My story starts on a sunny Saturday with a sense of occasion as my number 67 bus pulls in opposite the local library.
First out of the #hackthelibrary blocks was Mersea in Essex, a library in my home county leading the charge on the National Library Experiment front with Common Libraries.
Staff briefed – check
Building looking spic & span – check
Smiley faces to greet visitors – check
Local knowledge holders…
…as I walked in we were immediately greeted with the phrase “welcome to Mersea Library which is going to be a little bit different today”.
I was presented with three local people surrounded by books, itching to share a little piece of themselves – what they know, what they care about… I couldn’t wait!
The morning’s theme was Wildlife, more specifically “bees” – Mersea a gem off the Essex Coast, famously described in 1880 as “A MORE DESOLATE REGION CAN SCARCE BE CONCEIVED, AND YET IT IS NOT WITHOUT BEAUTY” – it seemed an immediately appropriate setting.
Walking the talk, Tabby Knight Head Librarian, was working with two children and their parents to build a ‘seed bomb’.
For those not in the know, seed bombs are little pieces of clay filled with soil and wild flowers seeds – wrapped in recycled newspaper – fully compostable, throwable little bombs of flowering potential.
This exercise not only provided a great opportunity to walk the ‘give>get’ talk — and, lead the charge, librarian first — but also proved a great exercise to talk to people about the current threat to bees, their important role within our fragile ecosystem, and the little things you can do to help make their lives a little bit easier. Tabby had lovingly curated library books and other resources for anyone who was enthused and waiting to know more.
My first Seed Bomb complete, I was to invited into the world of bee-keeping with John. Over the course of an hour, I learned all about how bee-hives work, the joy (and pain!) of being a bee-keeper, and where and when my local bee-keeping society meet.
Watch out Colchester, if I get my way there will be bee hives on the Waiting Room roof before too long! BTW – honey beer coming soon from the St Botolphs Nano Brewery 😉
The final installation for the morning was with local wildlife expert and long-standing nature reserve volunteer Dave Nicholls. Here I learned about the difference between solitary and honey bees, and how to build my own bee house for my garden in the process.
Lunch and then, in the afternoon, we moved on to a new theme entirely: a hand lettering workshop with retired sign-writer and graphic artist — Mersea resident, Doug.
Doug came with a truck load of old school tools, offering an insight into how graphic studios operated before the introduction of the Macintosh, in an era of letra-set, air brushing and the steady hand.
As a trained graphic designer, I enjoyed my afternoon with Doug immensely, learning how to hand-draw a perfect oval, and the principles of lettering with perspective using simple maths. Skills all but lost in the process of becoming an Adobe convert…
Doug’s session attracted an unexpected volume of young children, fascinated by his box of magic tricks, but maybe not so appreciative of just how fine a craft Doug used to practice. I guess we are increasingly unable to comprehend some things we did pre-computer and the intricate processes involved in completing what are now deemed very simple tasks. It was an afternoon of unexpected intergenerational beauty.
What did I learn from the day at Mersea?
An opportunity to share the Maker Box concept with local knowledge holders, librarians and library users alike afforded me new insight into how they could be iterated and made to work to best effect. Almost everyone understood the concept of contributing their knowledge and know-how, the benefits to them as individuals, and why the library is the natural home for that knowledge. From a local meditation expert to the resident bee keepers, almost everyone wanted to create a box about something they knew or cared about – we just need to work harder on how people access that knowledge and how it is presented in a library setting once it’s captured.
I also learned more about the support you need to give someone who wants to run a knowledge sharing event in a public library. Doug coped amazingly well but catering for different age groups requires different skills, support and most importantly: preparation.
Tabby, Doug and Dave are all committed to making the first set of Mersea Maker Boxes and publishing them on behalf of the community through Mersea Library. Needless to say, The Waiting Room has placed advanced orders 😉
I witnessed first-hand the immense social value, community cohesion and enjoyment that can be achieved when providing space for local people to exchange their passions. What we’ve created at the Waiting Room is indeed transferable, albeit with a slightly different vibe, in a public sector space – so, without the draw of a bar/cafe!
But, I left asking myself: would it have worked without someone like Tabby at the helm? Increasingly, I think not….
Our librarians are key – they need to lead the charge – walk the talk. They are the ones who can really make Common Libraries fly. If they are allowed to build on their personal interests, they can make it all human and demonstrate how others can participate. For this to work, librarians have to be willing to play the role of both traditional librarian, facilitator and contemporary community organiser. Are new skills needed? Perhaps.
Tabby and Mersea Island is a prime example of how Hack the Library events and prospective Common Libraries can work well.
The event ended with pizza sold by local street food vendor – Redwood – and a big open community busk with Mersea based Ragged String Band – a link below for your enjoyment…