I was angry about the closure of Newcastle’s libraries before I spent time at Cruddas Park; now I’m furious.
Cruddas Park is one of the libraries scheduled to close. It’s to the west of the city centre, part of an estate known for its deprivation. The tower blocks have been refurbished, but the small shopping centre, within which the library is based, is gloomy and depressing. The only entrance into the library is through the mall which closes at 5.30, so evening events aren’t possible. When I arrive a glazier is replacing a window that was shattered by vandals the night before. From outside first impressions aren’t wonderful.
But step inside and you’re in a different world. This is a place of civilisation and courtesy, where customer service isn’t a glib phrase dreamt up by marketeers. It’s spacious and airy and the books are displayed with a skill that would put classy High Street stores to shame. Christine and Maureen greet regulars by name and strangers get a smile of welcome. Tea and coffee is on offer at 50p a cup and that’s important. In Cruddas Park every penny counts.
I spent four hours chatting to the staff and to customers. Here are some of their stories.
Joanne is a regular visitor. She’s a member of the knitting club, which meets on a Thursday afternoon, but she’s in the library more often than that. Her son is with the armed forces and she uses the computer to keep in touch with him. He served in Afghanistan and now he’s in Poland. Some traditional library users get sniffy about computers, but they probably have a PC at home and a laptop for travelling. For many Cruddas Park residents the library provides their only access to a computer. They search for jobs online and soon that’ll be the only way to claim benefits. Joanne didn’t know her way round a computer at first, but Christine helped out with a taster session.
Dorothy uses a walking frame and would struggle to get to the town centre or to Benwell—the nearest libraries if Cruddas Park closes. She’s passionate about history: "Do you know we didn’t have one history lesson at Elswick Street Secondary Modern. Not one. That’s why I have such a thirst for it!" She usually reads historical novels and she admits that she’s become a bit blinkered in her taste. But we agree that the great thing about a library is that you can take a risk with a book. If you hate a chosen novel at least it hasn’t cost anything. Her school didn’t teach her much geography either. "We saw one photo of a Canadian wheat field. I wanted to say: 'Hello! There must be a world out there!' Now Dorothy can access the world through the books in her library.
A young woman sits with a coffee at the table in the middle of the room. This is Yvonne, a manager with the Comfrey project, a charity that works with asylum seekers and refugees. The organisation is based in Cruddas Park and she’s taken time away from spreadsheets to catch her breath for a moment. Her partner was made redundant two years ago and has only just got a job as a lab technician. She says that without this library he probably wouldn’t be in work now. There’s a direct computer link to the Job Centre in town and so he had immediate access to vacancies. Previously he only got word of posts after the closing date. She loves her work but it’s temporary and dependent on funding. There’s a palpable relief that one of them has permanent employment. She’s a reader too and a regular borrower.
Steve comes into the library every day. He uses the reference books and browses the papers. He’s an ex-nurse who had to leave work because of health problems. He shows me what he’s reading at the moment. This is a work of fiction: Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. It’s about a women’s reading group in Iran, and how the individuals grow in confidence and understanding by reading western classics. This seems remarkably, even spookily, appropriate.
Fred has been using the library since it opened in the sixties. He has a severe visual impairment and is helped into the building by a friend. Christine knows how he likes his coffee and puts it where he can easily reach it. "This is my lifeline," he says. "I’m blind so TV is no good to me." He’s listened to all the audiobooks on the shelves so the staff order more from other branches. He doesn’t like women writers, but he says that he’ll give my books a go.
These are only individual stories and Christine fills me in on some of the other activities. Councillors hold their surgeries here. Two local primary schools do regular class visits. One will come in next week to sing carols. If Cruddas Park closes they’ll lose all contact with a library. It would be too far to walk into town and the schools couldn’t afford a coach. Children’s Social Services have an office in the shopping centre and on occasions they’ve used the library for supervised access. It’s a colourful and pleasant place for estranged parents to spend time with their kids.
We shouldn’t be planning to close Cruddas Park but to develop it. In communities like this, libraries provide people’s only access to the arts. So let’s use these safe, welcoming spaces to introduce people to poetry, music and drama as well as to books. The library has already inspired a collection of photographic portraits and there’s talk of a new music project. My dream Cruddas Park would host a homework club for kids with chaotic domestic lives, a community choir and a teenage writers’ group. We’d form partnerships with FE colleges, galleries and youth theatres and seek external funding.
When I’m about to leave Christine’s busy with a customer. She hurries up to explain that she’s been reading a letter to a person who can’t read. "What will he do when we close?"
What will all these people do when this library closes?
Author Ann Cleeves' new novel Dead Water is published by Macmillan on 31st January.