On a sunny Wednesday at the end of April, I accepted an invitation from Rosie, the GT at the King’s School in Ely, to come and have a nose at her workplace for the afternoon. I am definitely a nosy person so visiting the libraries of the other GTs is always exciting – I like to compare and contrast how we do things at ARU with the place I’m visiting, and see if they’re doing anything fun or different or innovative that I might want to incorporate into my own workplace one day.
I cut it a bit fine with my choice of train, so I started the visit with an uncomfortably sweaty dash up the hill from the train station to the school (I’m always unpleasantly surprised when I encounter an incline in Cambridgeshire). Rosie and Jack were already waiting for me in our pre-arranged meeting place. Due to scheduling clashes, Rosie arranged two visits, this being the second and smaller – just Jack and myself. First stop on our route was the school’s reception, to pick up our deeply flattering visitor badges, then it was a stroll across the road to the library. On the way, Rosie told us a little about the school: King’s is an independent co-educational boarding school which has around 1000 pupils aged 1-18. It was originally founded over 1000 years ago to educate the boy choristers of Ely, and has some impressive alumni – including King Edward the Confessor!
The library Rosie works in is the Senior School library, which is located in the Porta, a beautiful stone building dating from medieval times and previously used as the Bishop’s prison. You get to the library via a narrow spiral staircase, which definitely sets the scene for what is to come. The library itself is unexpectedly lovely: huge windows meant that it was very light and airy (yes, yes, I know, I say that about everywhere), with lots of comfortable chairs and little nooks for curling up with a good book.
First, we were given a quick tour of lower of the two floors, the highlight of which was Rosie’s carefully curated book displays (including one of LGBT-themed books and one of Penguin classics). I was really impressed by the range of books available – I would quite happily have taken home a lot of them! After we’d completed the tour, we just had to have a nice cuppa and a chat about what it’s like to work at King’s. Rosie’s boss, Dr Inga Jones, was also there to answer our questions. She is not just the school librarian, but also leads the school’s EPQ program, which I thought was an interesting feature of her job – and who better than a librarian to teach research skills! I was also really impressed by how hard Inga and Rosie work to encourage reading amongst the pupils: for example, their latest innovation is sending books out of the library and into the form rooms to try and make reading more accessible. (You can see some example book boxes here on the library’s Twitter feed.) They also showed us their homemade booklets of themed reading lists; the one I picked up was books which were becoming films or TV shows in 2017. I thought these were such a good idea that I took one home with me!
After we had had our fill of school library shenanigans, we headed over towards the Ely public library. It was a really beautiful day, so strolling past Ely Cathedral and through the town centre was a lovely break, particularly as I had never been to Ely before. This was the second Cambridgeshire public library we have visited; the first was Cambridge Central, my post on which can be found here.
When we arrived, we were introduced to some of the library’s lovely staff, and then we started our tour. First stop was the children’s section, a real highlight. Lots of public libraries have book trains in their children’s sections, but in homage to Ely’s position in the Fens, they have a gorgeous book boat instead! Our guide told us that children’s book loans have the best numbers of all the loanable items – although it’s worrying to hear that some sections are suffering, it is good that so many local parents and carers are engaging with the library. Ely also do Storytimes and Rhymetimes for the children, which are apparently really popular. Hearing this took me right back to my volunteering experience – I really miss working with the younger kids!
It’s not only young children who are catered for, however. There are weekly ‘Tea and Tablets’ sessions for older people, to help them get to grips with new technologies. School-age children are encouraged through Reading Challenges to become enthusiastic about reading. ‘Shelf Help’ is a scheme to provide helpful books and leaflets on mental health issues – there are separate sections for teenagers and adults so the help provided is always age-appropriate. Lastly, there is an Adult Learning Centre based in the library. This offers tutor-supported learning, training on how to get online, and careers information and advice, amongst other things. I think public libraries are amazing places just because of the sheer variety of services which they provide – and all of them are so important.
A really nice thing to see was a number of boxes for book groups; there were so many that they are clearly thriving in Ely. Another nice touch was the Ely Cathedral and local history collections, which were absolutely chock-full of great information about the history and geography of the area. We were particularly taken by a book of Cambridgeshire slang – Rosie is a local girl and could attest to the enduring existence of some of the phrases recorded!
Overall, I was very enthused by the excellent work both King’s and Ely Public Library are putting in to making their library a comfortable, accessible and enjoyable place to spend time. It was interesting to contrast King’s with the public library; there is a definite and noticeable difference in the value placed on the library as an institution between the privately funded school and the publicly funded library. It might have been interesting to have also visited a state school on the day, to more clearly compare and contrast the differences between the two and see how state school library provision is faring in this age of austerity.