Your Local Library Is The Community Hub.
I have spent a great deal of time in Ilkeston library, because it holds an enormous amount of information about my ancestors in its local history section. The variety and amount of information this modest section of the library holds is quite surprising. Through rent books and old local newspapers on microfilm I have been able to recreate the daily lives of my grandmother, great-aunts and particularly my great-uncle around the time of the First World War. Great-uncle Arthur never came back from the war. He died in April 1918, in Belgium.
For my final year project in my BA in Creative and Professional Writing I began working on a graphic novel to show children how to do the type of research I had done to investigate my great-uncle’s life and I was given permission to photograph the library for reference shots. In return I felt it only fair to let people know that libraries are more than just a book lending service, so Ruth Sharpe, the community learning information librarian for Derbyshire, kindly agreed to be interviewed about the services Ilkeston library and the library services in Derbyshire offers. Many of these services are also available in other districts and local libraries in the UK and I suspect around the world, although they will vary from library to library.
What do you do as the community learning information librarian?
As a community learning information librarian, my usual daily routine consists of stock work in the local studies section, as well as indexing photographs and newspapers. I’ll also be trying to get copyright permission for the photographs to go up on the ‘Picture the Past’ website.
I ensure that all these materials are stored correctly (the record office conservators, are employed to do that specific role working with primary source material, whereas we concentrate on secondary sources mainly). The one thing you’ve got to remember is, with respect to libraries, that it’s a public service that people are interested in. It’s not run by a government act of Parliament, saying that you have to keep this information. That’s an important division. Obviously there is an act of Parliament saying there needs to be libraries, but that’s a different type of focus.
I also go out and do one-to-one taster sessions, in terms of helping people learn about libraries. We do 50+ work in helping to setup sessions to encourage older people to use computers and find out more about how to use them. We were recently involved in the Race Online project which is trying to help people get online. We’ve also been using the BBC’s First Click program to help us do this and I’ve been very actively involved in this project, organising volunteers to help us run this and other similar projects. We currently have three volunteers in Ilkeston, who do at least one hour a week with an individual to help them to use computers.
You also work with schoolchildren.
Yes we do quite a few activities with schools. For example we run map sessions, where we give them exercises comparing modern maps with a variety of history maps that we hold. There are maps from around the 1920s and some are around the 1930s (1938 to 1939) and the Second World War. They have to find where their school is and to compare one old map to a new map and look at the differences. We ask them to look for specific things, so that they actually realise there is a difference on the old map. For example where there were fields, there are now houses.
Then they will do a session on newspapers and trade directories. This time they have to look for specific people and things to do with that time period and search for unusual names; for example what a maltster is and that sort of thing.
The final session is the computer records. We go on to the ancestry records to try and find birth records (in the index obviously because you can’t see the certificate online, you have to order that separately). They have to look on ‘Picture the Past’ photographic website, so that they can find certain features and things we’re asking them to look for. It’s about the searching process as well as the actual information, because we want to show them the resources that can be used and how to use them.
The schoolchildren we’ve had in are really very young to be doing this and I think some of them struggled with the details of some of it. But having said that they did very well and because it was only a taster session, there are only a few minutes for each section. It gave them a lot of things to discuss and talk about afterwards.
What is the living literacy project?
It’s an extension of what we did with the children. The living literacy project was started about 2005 and we had some funding to help try to help young people learn that literacy is something that is important and happening all around them.
This was done by taking children from a school on a walk around their local town to find key historical features. They were given cameras to take photos as well. The idea was that they would go back to the library and download all the photos and have a look at them.
Then they looked at different categories of all sorts of different material and compared them with what they found. That meant the subject matter had to be linked up. In this case it was finding out about the house of confinement in Alfreton, which is one area we did this work in. They had to compare old photographs on the ‘Picture the Past’ website with photographs they had taken that day. It was a bit like a ‘Where’s Wally’ idea. For instance, there was one feature which was in imp right at the top of one of the buildings and they had to find where this was. So they had to learn to stop looking down in one place but look all around them and even look up, which they didn’t do until we told them to.
So that was a lesson in itself, to look up above shops to see what’s on the buildings. It’s really good for getting a sense of place and the value of the history of the area they’re in. It gives them a sense of belonging to the place. The thing we always do with the maps is to see where their road is on it, then look at old maps to see what it looked like or whether it was even there. Sometimes we asked them to look for roads on old maps that are no longer there these days.
What we’ve done since then is either extended or delivered cut-down versions of it to different schools around the county. Originally it was only done in Bolsover, but now we’ve done it in Belper and Alfreton. Swadlincote is the most recent area and the school decided themselves to go around looking at the history of the town. Physically going around and having a look and getting the children to take photographs for themselves, which they did and then did further work on them later at school.
So a library isn’t just a place where people come and borrow books. It seems to be far more hands on and interactive. What other sorts of things do you do?
We do all sorts of different things. I used to be a children’s librarian, when I first started in libraries. We would go out into schools and do sessions where we explained things like, how the Dewey Decimal system worked and also did story sessions. Unfortunately we don’t have as much time now to go into schools, so we get classes to come to us.
