Following on from our blog in May, here is part two of our interview with Kate Daly from Old Town Community Library in Eastbourne. This second part reiterates why these services are so vital to our community and how the role of volunteers in our society, who so generously donate their time, quite literally change people’s lives.
How do you feel the library makes a difference to people's lives? You’ve said that it isn't just about books?
Oh no, it's not. It's not just a reference service. I've got this wonderful quote that Angela Clark wrote (she's one of our supporters, and she's also an author) ‘I think a library is a place for the vulnerable.’ And that's exactly what our library is. You might get an elderly gentleman who comes in, and his only remaining human interaction will be with us in the library, he might not have anybody else, and men are much more difficult to get out doing things. Women, when they're widows, tend to go out and get involved. Men don't. We've got a few that come in. They'll get their books and then spend a while chatting with us and have a cup of tea. Then you might have young mums who want friendship or Rhyme Time. I think it's really important we do that, because there's a lot of young mums who relish that friendship.
So it’s more of a community meeting house then?
It is. We have private hires and then we've got groups like the home education community, who hire it because it gives a chance for the home educated children to get together and socialise. We also have Al-Anon, which is the friends and family of Alcoholics Anonymous. People who are job seekers now have to go online for 35 hours of job searching every week, so they use the library for that.
Do you charge people to use the library?
No, it's all free, the same as a county council library would be. So the only thing we charge for is printing. The use of the laptops and WiFi is free. They can have a coffee - cheapest coffee in town - for 50p, and printing is cheap too, 10p black & white and 50p colour. So that's how we raise some of our revenue. But there’s no charge to borrow books. No overdue fees either. Something the county council still does is charge overdue fees. We don't do that because we don't want to alienate and upset our customers. If books are over-due we just say “if you've got a few coppers for our charity box that would be lovely” and it works much better that way. We have a voluntary scheme as well called The Friends Of Old Town Library that people can join. It's up to them how much they donate. They can donate by standing order. They can do a £1 a month, £3 a month, £5 a month whatever they can afford, or even just £5 a year, and that's helped. And we hire out the building privately when it's closed as well. All sorts of people use it.
Are the laptops donated?
The first laptops were donated from Old Town Area Panel. The second batch were donated from Sussex Community Foundation. We've got nine laptops at the moment, four as permanent fixtures, and then if we get really busy we bring the others out. We run a computer basics course and it’s literally booked out with a waiting list. It’s aimed at people that have never even opened a laptop. Funding has paid for that.
Do you have a lot of children that come in and borrow books?
Yes, and we have school visits as well and they bring in classes of about 15 at a time. We have had lots recently, and you would be surprised how many of those children then nag their parents about how wonderful Old Town library is, and please can they join. So our membership from the school visits has really increased. Probably one of the saddest things is that Council Libraries have a Summer Reading Scheme that we just cannot afford to offer as it is very expensive, and unless you've got a sponsor, you really can't do it. So we have a lot of children coming in the Summer Holidays asking if we do you do the Summer Reading scheme, and we have to say no.
What exactly is that scheme?
Children come in and they are challenged to read six books in the summer holidays. The library staff ask them questions about the book they've read then, based on this, they get little rewards. It might be pencils, or rubbers and they get a medal and a certificate. It keeps the children reading throughout the summer holidays, because they tend not to read during the summer, and then they forget what they've learned. We’d love to be able to offer that scheme here.
So your age range is from wee small children, right up to the elderly?
One of our oldest book borrowers is 92, and she wants to sign up for the computer course. I had a Mum come in with baby in a pram and asked if she could sign baby up now ready for later on.
Your customers must really appreciate the library?
Absolutely, absolutely. A lot of the children are in poverty. Their only source of books is the library. In Old Town, we are right on the edge of quite a neglected and poor area, so it's really important that children can come in at any time to read and do their homework. If they need help, one of us have usually got some knowledge. And of course we have the computers, which a lot of them can't afford to have at home. There's a couple of home-educated children who come in with a mum every Friday afternoon, and that’s the only chance they get to go on a computer. She actually struggles to get them to do their work, as they want to do everything else in the library first!
Why do you think libraries are important?
I would say libraries are a haven. In a world where other community services are being ground down to nothing, all libraries are vital. You can't measure their worth, you just can't measure them in books alone.