An (almost) accidental library
Nearly ten years ago we had a couple of students working at Borderline Books. They were shelving books in the foreign language section – most of which had been collected from Dutch prisons that had no further use for them – and one of them said ‘you know, you have more books in more languages than the universities have now’. That set us thinking, and we decided that we should no longer give those books away, but use them to form the basis of a library so that many more people would have access to these languages. We first worked with the West End Refugee Service who started a small library in Arthur’s Hill. After about a year they felt that it wasn’t working and returned the books. We then found an empty shop in Eldon Garden and ran the library there for 5 ½ years, running almost entirely with volunteers.
After we had been open about 6 months, we wrote to language expert David Crystal to tell him about the library and ask if he would consider becoming patron. He answered within hours and agreed very enthusiastically. He has continued to support us with advice and encouragement. While we were in Eldon Garden we hosted various language-learning classes, an English Conversation group, and meetings of groups supporting refugees. We also ran events including a series of local history talks, a Chinese Autumn Festival event, and other displays and events for various festivals and independence days.
We were careful from the outset to ensure that local people know that it’s not all for people from other countries. In Eldon Garden, the big display window next to the entrance was dedicated to local history, Geordie books, books by local authors, and all things black and white.
On 1 October 2020, we received the designation of Library of Sanctuary – the first library in the North-East to receive this accolade (6 months before the Newcastle City Library!). Unfortunately, because we were still in lockdown, we were unable to celebrate at the time.
In spring 2021, just as things were starting to open up again after lock-down, we were served notice to leave and had to pack up the almost 20,000 books. Over the next year we made endless phone calls, viewed 9 possible new locations, and were finally offered the former Gloucester Pub in Gateshead. Nevertheless, it still took us more than a year before we were allowed to open the doors to the public.
Since moving to our new home, we have welcomed back many existing members and signed up over 100 new ones, lending out more than 200 books in a variety of languages, representing the diverse community we live in.
The Library is not only multilingual, it is multifaith, multicultural and multifunctional. We have a community area where we host language conversation groups and exchanges. It also provides a quiet and inviting place for people to read, study or catch up over a game of chess, dominoes, Go or draughts. We have a music workshop area where visitors are invited to play our instruments, and upstairs classrooms are available where we will soon host ESOL classes and provide meeting spaces.
We are primarily a volunteer-run organisation and could not exist without the work of our committed, varied and ever-evolving team coming from all walks of life and representing 10 different nations so far this year alone. We have signed up as a ‘Warm Space’ and will at last be able to take part in the Language Festival in March next year. We are also finally in a position to host visits by school groups, something it was hard to do in the old location.
We are always interested in working with more partners to host events and provide access to books in more than 100 languages for people from all over the world. If you would like to get in touch, please email us at [email protected].
Find out more about the library here