We recently had a celebration at Ripley library, because it was Barnes Wallis’s 125th birthday. He lived in Ripley. So we got the kids in and they were looking at this particular part of history in the Second World War, with material we had in the library. But we were also specifically looking at old company records, which was fascinating because Butterley Brick was around that area at that time. We had things, like an old poster that was on the wall, saying that somebody hadn’t turned up for work and what had happened to him. He’d lost about a month’s wages and had been put in prison because he hadn’t turned up to work for one day.
We do poetry sessions and get authors to come in, so that children can benefit from listening to how they got into writing.
We do hold a lot of events in the library and getting people to come into the library is our priority. Although, more and more, we’re becoming a virtual library.
I’d say that’s one of my priorities at the moment. In this job I’m the local studies librarian and in the other job I manage the information services for the county. We have about 19 online reference resources that people can access from home 24 hours a day. We also look after the queries that come through regarding e-books. We’ve just got a new e-book service up and running. This means you don’t have to come into the library for that because you can just download a book and read it on whatever device you have; whether it’s a computer, iPad, tablet or phone. We’re hoping to extend that to downloadable audio books as well, so that they’ll be in an MP3 format.
Again this is taking people away from libraries, so that’s why it’s so important to have the extra events and the interaction and the education for using the resources that we’ve got. We often do sessions in schools about the online resources (which we call the 24-hour library for ease of description). We went into a secondary school in Chesterfield and the teachers were just amazed that we had that sort of information available. They were saying to us, ‘Why don’t you tell people about this?’ We say, ‘We’re trying to.’ But it’s how you actually get that information out to them.
We do have our own Facebook page and there is also a Twitter account. There is a team of staff who populate that, so information is going out all the time.
So what you’re saying is that libraries, physically, shouldn’t disappear, because there are some resources that you just can’t get online?
Yes that’s very true. For example the interaction between people. Because without the library, people wouldn’t necessarily know who else they could talk to or go to for advice or information. So it’s our role to help them on a one-to-one basis to find the information that they need.
I had one lady phone up and she said to me, ‘I didn’t know who to turn to, so I thought of you. I’ve seen lights in the sky and I don’t know what it is.’ She was genuinely very concerned. I don’t know how much help we were, but we gave her the UFO spotters’ organisation details, so she could get in touch with them. This may seem like a rather frivolous example, but it was important that we helped her.
The one thing I have found with librarians, wherever they are, is that they’re always very patient and very helpful. Is this a universal trait?
Yes I think so. A colleague of mine answered the phone when we were in a completely different building to where the resources were. She could have said, ‘I’ll take a message for you.’ Instead she said, ‘Would you like me to go and look for you?’ It’s a matter of taking it to the nth degree so that whoever is visiting the library or ringing us gets the information that they want. There’s also the issue that someone may need something that they don’t realise they want. This is when we’ll do an informal interview to find out exactly what it is that they’re after.
That’s interesting. So if someone was unsure of how to go about researching local history, for example, or just didn’t have the confidence to try it on their own, what could you do for someone in that position?
Often when people do come, it’s because they’ve heard about family history from the television or it’s because of something they’ve read and want to know how to do it themselves. The way they usually do this is by saying, ‘I’ve got my great uncle Fred who was in the war in this particular year’ and they want to know about him.
So we might start by talking about the ancestry database as a first port of call, just to get some ideas. But, we do have written help sheets and this information is also on our website. There are guides to helping you do your family history research. We would also talk about the card catalogues we have and refer people to our Central local studies library, which is the main research centre, because they’ve got information for the whole county.
For example in Derbyshire, this is in Matlock. This will eventually be part of the records office and therefore much more convenient for researchers, because all these records will be under one roof.
Many years ago when I was training, one of the staff who trained me who was a very knowledgeable local studies librarian. She drew a diagram that had all the different ports of information and the stages in the research process, based on where you can get that information from; for example, the local history society, record office or the local studies library. There was a little man drawn in the middle of it and it was a case of anybody can go to any of those points as the first port of call. So what it meant was you could start your research in a certain way and then be directed to other options as you went along. These might be done in different orders depending on what it is you wanted to know.
We now have the subject guides I talked about to help anybody, step-by-step, to start their research. These subject guides have now been transferred to our website, so they can be downloaded and printed off from the Derbyshire County Council website in the local studies, history section. So they’re available for anyone who wants them, no matter where they are.
We do have an actual staff manual in each branch, which has local studies information in it and we can give that to members of the public to look at. This enables them to go through all the different types of material and that’s how we tend to do it. We first look at the material type and what information you can get from that. Then it’s a case of thinking, ‘What do I want?’ For example, someone might need trade directories because it might help them with their family but it will also tell them about the topography of the area and the type of trades and industries that were there.
But the first thing that it’s best to do before you start all this is talk to other people that you know, or are related to, or have even lived in the area for quite some time. Then it’s possible to go and look at the censuses and begin working out from there.
So if someone was very nervous about starting off looking at local history, a librarian could be very helpful because they can talk them through the process of doing the research?
