The man with (over) 50 library cards

Published on: 7 Hydref 2019

For Libraries Week 2019, the poet and author Joe Coelho tells us how necessary libraries are, how we can help support them, and why he plans to become a member of 209.

Earlier this year I gave myself the challenge of joining one library in every UK authority, that's 209 libraries in total. At time of writing I have joined 98 libraries and am getting quite excited about joining my 100th. When I set out on this journey, I thought it would be a great way to celebrate libraries and all they do and (if I'm honest) really cool to have 209 library cards! What can I say, I've always been a collector! I thought it would probably be my own quiet little challenge that I would do whenever I passed a library whilst on my travels.

What I didn't expect was the groundswell of support from libraries and librarians eager for me to swing by and join up and to hear their experiences.

I always knew (having previously worked in libraries) that books are just one part of what libraries and librarians do, but I didn't quite appreciate the extent to which this roll extends. I've spoken to librarians who have passionately told me about patrons they have known since childhood. Some they see every day; some they have signposted to vital support mechanisms and organisations to help with mental health issues or homelessness, some have become friends.

I've seen foodbank collection points in libraries, watched families engage in free (FREE!) craft sessions, chatted to librarians about essential schemes that combine breakfast and reading during holiday periods (when some families struggle to have enough food! – we're the fifth richest country in the world... let that sink in). And this is all on top of the everyday vital role of libraries and librarians in providing expert access to books, reading and research, providing us a means to find facts from verified and verifiable sources.

August was an intense period for my #LibraryMarathon, I spent three weeks travelling slowly from Kent up to Scotland and back again joining 70 libraries as I went, joining an average of 5 libraries a day, In a campervan leading to me being referred to as "One man, with a plan, in a campervan" during a BBC Midlands TV interview. It was by far the furthest road trip I've done in such a short period of time yet despite the 2000+ miles covered from Kent to the Scottish Highlands and back again I was really only travelling one place, let's call it Libria-tasia populated by the incredible libria-tasians who always greeted me with oodles of enthusiasm and smiles.

I met Bookbug (Scottish Booktrust's cuddly yellow bug that gets kids reading) several times and met the blue Bookstart bear at Crewe Library. Bonnybridge Library in Scotland got me involved in a song-filled Bookbug session whilst Tewkesbury Library in Gloucestershire had made several sets! Inspired from the spreads of my latest poetry collection A Year Of Nature Poems, I was gobsmacked and wowed and honoured.

And then there's Dumbarton Library in Scotland who heralded my arrival with bagpipes!

The Libria-tasians are clearly passionate about libraries and about us joining them. Which brings me on to another point. Libraries are clearly the heart of a community for the reasons I've mentioned above but also for the simple fact that in an increasingly digital world there are not many places where those who are not computer literate can learn to become so. This could be a huge problem if you suddenly find that you need to apply for a much-needed benefit or other service online. Libraries are one of the last remaining face-to-face services and that in itself is a service which we cannot take for granted.

I soon realised that the challenge was becoming a force of its own enabling individual libraries to raise awareness about their offers and maybe get some local press to cover the story. At one library I was referred to as "The man with 50 library cards" not quite the superhero moniker I ever imagined for myself, but I'll take it and that has, of course, since increased but 'The man with 98 library cards' doesn't quite have the same ring to it!

During the August leg of the Library Marathon I've managed to have some great conversations with librarians about their favourite books and the particulars of the job. One conversation I had highlighted for me a truth I think many of us experience. We spoke about the notion that many people tend to use libraries more intensely at different times of their lives, when young (hopefully) we're brought in by schools and parents and study requirements but often we become strangers in our early adulthood discovering the world of work and possibly having more disposable money to buy books! That is until we have children of our own when we then rediscover the library only to be shocked at how much they have changed and how many more things they are offering from when we were last in them (Stockton Library has an Imagination Station where you can use 3D printers!!!)

But it doesn't and shouldn't be this way, there are so many reasons why young adults should continue to use the library not only is it an extremely green thing to do, why buy when you can borrow, but it's also good for our health.

I've heard again and again from librarians about the social ill of isolation which many libraries combat by A) existing as free spaces where anyone can come in and sit, B) providing mobile libraries that go out into the community and C) providing home library services that deliver books to the door essential for those that may be housebound for all manor of reasons. But what surprised me is that many of the socially isolated are young, some people have finished university and then find themselves alone and lonely! Libraries are a natural contender to help alleviate this issue, clearly they're doing this already but maybe as a society we need to better value these special places, we need to ensure that we continually use them throughout our life and keep it in the forefront of our minds that these spaces exist and are actively and consistently doing essential work.

In the past I've definitely been guilty of allowing libraries to drop off my radar, for me it was after university, I was dealing with huge debts and working several jobs and struggling finally and emotionally, thinking back now I know if I had continued to be a regular library goer It would have been very helpful. I think it happened in part because i had been separated from my childhood library and didn't join one when I moved to Camden because I had the university library, but once I left university and the need to use its specialist libraries the habit had faded in me. It's a shame because my local library could have been a great source of comfort at that time. Socially there are clubs at libraries from knit and natter (that group has another name that I won't repeat here) to board game clubs (let me repeat that BOARD GAME CLUBS!!!! – AMAZING), there is no end to advice leaflets and posters for a whole range of services, maybe I could have got help with dept management, or maybe I would have got involved with a writers group much earlier on or perhaps been signposted to a group to help with anxiety.

I'm not yet halfway through this odyssey but I'm already so excited about the other stories and anecdotes I'll hear and hopeful that through joining 209 libraries I might encourage more people to join their local library if they haven't already done so and if they are members to get down to their library more often because there is no end to which it will positively impact their lives, your life, our lives.

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