Anne Nicholson is Network Librarian, Highland Libraries, Highlife Highland.
The road to paradise
I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library. – Jorge Luis Borges
I feel a drop of water fall on my head. Rain. I stop to consider for a moment just what kind of library Jorge Luis Borges imagined before hastily fetching a bucket and placing it on the floor by the large print romance. Certainty not this kind of library, Mr Borges! Lochaber in the Scottish Highlands is reportedly one of the wettest places in Britain. This I can believe. Fort William, the largest town in Lochaber, is home to one of the busiest libraries in Highland (number of visitors 2012/13 = 65,808) – a library with a flat roof no less – and where I spend the majority of my working days.
Despite the obvious limitations of the building, the library does reflect Paradise as I imagine it in at least one respect. I imagine Paradise as filled with a myriad of life forms and it has been said of Fort William – as I expect it has of many public libraries – that all life is there. From the diligent researcher to the crossword champion, from the child in search of adventure, to the parent in search of escape, from the young couple in want of a quiet corner for a smooch, to the weary in want of 40 winks. The library is a social and learning hub and a centre for the whole of the local community. There are also the tourists and visitors, the passers-through looking for a place to take the weight of their feet, to find accommodation or ask for directions, travellers wanting local information or to send a quick email to family and friends.
As a Network Librarian I have responsibility for managing staff and premises, and the work in which I am involved is as diverse as the people who venture through our doors. However, increasingly my role has come to concentrate on the planning, development and delivery of library events and programmes, on identifying / implanting strategies to promote our stock and services and increase visitor numbers. More traditional lines of library work such as the purchasing and circulation of stock, which accounted for quite a large proportion of my time to begin with, are now chiefly managed centrally. This means I have had to become more proactive with regard to acquiring and retaining knowledge about stock holdings but it also allows me greater flexibility in managing my time. I am able to focus my attention on the impact our service is having / wants to have on communities and to invest time in engaging with those communities.
The scenery is stunning, our communities varied, often remote. There can be many miles between libraries and so delivering effective services depends on establishing strong local relationships. When I first took up post in Lochaber, almost six years ago now, my mum had this strange notion that I would be like a grown-up version of Katie Morag, roaming the Highlands and Islands of Scotland complete with duffle coat and wellies. The reality is, of course, somewhat different. I have no duffle coat and – surprisingly, given the amount of rain we are accustomed to – have not owned a pair of wellingtons since I was about the same age as Katie Morag. I do, however, occasionally get to travel Lochaber, explore the social and physical landscape and engage directly with communities. In fact my current remit sees me cover Fort William, Mallaig, Knoydart and the Small Isles (Canna, Rum, Eigg and Muck).
Mallaig is a small fishing port and ferry terminal approximately 43 miles north-west of Fort William. The road to Mallaig (commonly known as ‘the road to the Isles’) follows the route of the famous Jacobite steam train as featured in the Harry Potter films. The library, which is situated within Mallaig and Morar Community Centre, serves a population of around 800 people. I help to deliver Bookbug Sessions, class visits and craft activities. I also support the delivery of library services at Mallaig High School which has a roll of 130 pupils. This is the one part of my job in which I still continue to select and purchase stock.
From Mallaig you can catch a ferry to Knoydart which is a peninsula in Lochaber. It is only accessible by boat or by a 16 mile walk through rough country (it is not connected to the UK road system). Despite being encouraged to keep travelling expenses to a minimum I must admit to always opting for the ferry! The population of Knoydart is less than 100 and the library opens 2 hours a week. The library is housed in a building owned by the local community; it consists of a single room measuring just 36m², which means not only am I responsible for the biggest library in Lochaber but also the smallest.
The islands of Canna, Rum, Eigg and Muck, collectively known as the Small Isles, are a small archipelago of Islands in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. They are home to approximately 130 people with the largest population on Eigg. Books are delivered by ferry (departing once again from Mallaig) to the local primary school / community shop on each island twice a year. Volunteers take responsibility for the delivery / return of books and residents have open access to the library stock. Sending a questionnaire to each of the islands helped me get to know these communities and allowed me to cater for their needs and interests better. It helped establish an intimacy with our customers in spite of their remoteness. Two of the islands also have their own reading group and I converse with members to help select and supply titles from our multiple copies collection. Meanwhile, children from the Small Isles and Knoydart visit the mainland once a year as part of the school curriculum. The young people spend a week partaking in a range of different activities. A regular feature in their programme is now a visit to Mallaig Library. I have never before witnessed a group of primary children so quiet and content, completely engaged and engrossed in their reading.
Due to the unique and remote setting of the Small Isles and Knoydart the service provided to these communities differs from that offered elsewhere in the Highlands. It has to respond and adapt to changes / fluctuations in population and is tailored specifically to individual needs – even down to the boxes used to send exchanges which have to be water tight.
As with almost any job, mine comes with its fair share of pleasures and frustrations – I guess you need the showers for the flowers to bloom. However, as a character from one of my all-time favourite books observes: ‘The nicest thing about the rain is that is always stops. Eventually.’ (Eeyore, Winnie-the-Pooh). And when it does Paradise does not seem so very far away:
Of course, this is Lochaber and one thing you can be sure of is that it won’t be long before it starts to rain again. ‘Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, but about learning to dance in the rain’ – somebody please tell Eeyore!
That has to be the most amazing geographic tour on the blog so far! If you want to know more about Anne’s job, or make any comments, please use the Reply box below.