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Libraries are not just for reading

Quiet rows of books

Waiting for their moment to

Change the atmosphere


A guest post by Liz Mytton, the first of our artist-facilitators in our #CreativeCosins summer workshop programme. First published on the DU Library and Collections Blog.

If the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s the value of moving freely. To travel, to shake hands and embrace. In the early months of lockdown last year, I remember driving to my shift (I was a part-time NHS worker at the time) and on observing the empty streets during what would have normally been rush hour, I felt like a character in some apocalyptic thriller – everyone had disappeared.

I hate to talk of silver linings in such grim and weighty times, but this season has changed me in so many positive ways. It’s fair to say these changes have been imposed upon me and I’ve had to pivot so many times that I now operate in a perpetual state of dizziness, like a child stepping off a roundabout. Having said that, I’ve still managed to glean the odd insight. Here are my top three:

1. Zoom in

It was in March 2020 that I had my first online production meeting. One of the team had a cold, so it was suggested that we try this new app that allowed individuals to video chat via their computers. ‘Oh, like Skype’, someone opined. ‘No! This is different’, came the response. They didn’t say better, because in truth, it all felt like an inconvenience we had to endure, learning how to handle new tech that we probably wouldn’t be using ever again…

‘Not quite the same as being in the room together’, began my well-worn rant recently, while running a workshop via Zoom for Cosin’s library, I was interrupted by one the participants. ‘No. This is good. I couldn’t have joined in if it was in person.’ Her camera was switched off. ‘Due to my health, this means I can do join from my bed.’ Then another person chirped up. ‘And I’m dialing in from the States. I’ve done so many online workshops during the pandemic, all over the world. I love Zoom.’ This was echoed by several other group members. I felt dizzy, downloading new information. Zoom, for them, was a technological lifeline. I had to get with it. A few months on, I have changed my perspective and am now a video chat aficionado. But I remain braced, waiting for the next innovation that might just tip me out of my newly occupied, Zoom-shaped comfort zone.

2. Writing in secret

Writing is often a solitary pursuit, but when you write for a living as I do, even the most basic of scrawlings can find their way into a piece of paid work. So when the big P hit, shutting down theatres overnight and effectively dragging struggling creatives under an already low breadline, I asked myself, not for the first time, ‘Who am I doing this for?’ and the even more existential, ‘Why do I write?’

When I started writing in childhood, it was my way of making sense of the world, of shaping my thoughts and sifting confusing ideas. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized I could earn money by writing and while it’s remained a passion, it took on the added responsibility of funding my day to day life, which meant I was often led by economic rather than creative urgency. But when work dried up last year, I found that writing was still an impulse, even when not led by a deadline or external imperative.

I love haiku, the simple Japanese form of poetry, 17 syllables arranged over three lines in a five/seven/five pattern. I’ve written these poems regularly for some years as part of my creative practice, more as an aid to remaining unblocked, but during lockdown I started writing them daily as soon as I woke up. This new habit was less about keeping the wheels greased and more about connection, a form of mindfulness the kept me in touch with my true self.

In a season of uncertainty, it has also been a means of letting go; I don’t usually keep any of haiku I write in this way (the one in the image, I wrote as a demo in a recent workshop). I encourage participants in my writing workshops to write haiku or other short forms of poetry, with no pressure to share their resulting work, though it’s an honour to read other people’s musings. Here are a few examples of work from the online workshop on the 29th May:

Cleaned walking boots dry,
Dreaming on top of my bin,
Of joy, mud, damage.
– Britta

Trapped between mountains,
If the sea I had, I would
Long for distant peaks.
– Megan

The quiet brings me joy,
Silence Preston, go away!
Birds twitter, sing, breathe.
– Demi

There were other poems that were written but not shared; there is something about crafting without critique that is liberating. I personally have rediscovered the simple, healing pleasure of forming strings of words, of crafting phrases that might only ever be applauded by an audience of one.

3. Libraries are not just for reading

Libraries are great places. They are environments like no other, chocka block with ideas, history, conversation, conflict – and catalysts for creativity, hives of information as well as oases of calm for those seeking refuge from the clamoring noise of the modern world. Not that libraries are inherently old fashioned – even the ancient ones offer cutting edge services and access to their catalogues – but there is something grounding and primordial about the space a library occupies, that sense of being able to access power – knowledge – simply by reaching out and taking a tome off the shelf.

I remember visiting the library as a young child. Given my family’s economic situation, it was only way I could read new titles regularly. I loved visiting the cavernous building in the centre of Bradford and scanning the seemingly endless shelves, selecting titles at random to enjoy. I would take my books to the seated area and spend hours transported by books about engineering, pure maths, archeology and macramé, then leave with a few story books that were perhaps more fitting for a child still at primary school. But somewhere over the years the wonder I’d felt as a young person was supplanted by another idea – if I wanted books, I could simple collect my own.
What I failed to remember was that libraries were not just about reading. They were, and still are, about exploration, equity and access. In recent times, I’ve received wonderful support from librarians and archivists when carrying out research, I’ve watched performances in libraries (yes, we don’t have to be silent!) and I’ve also had the privilege of teaching in library spaces – it’s been wonderful to see children from opposite ends of the city, children with large collections of their own books and others with none, come together to share and learn. In a time when gathering is subject to so much sanction, and accurate sign posting is a major public health issue, libraries are one space where trusted support, records and information remain within easy reach. And where anyone can delve into worlds that seem a million miles away from their own experience. For free.