lined face, watched as his young daughter searched under the desks for treasure hunt clues. When she found one, his face cracked into a vast smile.

Library workers, especially in the smaller branch libraries, know their regulars, and if they work there long-term (as many do), they see these regulars at different stages in their lives, often in private ways others might not. Non-fiction loans, especially, can be revealing. The five books on witchcraft taken out at once, for instance; or the burly man who came off a building site every afternoon and, still in dusty hi-vis, read art history for an hour or two before going home. Curran recalled one young man who wanted to know all about horses: “I’m seeing this girl, right,” said Curran – putting on a streetwise accent – “and she’s keen on horses, and I’d like to be able to talk to her about them.”

They also sense when things have gone awry. The home service – two full-time staff who deliver and collect books from those who can’t easily leave home – notice if someone seemed unwell, or a house too cold. Curran has sat next to people at a screen – usually men – who have said to him, “I don’t feel like being here anymore.” He would give them a number for social services, but they were usually reluctant to call. “You just know, don’t you, that look of depression” – his hands mimed blankness across his face. The other day, he said, he got chatting to someone whose electricity meter had run out. “They were just sitting in the dark eating cold beans for a couple of weeks until they got paid.” On another occasion, Curran was standing with an asylum-seeker at the printer, and what came out, as evidence requested by the authorities, was a picture of the man’s face smashed in.

On an average day, Giles and Curran spend nearly as much time setting people up on computers, helping them navigate these computers, helping them print, then using an old-fashioned ping-and-clang cash register to charge them for printing, as they do issuing books. Some users are not confident with the technology, but for others, there is a deeper problem. “Semi-literacy is a thing around here,” said Curran, “which you realise when you help with a computer. Obviously they don’t want to say, but a lot of the time it will be that they just can’t navigate.”

Library assistants aren’t required to help, but “the thing is they’re obviously struggling”, said Giles, so she and Curran almost always do. Much of the help required is urgent – job applications, benefits forms, case letters. “I mean, the amount of times I’ve had to go through forms with people, trying to quickly understand their C100 [for child custody arrangements] or any form like that,” said Curran. Universal credit comes up again and again. “Even I find that stressful,” Curran told me. Sometimes he wonders whether the government is deliberately making it difficult, “just to weed people out”.

Immigration documents are even more arduous, and Giles and Curran often assist asylum-seekers housed at a hotel just down the road. These recent arrivals need just one Home Office letter, the sinisterly named Bail 201, rather than the usual signed ID and proof of address, to get a library card. And with a library card, they suddenly have “all sorts of access”, said Curran. “To the internet, to printing – stuff that would cost a lot if you had to pay. And we’ll help you there and then, if we can. You don’t have to make an appointment. I like to think that [here at least] they see nice people. People who want to help them.”

‘Semi-literacy is a thing around here’ … Terry Curran, the manager of Battle library. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi/The Guardian

Social trends reported in the news are not news to library staff, as Simon Smith, the thoughtful, soft-spoken man who manages Reading’s libraries and museums, told me one afternoon. We had started talking in the local history section of Reading Central, but had been vigorously shushed by a patron and retreated to the messy back rooms. For instance, all of the staff were “acutely conscious”, said Smith, of the issues that were beginning to be thrown up by the pandemic. “A lot of people were really angry,” Curran told me. “But it was just people who had been suffering for ages – people with mental health problems who’d basically been locked in their house. Can you imagine? And there was nothing open. So they just came to somewhere that was open. A lot of people were just crying.” He turned to Giles. “Did you do the front door at Reading?”

“Yeah,” she replied, with feeling.

“There were people who would come up and start screaming,” he said. “Ostensibly it was, ‘I want to come in the library and borrow a book.’ But it wasn’t, really. It was just – troubled.”

At Battle, and Central – “where there’s a lot of sleeping in corners”, said Curran – they were tolerant of anyone who wanted to come in for a nap, though the toilets are locked half an hour before closing, partly because of a homeless patron who used to come in for a wash. It would have been fine if he’d done it before they closed, said Curran. “It was just that we had to stand there waiting for 20 minutes.”

Smith mentioned an informal Reading libraries policy of “empathy with a bit behind it”: not prying, but asking open questions, then directing the patron to resources that might help. “If someone says, ‘The boiler’s broken,” that can mean the boiler is broken. Or it can mean, ‘I’ve got a house full of family and I can’t [manage].’”

Reading Central library was such a proud step on the road to the 21st century that when it opened, in 1985, it occasioned its own souvenir guide. Today, it looks tired. The ceilings are low, making the space dark and oppressive. A crenellated castle wall erected around the toy library, intended to be playful, is a grey expanse that means library assistants cannot easily see what is happening on the other side. The first time I visited, late on a rainy December afternoon, I had just come from Battle, and the contrast was depressing. It was the 115-year-old light-filled building that felt modern, and infinitely more welcoming. Next year, Reading Central, with the help of £8.6m in levelling-up funding, is moving to the Civic Offices less than half a mile away. The current building will be turned into flats.

