A while back I wrote a post on Shrewsbury School’s Ancient Library, now here I am writing about the Castle Gates Library which is housed in what used to be the old Shrewsbury School. It’s a drop-dead beautiful library, housed in one of the finest buildings associated with public lending libraries right across the country. It’s one of the finest buildings in our town as well. We Shrewsbury folk are lucky to have such a fine library - and the extraordinary thing is that all are welcome, seven days a week, and it can be used for free.
I first joined a library back in the dawn of time when I was nine years old, queuing on my little scooter outside the newly-built library in my home town, waiting for its doors to open for the first time. I loved the smell of books when I got inside, and I still find myself savouring that smell when I go through the doors at the Castle Gates Library. It makes me feel at home.
But then so it should. I’ve been a member of Castle Gates Library since moving to Shropshire back in 1974. I was a newcomer to the county then, wintering amongst the library’s shelves while my house sale went through. In more recent years I was to find my own books on those shelves, but back then it was Shropshire Folk-Lore that I stumbled upon, collected by Charlotte Burne, Georgina Jackson’s Shropshire Word-Book and A.G. Bradley’s Book of the Severn, all of which have been invaluable in my writing life, as has that other treasure from amongst those shelves, Brian Waters’ Severn Stream.
As an author, I have much to be grateful for in the Castle Gates Library. But the other day it was as a reader that I met Caroline Buckley, Castle Gates’ Branch Manager, full of questions about the day-to-day mystery of how the library works.
Caroline said that it depended for its smooth running upon a mass of tiny things. Even before opening to the public there were date-stamps to be updated, newspapers to put out, daily deliveries of requested books and returns to receive and record. The hour before the library opened was always a busy one. Shelves would be tidied on a rolling rota system, which allowed for every section to be put in order before moving onto the next.
Then, once the doors were opened, the day would be spent helping people find the books they wanted and use the computers. For the weekly Story Times, they’d have up to thirty toddlers and accompanying parents, and on the monthly babies’ Rhyme Time the children’s library could become a bit of a buggy park.
In addition, staff from Castle Gates Library would go out to the smaller libraries around town, like Bayston Hill’s library and the Lantern on Sundorne, and they’d help with activities in these. They were always responding to the time of the year, and to general interests that the public might have – books on sport activities around the time of the Olympics, for examples, or Booker short list displays. There would be spooky stories on offer on Halloween week, and during the summer holidays there would be reading challenges.
Amid all this activity, one thing’s for sure – the Castle Gates Library might exude peacefulness and relaxation, but behind the scenes librarians are very busy people. In addition to their work in the library, they’re also organizing author events, school visits, book quests, poetry reading and composing competitions – you name it; if it’s to do with books and writing, they’ll be there. In addition, the library provides a quiet place for children to do homework. It becomes packed during the exam season, Caroline said. You never know who is going to turn up asking for what obscure piece of information, and it’s your job to help track it down.
Caroline has been at Castle Gates Library for fifteen years and seen many changes over those years. Nowadays, she says, members of staff come in at a younger age than in her day. The arrival of the internet, too, has brought about changes in the library. Fifteen years ago there was no online referencing. No emailing. No computers.
Caroline can remember the library back to when she was a child. In those days, when the library included museum artifacts, it had stuffed birds in cases, children’s books in the Hobbes Room and an art gallery upstairs. Then, in the 1980s a massive revamp took place. Then, in more recent years, the decision was made to open the library seven days a week. However, the biggest change of recent years, Caroline said, was the absorbing back into the Castle Gates building of the Reference Library, because of local government cutbacks.
‘Some library services have faced far bigger cut-backs than that. It was a shame to lose the reference library building, but in general terms we’ve been lucky so far,’ said Caroline.
It’s the books that count most, of course, buying new ones, repairing old ones – how does that all work? Caroline said that suppliers would put together book lists according to a library’s specific criteria. Then librarians would go through the lists, which largely happened online nowadays [‘You mean there’s no actually physically handling of books any more?’ I naively asked] and decide whether to knock books off the list or arrange for their delivery. ‘Most days we have new books coming in,’ Caroline said. ‘You hear in the papers about book funds being cut, but we still have some money left for buying books.’
Looking after stock is of vital importance. When books become too tatty to keep on the shelves they’ll go into book sales. Some books disappear altogether from the shelves, others - including the classics - will be ordered anew. ‘A considerable amount of time is spend repairing,’ Caroline said. ‘The binding of a book will often be the first thing to go. A careful repair, or a simple re-jacketing, can give a book months more life.’
According to Caroline, Shrewsbury’s Castle Gates Library has a bit of every sort of book. Crime novels are massively popular, as are thrillers, Booker Prize winners and books that have been made into films. You got to know the regulars, Caroline said, and what they liked. And you followed the reviews and picked up trends. What was the best thing about her job, I wanted to know. ‘The variety,’ Caroline replied. ‘Two days in the library are never the same - and you’re never short of a good book to read!’