Monday, 19 January 2009

Mobile Meeting at Meadowhall

You can tell when people are used to working in a mobile library. They do not confine meeting spaces to offices, or buildings, even. I have just had a meeting on a bench in the middle of Meadowhall Shopping centre, (Sheffield) with the worlds authority on Mobile Libraries. Well, he appears to be that, he is the most passionate advocate for mobile libraries that I have met (apart from me) and he sits on National and international professional bodies representing the mobile library of Britain and the world.

When I arranged the meeting I did not realise that he had worked on, and driven, a Children's mobile library himself. In 1986 his library authority (Kirklees) needed to save costs, so decided instead of having a children's librarian in each of their libraries they would have a team of six to circulate the libraries. The team of six chose to design a mobile library in which to do their circulation. They asked a coach builder what was the largest size vehicle they could build on a suitable chassy for only 7.5 tons and when the dimensions were established they chalked out an area on the playground of the the old school in which they had their offices. The weight of the vehicle at the time meant that it could be driven by anyone with a car licence. Although a qualified librarian, Ian drove it. they basically built a life size cardboard model to sort out when and where everything should go. The vehicle was to be multi functional.

It had to earn its keep by doing bread and butter work as a delivery van, taking books to schools and branch libraries. This saved the cost of an internal mail delivery van. It also delivered displays to schools and Branch libraries, which was a popular move because it brought new stock with it which increased book issues. The team developed learning packages for use in schools, and provided schools with books and other artifacts they needed for their current projects. It was used as a base for events which meant that some static branches that were very small could hold story sessions and holiday events, the vehicle parking outside the library as it's temporary extension. It was time efficient becasue the mobile library could be decorated and set up once then used in multiple locations. It was used to give library lessons in schools. The schools liked this because the children did not need to leave the school premises (Van parked in School playground) and all the regulations for out of school visits, such as one adult to every two, or five children, and various risk assesments were not needed. Yet the children had an experience of a visit, of visiting a library.

The Children's Mobile library staff noticed that the children that benefited from these visits the most were the slow learners and those who normally were inattentive in a classroom. Put into an out of classroom situation they became engaged. It was a story telling vehicle, a trick to gain attention of the more unruly element was to sit the children down facing the front of the vehicle, then deliver the story from the back, the children having to swivel around, making the back row suddenly the front row, and they could not escape the attention of the story teller. It was designed to be a venue for puppet shows, which happened in each half term holiday. It was a venue for Author visits. this was also seen to be a money saving device. As the Route of the children's mobile library was around schools in Pennine villages, It would have been impossible for each school to afford to have an author visit just them. The library was able to book an author, then take him/her to the venues, incurring only one set of charges from the publisher.

The vehicle was a promotional device for the library and museum service, attending events. It was also a corporate, local authority promotional presence representing the local authority in the Lord Mayor's parade, giving out authority leaflets and even taking a batch of tourist information leaflets to their twinned town in Germany because it was cheaper than posting them. It was all because of "Last of the Summer Wine", I am not sure if it was being screened in Germany, or some episode was shot in Germany. Kirklees council is the local authority for Holmfirth, where Last of the Summer Wine is filmed. So, Ian's children's mobile library was involved in a civic reception and was visited by the state governor. It's other claim to fame was as a mobile work of art.

To get around copyright issues a Mural artist was hired and given an arts council grant to paint the van (using proper vehicle paint, of course). The fleet manager was a little concerned about touching up any scratches that the vehicle got, but the artist reassured him by saying that she has saved the paints in her garage, and could come and touch up the paintwork at little cost whenever they needed. The fleet manager than had thoughts of decorated bin vans. Anyway, because the mobile library was a unique piece of art, it was displayed at Harrogate Art Gallery. It was so versatile, that in the evenings it became a mobile meeting room for consultations between parents and local authority elected members. Still set up for school visits, parents and members could see what was going on, and where the money went, as well as having an independent place to meet. The design of the vehicle was crucial.

Ian emphasised that a tail lift at the the back of the vehicle was more functional than a door at the side. There was more access at the back and it was ideal for special schools with children in wheel chairs and poor mobility. Ian encouraged some of those children to "Drive" the lift. He devised a board game to be played with a large die that a child with very little movement could drop and play along with the others. visiting the children's mobile in that way increased their self esteem. Blackout facilities were needed then to be able to use a projector. A screen at the back showed slides or films, and was sometimes used as a backdrop to the them of the time. A stable door became a prop for the puppeteer when trying to attract a crowd to enter the vehicle.

With a crowd of children on board, a safetygate was needed at the top of the stairs, and at the entrance to the staff counter. It had lots of cupboard space for storage and large windows so that people could see what was going on inside and be attracted to it, and staff could keep an eye on what was happening out side, and avoid incidents of tailgate surfing, or other anti-social happenings. Onboard power was supplied by a converter, but supplimented by an extension lead to get mains power from schools. This helped the life of the batteries. Heating was by way of a diesil heater. Ian recommends two, one each side, which is more economical that one large one. Opening roof lights are important for light and air. the lighting in the van should be of varying types to provide atmosphere. Power steering and air brakes are essential. As is a Staff toilet. Emptying it could be an issue, and the right emptying facilities should be provided at base.

A sink and hot water is a must, not just for staff, but to enable painting and messy activites to go on inside. Because of the windows and massive storage space the Kirklees Children's mobile could only cary 1000 books at the time which is at least half the normal load. Mecahanically mined boys liked to see into the engine and find out what a "Turbo" looked like. the on boerd badge machine was an attraction at events, and a means of promoting the library. The eyecatching livery (the mural) decpited generic story events, and a lot of local scenery. The vehicle was called "Lili", because if the key number was 1717, which spells LILI upsidedown. It was not perfect, however, and after working on something for a long time, you can always find improvements. Ian considers that the large heater was inefficient and air-conditioning would have been wonderful. A three axel chassis is too heavy, and even more storage space would have been better. a reversing camera is a must these days, but the step should be manual becasue it would work whatever the weather. a mirror placed to check if the step is out while driving, or a warning beeper, would have been of benefit. A screened staff area would mean that one member of staff could take a break while the other serves would give double shift lunchtimes. Remember this vehicle was operating in 1986. Now other items would be available.

The Reading Rocket had a mobile phone, a microwave, a printer and mobile computing facilities. Ian would add a Solar panel (Bradford libraries have one), a scanner and a satellite. A sattelite is expensive to install, and it depends what package you get, ie which satelite you are linking to, but the coverage is good, and the ongoing costs are more reasonable. Ian was obviously proud of his vehicle when he talked to me about it. He considered that it was successful for the five years it funcioned before more cuts meant that the team was disbanded. It achieved regular visits to local brancehes and schools, taking them books. It attended gala's fairs and functions, stocking up with books relevant to the event. It was a bigh hit a special schools and at the Mosque, where there again the children did not have to go out side the environs of the establishmnet, but entered a different world on their doorstep. It was an intemediary facility. It could go into communities that could not easily go out into libraries.

It was of great value in area's of unrest, where a branch library could be vandalised, the mobile could just upsticks and go, taking the stock and staff safely home. It carried appropriate books for ethnical minority children. It was an attraction for local celebrities and took its wares to sports grounds (the local rugby stadium) theis was reaching out to the non reading audience. that idea could be a link to the Literacy trust scheme for footballers encouraging reading. It appeared at the kite festival, and canal festival, where it liaised with a narrowboat. they hired one (or acquired one) that went up and down the canal with a story session. Ian not only was enthusiastic about mobile libraries, but his inventiveness made sure that LILI was a multi funtional and versatile vehicle.

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