Finsbury Library: Borrowing books 21st century style
For our St John Street At Work series we visit Finsbury Library, which houses more than 40,000 items, from books to DVDs. We talked to its enthusiastic manager, Chris Millington, about the importance of libraries in the age of the internet and why he rejects the stereotypical image of the grumpy librarian
How long have you worked here?
I have worked in Islington’s libraries for 23 years now, but I have been the manager of Finsbury Library for two and a half years.
What is your favourite part of the job?
What I like about my job is that I get to meet and chat to nice people. Especially on the days when the sun shines into the library, when it is busy and everyone is happy, then I am happy to be a librarian. When there is a buzz about the library there is nothing quite like it.
Why did you want to become a librarian?
I have always liked books and I remember when I was a kid, living in Barnsley in the North of England, I used to go to the library on Saturday mornings. My mum and dad just left me there and I would sit in the children’s library reading quite happily. They also had a Saturday morning cinema club where we would all watch Mickey Mouse and cartoons and all the things kids love. The library was just a happy place for me, so I always had the idea of becoming a librarian.
Can you tell us something about the library’s history?
The building we are now in was opened by government minister Richard Marsh in 1967. But before this library existed there was a much older one just round the corner in Skinner Street. The old Finsbury Library was very famous, because it was the first library that had books that you could actually take off the shelves yourselves. Before, books in libraries used to be locked and you would have to go and ask the librarian to give you the book you wanted. The librarian would look really seriously and frightening at you and when you gave the book back he or she would examine it for any signs of damage – so, borrowing a book was a really intimidating experience back then. But James Duff Brown, the manager of the library at that time, had the idea to just let the public sit and browse.
How has the library changed in the age of the internet?
Unsurprisingly, we see less people coming in than some years ago. The pattern of how we use resources has changed and more people access information from home. But we try to adapt to the new age and started e-books last year, which you can borrow for up to three weeks and renew like a normal book. People can also access their library accounts online via the council’s webpage, renew their books there and see if the copy they have requested is available. The next big thing we are currently looking into are online audio books. So we are getting there. I think nowadays, you can’t assume anymore that people will just come in and use the library, but you have to get out there to reach the people.
Still, Finsbury Library is often very busy. Why do you think that is?
We are still pretty busy because we have a strong link with the local community, run a lot of groups and initiatives for every age. Every day we have two or three schools coming in, trying to get people into reading and learning through it. We also have a homework group in the building in the after-class hours. The main problem is that we lose people when they get older than children and they only come back again when they have their own children. But we try to fill that missing gap by running a teen reading group and other initiatives to get older children into reading. For example, we have a reading challenge during the summer, in which every kid gets to read six books and can collect little collectables through it. Between 200 and 300 children do this each summer. Also, we have a lot of community groups using the hall and the meeting room, so they are busy most of the time. For example, we have a reading group, in which local residents discuss a book each month. We recently set up a teen group set to get young people into the library. Moreover, we have a baby band session every Thursday for babies up to 18 months and an under-five session on Tuesdays as well, in which young children get to know music and rhythms.”
“The library is still such an important community hub because it is one of the few non-judgemental spaces of society” – Chris Millington, library manager
Why do you think the library is important for the community?
The library is still such an important community hub because it is one of the few non-judgemental spaces of society. People come in here, have free access to thousands of books, and staff are friendly to them, no matter who they are or where they come from. We still have the image of that sort of old, fusty, musty, grumpy, glasses-wearing librarians – but librarians are not like that anymore. Last year, I had a really nice letter from a woman, who had a son with mental health problems. He left home and slept rough in the area. One day, he came into the library and we gave him a library card, so he could borrow books and use the computers and, in the end, he got himself back together and returned home. In her letter, the mother thanked us, saying we were the only place he could go where no-one would judge him. She said she didn’t know what would have happened to him without the library.
What is it like to work on St John Street? How do you like the area?
I came here from Finsbury Park Library two and a half years ago, which is a completely different area than St John Street. I loved it because it is more lively and cosmopolitan and at first I did not think I would like it here because it seemed so quiet compared with Finsbury Park. But, despite my initial doubts, I fell in love with this area too, because there is so much history around here – and I love history. I like just pottering about and exploring the area. Also, it’s funny that when you go up to the Angel it is very busy, but when you go down St John Street it’s suddenly so quiet. It is a such an interesting, lovely area.
How do you spend your breaks?
I usually catch up on e-mails in my breaks, but if I actually have free time I like to sit in Spa Fields Park, which is just over the road from the library.
What is your favourite book?
The Forsyte-Saga by John Galsworthy.
11) A book that everyone should have read?
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark.
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