13 April 2020
In the Temporary Absence of Libraries
In my working life, I am the curator for the Library's North American published collections (post 1850). However, for the last 10 months, I have been making good use of the British Library's maternity policy. I am by no means the first person to observe that social distancing is not unlike being on maternity leave, with substantial time spent in the house, solitary walks, an over-reliance on online shopping, and the development of new routines to manage the passage of time ('the days go slowly, but the months fly by'). The Library is a particularly social place to work - unsurprisingly, staff place a high premium on information sharing of all kinds - and I have missed the regular lunchtime catch-ups, reading groups with colleagues, stimulating staff talks and events, and fascinating Library tidbits picked up from chats over book trolleys being wheeled along the seemingly endless behind-the-scenes corridors.
A new baby certainly provides a lot of company and entertainment, but I would have been somewhat adrift in motherhood were it not for the widely available local support for new parents in our London borough of Lambeth. I am particularly fortunate that our flat sits at the crossroads of four districts, which means that there are four local libraries within a short walking distance of my front door. Both mother and son have benefited from this abundance of resources on our doorstep, and I regularly have been quietly humbled by the work achieved by librarian colleagues in these local settings. These remarkable institutions second as homework groups, job clubs, health centres, language hubs, singing groups, spaces for the homeless, art galleries, IT support , local history resource centres, and book lenders all. The closure of physical library spaces thus feels like a particularly cruel albeit temporary absence in the current pandemic.
Needless to say, the interactions made possible by these welcoming spaces provided regular intellectual and communal fodder in our weekly maternity leave routine. I personally feel their lack more acutely because of my son's burgeoning interest in other people, children particularly. I expect that for many others too, the pandemic will be counted in similar small observations of daily absences and minor losses, and a general sense of gratitude for the quotidian. I am therefore grateful for the continued access to library books through audio and digital book and magazine apps which allow us to retain a vestige of our daily routine. The British Library's recent project 'Discovering Children's Books' is a welcome addition to this repository of online children's libraries, which hosts articles, activities, and digitised material for children and parents to explore thematically. Themes that may be of particular interest at the moment include 'Home, family and belonging' which contains sections about grandparents and wider family structures, 'Fear in children's books' touches on the various ways that real and imagined threats are put onto the page for children to explore safely, and 'Behaving and misbehaving in children's books' might provide some literary solidarity for parents who are discovering the practical difficulties of home-schooling.
As a bilingual parent, I make good use of my local libraries' provisions for a wide range of languages in physical and digital form. We all know that the brain of a baby and infant are like sponges, and they are particularly adept language learners. As well as the joy that speaking and understanding another language brings, recent studies have shown that bi or multi lingualism also help to develop problem solving and social skills. I am grateful therefore that, upon my son's birth, curatorial colleagues kindly compiled a multi-lingual gift for him: a 'mini-British Library' consisting of books representing curatorial sections, or that were particularly meaningful for the donor.
My son has thus had early exposure to books, and these now help us to keep his imagination engaged with multi-lingual activities that are familiar from those public library spaces. Our household hosts a daily little reading group of three although our son breaks all conventions of reading group etiquette, showing no concern for finishing books before discussing them; he regularly reads the end first; he shouts his distaste for works not to his liking very loudly, not allowing other points of view; and is particularly poor at adhering to proper book conservation guidelines. However, as all true librarians know, as important as conservation is, the value of a collection is in its use. We hope that during this period of physical lockdown, you and your children are able to find some materials of interest and potentially solace among our many digitised and digital collections. If so, we'd love to hear how you've used these resources on our social media channels.