Absolutely. The librarian will spend some time with them, particularly in places like this, because the changing role of the librarians is making it easier for that to happen. Librarians, as such, aren’t found on the general staff of a branch library, because they now called development librarians and their role is to try and extend the services available and try to encourage people to come in and to do extra things like the things we talked about earlier.
Ilkeston is not a very big town, so in this library, as far as local history resources are concerned, what sort of things have you got?
We’ve got books, pamphlets, cuttings from newspapers and photographs. We also have a large collection of hard copy directories, although every library has a microfilm version from 1908 to 1977 of all the local ones from Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire area (the same should apply to other libraries). We also have microfilm of the Census and the newspapers for the local area. But nowadays we also have the online versions of newspapers and we have the Census via the ancestry website. This is accessible on the computer from all the libraries. There’s also statistical information that we have to do with the Census.
When I say most libraries, we band our libraries according to the type of information they’re going to hold and this depends on how big the population is and how many books get borrowed each year as a consequence. The big libraries are obviously the ones that have the biggest collections and there are 13 of that level of library in the county and these would have the majority of the information. We do have a set of minimum standards as to what we would expect within each category of library and the type of stock that we would expect, varies according to which band the library belongs to. We do also have ephemeral information which doesn’t fit into any category, for example the special map listing the bomb sites in Ilkeston or an actual ration book. But that is very much dependent on what has been donated by the local population or being collected over the years. Ephemera collections tend to be cuttings that we have created or extra leaflets associated with a particular subject.
Thinking about ancestry websites, you can you access them free through the local library?
The library service pays for customers to use an ancestry website for free. Derbyshire County Council pays on behalf of the libraries, because the subscription’s based on population. So if someone is not using it, they’re missing out because it’s there for them to use, free of charge. For example ancestry.co.uk is a licence only and allows us to use it in libraries and the main reason for that is that the company does also enable you to buy individual subscriptions, so they don’t want to lose income from that.
But a lot of our databases, for example one called Infotrac has access to 10 national newspapers from 1985 to the current date. We have 50 periodicals on there, most of which are in full text, going back to the 1980s or 1990s, depending on the permissions. Then we have the nineteenth Century British library paper collection, which is from 1800s to 1900. That’s all the newspapers that the British library holds for that period that have been scanned, digitised and made fully searchable by keyword. That includes the Derby Mercury, which is the County newspaper (other local newpapers will be available for other libraries). There’s a couple of editions that they haven’t got copies of, so hopefully those will scanned fairly soon. They’ve also got the Times Digital archive, which is accessible through that database as well.
In terms of local newspapers, specific to an area we have things like the Ilkeston Advertiser and it would still be the local library that would hold that paper. All of these are held on microfilm.
In other words you come into a library and you can get an awful lot of information free?
Yes. A lot of collections that have been built up over the years, because of the fact that they’ve had good relations with the local community and worked with a history societies and so on, so that we can share resources and make sure that they are available as much as possible. The case in point is the ‘Picture the Past’ website, where we’ve been trying to digitise our collection, which has been donated over the years, so that it makes it more open to everybody.
We have a very extensive photographic collection here; and so many of them that we still need to put a great deal of them onto the ‘Picture the Past’ website. This is because we’re still working through the copyright process, to get permission to be able to put them on the website. The actual photographs are indexed in our card collection so you can look subjects up if you want to see the actual photograph. So it’s very quick and easy to find something they might be interested in.
So go through exactly what a librarian is today, because people think a librarian is somebody who can go and find you a book. What does a librarian do now?
Within Derbyshire, the librarians are now called development librarians. Our job is to go out and promote the service and encourage more people to come and use our service and also to develop it into areas the library may not have dealt with before. It’s basically a job we’ve been doing for years, but now we’re realised we need to make more of a song and dance about it to let people know we have all these services. So it’s a matter of running events, setting up partnerships with other community groups to enable us to benefit mutually from the resources we have and letting other people know about them. But it is also about more traditional things, like buying books to make sure our stock is available and that the stock is in good order for people to use, rather than having lots of bits of toast all over it, so that people are going to want to read the book in bed. It’s also about being enthusiastic about what we do. The other really key important thing is about information provision and making sure that we can provide information to people and answer questions, as well as finding out things that they want to know about. It’s about encouraging leisure activity to do with reading and having fun, as well as the educational aspect, which is to do with the information.
Another specific and key role of the community learning information librarian, which is my job, is the learning aspect. We are an informal learning place. So we work with adult education centres and try to encourage people to do their own informal learning, and help them to facilitate that.
So really if you were to shut down a local library, you’d be shutting down an enormous community hub?
Yes very much so. People don’t realise that we’ve been doing some of the things they’re asking us to do for years. I went to a conference recently, a NIAS conference to do with adult education and one thing that amazed me was how much they emphasised how important it was to have a virtual presence as far as your career is concerned and needing to be out there. I think libraries are probably a little bit behind in this respect. Probably this is because on a day-to-day basis we’re dealing with individuals and people generally, because people come personally to ask for advice. It’s not that we’re able to give advice, because that’s not our job, but we are able to refer them onto people who are able to help them. Sometimes people just come because they want some company. It’s all that sort of that goes completely unnoticed and why people don’t realise just how much libraries do.