Early one Saturday in February I returned to Central, as Curran, who manages it once a month, and the caretaker, David Williams, were opening up. Owing to illness and school holidays, they were more short-staffed than usual, and Curran would have to man the first floor on his own. A cleaner was doing her rounds, and the library smelled of bleach.

Giles arrived about an hour later, though her work today would be different. Since 2018, a company that processes visa applications for the Home Office has paid to use a corner of Central, and it employs library assistants who have signed the Official Secrets Act as processing staff. Giles would spend the rest of the day in a specially roped-off area, checking documents, scanning them if necessary (for which visa applicants are charged an extortionate £56, regardless of the number of sheets), taking passport photos and recording biometric data. People came from across the country to be processed. Often, it was “everything to them”, Giles and her colleague told me. They often saw people’s hands shaking when they took fingerprints.

The five-figure sums the visa service brought in yearly have had a major impact on Reading libraries: no more redundancies, opening hours stabilised, no more branches at risk of closure. Smith was able to commission urgent works to the central building – which, in an excess of mid-80s idealism, included a small amphitheatre just outside, where stands of bamboo, probably rather lovely when new, had become a repository for human waste, rubbish and used needles. “I got a needle stuck in my arm once,” said Williams, a grizzled man of 67. “That was six months of tests.” The amphitheatre is overlooked by a wide window in the fiction section, which used to be a ringside seat from which to watch people shooting up below. The bamboo has now been cut back, some railings added, and an access blocked, so there is now far less antisocial behaviour.

Giles and Curran seemed markedly less relaxed at Central. “I like it better at Battle,” Curran said. “Here, I’m waiting for something terrible to happen.” As manager, Smith had been called to toilets with blood spattered up the walls, or an unconscious person with a needle hanging out of them. When he mentions such incidents to people who don’t work in libraries, they are surprised. “It’s like, ‘Where do you work again?’”

Reading Central library’s outdoor amphitheatre. Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/Rex/Shutterstock

It wasn’t that Battle didn’t have its share of incidents. People got upset at the desk, or at the computers, and could be aggressive. Once or twice a year someone using the toilet “will smoke crack and set off the fire alarm”, said Curran. “And then they yell, ‘Can’t come out! I’m on my arse!” Battle had two panic buttons, which they’d not yet had to use, whereas Central has about five or six incidents a month – though, to put it in context, that’s out of about 11,000 visits in the same period. “You get a feel for when something’s about to kick off,” said Williams, part of whose job was to pace the floors, keeping the peace, linked by radio to local security officers in case he needed backup. But when Williams says that “a library should be a safe space for everyone”, he means it. Even the drunk person who just wants to put their head down on the table, or the addict coming down off a high. “They need to feel safe too,” he told me.

Do you ever feel intimidated? I asked Giles one day. “Yeah – occasionally,” she said. Libraries have a largely female workforce. There is a policy at Central that no one should work alone, but female staff can still feel vulnerable. In his eye-opening 2017 memoir about working at a regional library, Reading Allowed, Chris Paling told the story of a reader, “the Thin Man”, who took to stalking a female library assistant home.

That Saturday, lunchtime was a challenge. Staff had 15 minutes, but Curran was struggling to give everyone a break while making sure no one was on a desk alone. “It hurts the head,” he said. Eventually he solved it by getting less than five minutes himself – which he used to make Giles a cup of tea. They passed each other in front of visas and Curran gave Giles a shoulder bump. Giles rolled her eyes, tolerantly, at me. She had a cold she could not shake, but had gone into work anyway. “I wish people knew,” Giles had said to me one day about Battle, “just how much effort we put in. I think we would like it to mean more to people.” It’s a point that comes up among library staff again and again.

At Battle, just before Christmas, I watched as Curran and Giles began to wind everything down for the day. It was dark and rainy. Children careered through the rooms, looking for hidden Christmas crackers. Six-year-old James was offering his services. “Need any help? I’ve already done it twice.” He noticed a woman signing up for a library card. “Is it your first time? I’ve been here loads. I never get lost in here.” Giles and Curran were discussing the order of carols for their final rhymetime of the year, singing snatches of them together.

“People complain we’re turning the library into a creche,” Curran said, “but I love the sound of children’s laughter, the sound of people having fun, especially when it’s something we’ve organised. When it’s busy and there are lots of families everywhere, that’s when it’s the best.”

A toddler bowled through fiction, shrieking with delight. The mother covered her mouth in horror, but no one else reacted. A small girl with a high ponytail came to see Giles at the desk.

“Can I take this book out, please?” said her mother, coaching her.

“Can I take this book out, please?” echoed the child.

“Of course,” said Giles. The girl looked thrilled.

“You need to look after the book, OK?” said her mother. “You need to look after it very well.”

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