Growing shelf-awareness as libraries face new chapter
A project in Sheffield encouraging people to share their memories of local libraries is proving a big success. reports.
THERE HAS been a lot of bad news about public libraries over recent years with cuts in funding placing many under threat, but a new project in Sheffield is bringing a more positive note into the debate.
Library Stories was initiated by Sheffield University academics Dr Anna Barton and Dr Briony Birdi, as part of their wider research comparing the city’s public library services when they were first set up in the 19th century with those today.
In May they distributed postcards at libraries across the city asking users the question: ‘What does your library mean to you?’ They interviewed library staff, met with book and social groups and held public reminiscence events.
Over 200 library users shared their thoughts, memories and stories of the city’s libraries and a selection of their appreciative and supportive responses can now be seen on the Library Stories website, created in collaboration with Our Favourite Places, publishers of an independent cultural guide to Sheffield. It is hoped that the site will grow in time as it invites people to contribute their views on the future of libraries.
“The project has been running for about a year,” explains Barton. “We weren’t necessarily looking for a good news story but I think our findings spoke back to all the bad news about libraries and re-emphasised the importance of them to people. I think there is a continuing sense that libraries are a necessary part of community life.”
Barton, who teaches in the School of English and is co-director of the Centre for 19th Century Studies, and Birdi, a lecturer in Librarianship, went back to the origins of the public library system in the city. “Sheffield has a long tradition of libraries going back to the 19th century and in our research we looked at records including those of the original meetings seeking funding to build new libraries,” says Birdi. “We also looked at other documents and visitors books from that time and they all painted a picture of how people used libraries then.”
There were separate reading rooms for men and women at that time and Barton and Birdi’s research revealed a significant gender gap, not necessarily in terms of who was visiting the library but certainly in terms of making their voices heard – they discovered that in the 19th century and early 20th century most of the comments in the visitors’ books were from men.
There was also a fair amount of documentation on the importance of clean hands when handling books, as well as complaints about the quality of the lighting. “We were trying to construct a history of they way in which libraries were used by the people using them rather than the people running them,” says Birdi.
For many of us of a certain age our first experiences of the joy of reading took place in public libraries, but what of the next generation? With advances in technology and a whole world of information available at the click of a mouse, will public libraries play as significant a part in the development of children in the 21st century and beyond? Birdi is optimistic. “I think there is no doubt that they will because the internet can’t replace the social experience of going to the library,” she says. “Particularly for children – they engage with the physical book and like storytelling and play. I think there will always be libraries as long as they adapt to the changing times and are given sufficient funding to do that.”
Barton and Birdi hope that the new website will be a forum for precisely that kind of discussion. “This is the beginning of a conversation that will be ongoing,” says Barton. “We are very keen for people to tell us their sense of what a public library is now and what it can be in the future.”
To join the conversation visit www. librarystories.co.uk