First person: A day with our mobile library service
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
From West Walton to Winterton and East Runton to Blo Norton, mobile libraries make more than a thousand stops a month right across rural Norfolk. We got on board with the books.
We trundle down a tiny lane until, just as it meanders into a track, Sue Ellis turns and backs up alongside a hedge. As the chug of the engine fades away, 2,500 books imperceptibly settle on the shelves and, already, a man is walking across the farmyard towards us.
Farmer Roy Parfitt has been borrowing books from the mobile library for decades.
Years ago, says Roy, quite a crowd would appear when the library van parked up at his North Tuddenham farm. But with fewer people living on the farm and in nearby cottages these days, it is only Roy who climbs aboard this particular morning.
'I love it, it's been coming here since the 1950s,' he said. Sue asks after his family before reaching up a shelf for a book she thinks he might like.
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Roy generally chooses from the well-stocked local history section – books on Norfolk villages, the Norwich blitz, vintage farm machinery, railways, wherries.
As we chat, surrounded by novels and biographies, manuals and mysteries, fiction and reference, in the heart of rural Norfolk, the value of the mobile library service is obvious. Five minutes later we pull out of the farmyard and the third stop of the morning. Roy has some tractor work to be getting on with before he can enjoy his latest library books and Sue has another 14 stops to make, in North Tuddenham, Elsing, Lyng, Collin Green and Hockering.
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'This route is actually one of my favourites, I always enjoy this route,' said Sue, who grew up in nearby Yaxham and worked as a carer before joining the mobile library service 20 years ago.
When she drives the route which includes Yaxham, along with Garvestone, Reymerston, Southburgh, Cranworth and Wramplingham, she sees people she has known all her life.
She had to gain a heavy goods vehicle licence in order to drive the 10-ton van. Each driver is allocated their own mobile library, stocked with around 2,500 books including a large print and audio-book section, plus dvds, donated jigsaw puzzles for adults and (from Wymondham-based Orchard Toys) for children.
Floor to ceiling shelves are lined with a remarkable variety of books. Some of the most popular sections are the family sagas and crime fiction. The crime carousel, and shelf called Sagaland, are joined by whole sections of the van devoted to crafting, cooking, travel, books for children and teenagers, local history, local interest, local writers and general fiction.
The first stop of our day is in Honingham and the roads are still icy from overnight frost. Keron Lawson is first aboard, choosing books for herself and for her mother-in-law. 'I would be lost without it,' she said. 'It's really handy as I live at the end of the road.'
At the village pump stop Sally Blyth climbs aboard to browse the historical fiction. Trevor Smith often orders books he has seen reviewed in the newspaper and arrives to find his latest request waiting for him. Linda Human picks a book about rose gardening for her husband. 'It's a wonderful service,' she said Linda.
And in among the book chat, there are conversations about village business too. 'It's a social service!' added Susan Grant as she greeted neighbours and chose books for the month ahead.
At the next stop Jennifer Griffiths, a big fiction fan, said: 'When we moved here I couldn't believe that the library came right to our door! I love everything about it. I like the fact that we are in the middle of nowhere and if someone doesn't drive, or finds it difficult to get into town, we can still get books. Sue knows what you like. You catch up on the gossip too!'
Sue loves her job and her customers obviously love her – and her reading recommendations.
Daphne Pelling, who has been a regular for 24 years, said: 'Sue is the best librarian I have ever come across. She's so good at finding books. She knows the sort of books I like and she keeps them for me.'
Sue said: 'If you see someone once a month for 10 or 12 or more years you know what they like; you see a book and know who would like it. It's nice to be able to recommend books to people, and people like to tell you if they've enjoyed a book,'
In Elsing Pamela Oxby watches the library van draw up. 'I love coming here,' she said.
Next door neighbours Selwyn Jones and Alwyn Jackson are regular customers at the Mill Street stop. Both are retired teachers. 'I try and make an effort to be here every time,' said Alwyn. 'Not enough people use it. There are all these books, and you can order any title you want for just 60p. It's such an excellent service, having a library here, on the doorstep.'
This morning, on this route, most of the visitors are older people, but later in the day parents and young children will use stops scheduled for after-school customers.
Sue enjoys putting together boxes of books to deliver to playgroups on her routes and the service even includes house-calls to take selections of books to the house-bound.
Despite there being just a few minutes at each stop, there is no sense of hurry – there was even time for a quick cuppa, brought to Sue by one regular, along with a brief chat with each customer and the business of book issues and browsing and recommendations. If Sue has a couple of minutes to spare she re-shelves returned books before turning from the counter to climb back into her seat and heading for the next village. Every mile trundled, over narrow junctions, along twisting lanes, through high hedges and rolling farmland, is connecting some of Norfolk's most isolated communities with a world of stories, information, ideas – and each other.
Last year there were fears much of the service might have been abandoned to austerity cuts. However, the fleet is to be retained, with six mobile libraries instead of the current eight operating across the county. All routes will be served four-weekly, by three vans based in Norwich, one in west Norfolk, one in Dereham and one in North Walsham. New timetables should ensure no stop which was regularly used will be cut.
The books will keep coming – but do they ever fall out of the cleverly backward-angled shelves? 'I think we've all probably lost our books once,' admitted Sue. 'I have had the whole van-full fall. If you hit a pot-hole or speed bump, even really slowly, at the wrong angle they can wobble. Once I came over a bump into a site entrance and the van wobbled one way, and then the other, and everything ended up on the floor!
'Luckily lots of children came on at the next stop and loved helping put everything back!'
For other emergencies, including Sue finding herself stranded, there is an emergency kit on board including a shovel, blanket, water and instant-heating food. And plenty to read while awaiting rescue.
Norfolk's mobile library service began in 1953 – but as far back as 1925 the county library service delivered boxes of books to 100 volunteer-run village centres.
From April the fleet of eight mobile libraries across Norfolk will be reduced to six with all routes being served four-weekly.
Each mobile library has around 2,500 books – replenished and rotated from a central store at County Hall.
Customers can borrow up to 15 books, for eight weeks.
A mobile library pulls up and opens up, somewhere in Norfolk, around 1,500 times a month.
To find out more about your nearest mobile library route visit norfolk.gov.uk/mobilelibraries