What is a public library for? Costa coffee and "bums on seats"? or the promise of a better world? The managerialised nightmare of a London council's cost-cutting misunderstandings is glimpsed at through the deep stacks by a not-yet-defeated librarian and idealist
The council were tightening their belts of imitation alligator leather over pale paunches and shiny grey trousers —librarians had been living high on the hog for too long and now it was time for what? … for more bollocks… for more training sessions, for new chief executives with their real ale beer bellies, all called Mike, who popped their head round the door of our Department, ‘you’re doing a great job—keep quiet—they’ll forget about you until the next restructure…’
Geoff Goodtimes, my line manager told me he always took something positive out of a stressful situation, reciting it straight from the manual. ‘Libraries are now competing with Costa coffee stores, you’re no longer a librarian. You’re a customer services assistant, a floor-walker. We’re more than a library..’
‘But our shelves are half empty.’
‘There you go… negging out..’
I looked puzzled, was that from the manual too?
‘Being unduly negative about all the exciting changes. Remember your appraisal.’
The jist of it was we had to increase footfall by any means. Not by promoting books but with Christmas-dressing as characters from The Nutcracker because he thought it was a ‘bit of fun.’ He told me that our toilet is an asset. ‘Bums on seats. Persuade them to take a book in as well and that way we can increase issue.’
It was Thursday and I was working the graveyard shift with Quasim who’d disappeared into the children’s library for an hour to read Lemony Snickett. Little chirps and marimba tones from mobiles, sighs from the newspaper and periodical readers, tramps, a homeless woman with her feet wrapped in medieval furs reading musical scores and then my nemesis, the Special Needs guy, Jimbo. In he shuffled fifteen minutes before closing time and randomly began pulling books off shelves. ‘Help me shelf?’ he asked.
‘I’m working on the counter.’
And then maliciously he began pulling more books off and leaving them in stacks on the carpet.
‘Do you like steak?’ he said.
‘No,’ I said.
‘Help me shelf?’ he said. And then he disappeared from the crime section into the oversized cookery books—it was going to be a bookbath in there. I’d tried to establish a rapport with Jimbo but the questions kept coming, ‘Do you like steak? What would you have with it? Can I have a tissue? Can I have a glass of water? Help me shelf?’ and then it would begin all over again.
On the counter, complications. A Lithuanian man wanted to join the library to take out a copy of War Horse for two months so he could pass it on to a friend…
‘Right, perhaps your friend would like to join?’
‘He is not in this country. Not have passport.’
‘Help me shelf,’ Jimbo said his eyes rolling in different directions.
I had this dream, back in the early days, of romance with readers in the racks, passionate affairs sparkled into life after chance reading recommendations. Then we were more than a library and less than a coffee shop, a community hub where we dispensed a form of palliative care to the lonely and long-suffering, a sympathetic smile, a hand that lingered in an outstretched palm while handing over change. And Jimbo too was part of that vision. Steering Jimbo towards the right reading choices, teaching him to ask better questions.
‘Library closing in ten minutes,’ I said and walked over to Jimbo. He looked up expectantly and, before he began, I thought once again: "I can turn this around ... Turn it into a feel-good movie when we take off together into the Hollywood Hills in our mobility scooter..."
‘You’ve got three questions, Jimbo. Think carefully.’
‘Do you like steak?’ he said
‘You’ve wasted that one.’
‘Can I have a glass of water?’
‘Help me shelf?’