Don't leave library users on the shelf . .
IT is 3.30pm on a wet Wednesday afternoon and the children's section of Corstorphine library is buzzing. Pictures are being drawn, the internet is being surfed, and dinner is even being cooked in a plastic oven. In the corner, a toddler is zooming a toy vacuum cleaner around while his mother sits on a pouffe quietly reading to her younger son.
Mostly, though, it's the books that are holding the interest of the children who are there. Everything from dinosaur encyclopaedias to the latest Michael Morpurgo are being read and stacked in piles as the youngsters choose which books will be going home with them today.
The scene - the general hubub - is as far removed from the role of a traditional library as it's possible to get. Despite its old-fashioned exterior - its red sandstone facade wouldn't look out of place in an episode of Midsomer Murders - inside there are no sententious librarians telling children to "shush", no disapproving glances over pince-nez; in fact, staff are even happy to let the younger ones use their loo when desperation strikes.
Meanwhile, across the city in Gracemount, the latest Edinburgh library has just opened. There's no sandstone here, rather the library is in the council's modern South Neighbourhood Office in Captain's Road, which means that while you borrow the latest Maeve Binchy or Sue Grafton, you can also access advice on neighbourhood services, housing support and even job seeking.
The two libraries are at opposite ends of the physical space spectrum - but both provide essentially the same service: a place for community, for information, for entertainment - a place where there's more on offer than just a few dog-eared novels, the daily papers, and a slightly musty smell from the resident tramp looking for a heat.
In fact, Edinburgh's libraries have evolved into an essential service, be it for the elderly or the young. These days they offer free internet access, printing, scanning and photocopying facilities, CDs and DVDs, children's craft activities, and reading groups for babies to the over-60s. Then there are the authors' talks, the exhibitions, the knitting clubs, the workshops and the computer games from Wii to Xbox.
This month in particular, the city's libraries have been involved with the Let's Get Lyrical festival, and as a result young people from Moredun library made a 'rockumentary', those in Craigmillar hosted a Never Mind the Buzzcocks-style music quiz, while in Oxgangs, youngsters using the library went back in time with a reminiscence session about songs from the Second World War.
And then there's the fact that you can withdraw 12 books at a time now - rather than just three - and renew them online.
All of which could be why, while last week many libraries across the country were being told they had issued their last books, Edinburgh's libraries escaped relatively unscathed. There may well still be a cut to mobile library services and some library opening hours - but at least full-scale closures are off the agenda.
It's this idea of a library being more than a book-lending facility that will secure its future, believes Rhona Arthur, assistant director of the Scottish Library Information Council, who says Edinburgh is on-trend with what's happening elsewhere.
She argues that rather than adhering to the role that libraries have traditionally played in the community, the focus should instead be on what's being delivered and whether that works for the public.
"I think we're seeing a trend towards providing a range of local authority services; customer service, housing information, tourist information if appropriate.
"I think it's a recognition that these services sit well with a range of service providers, and there's a potential to train staff for that. It's not uncommon for smaller places, small villages for example, to have a different service running in the same building. The challenge for the library service is figuring out just exactly the type of services it should be providing."
But there are those who believe that changing the library offer is not actually doing them much good at all.
Leith-based children's author Lari Don, who joined other writers at a protest against the cuts to the library service at Scottish Parliament earlier this month, points out that as the first UNESCO City of Literature, support must continue for Edinburgh's public libraries the way they are.
She says libraries' focus needs to continue to be with books rather than getting distracted by other services.
"Book budgets are regularly and consistently slashed and it's very worrying," she says. "It undermines the professional nature of librarians as well as undermining the local nature of the library if you have the same books everywhere.
"Half the time borrowers end up visiting the library for vague, worthy community services rather than discussing and borrowing books with librarians. And then they end up being not real libraries."
Edinburgh's culture leader, Cllr Deidre Brock, doesn't agree. "Libraries in Edinburgh nowadays are becoming genuine community hubs, providing a huge range of services and opportunities for learning, leisure and local information to help people make the most of the amenities available to them.
"Combining library facilities with other council services makes sense. It helps the council to achieve best value, and it's convenient and practical for members of the public to access a range of different services under one roof."
For the likes of Abigail Fuller, a mother-of-two from Carrick Knowe whose children are home educated, Corstorphine library is a regular haunt. But rather than being concerned about other services being tacked on to libraries, it's a reduction in opening hours that is most worrying.
"Both of my children love going there, it's so friendly and there are lots of different activities for kids. A lot of the children are known by their first name by the staff.
"My son enjoys the summer reading challenge and Corstorphine has a lot of activities associated with that. They got to build glittery space ships, and there was a space party with food and games."
Another activity the family enjoys is meeting authors such as Corrine V Davies, who created the popular Ralph children's series with illustrator El Ashfield. Last October the pair held a vampire themed-workshop at Corstorphine for children, involving face painting and crafts.
It's these opportunities for readers to meet authors that Lari Don argues could be under threat if the skills of the professional librarian are not recognised and allowed to fall by the wayside.
"Those events are organised by librarians. They need to know what the opportunities are for funding and for promotional visits. If that knowledge isn't there, it reduces the opportunity to meet authors and discuss books."
But as the libraries continue to find the comfortable fit for their future direction, Rhona Arthur says its fundamental role remains unchanged.
"The original legislation dictates the role of a library: the instruction and recreation of the people.
"It's not incompatible with the new direction, life-long learning is still being promoted."
The challenge, says Rhona, is for the public to re-visit local libraries and find out what's on offer for themselves.
FEARING THE NEXT CHAPTER
EDINBURGH has 28 libraries, which are open at varying times. The council is looking at standardising this, which could mean a reduction in opening hours for many.
Other cost-saving measures include cutting the mobile library service, which was first introduced in 2005.
Edinburgh's Central Library was opened in 1890, 37 years after the Public Libraries Act of 1853 was introduced, enabling libraries to be funded by local taxes.
The library in Sighthill won the prestigious 'libraries change lives' award by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in 2006, after it changed its approach to dealing with teenage antisocial behaviour by introducing a range of new cultural and community facilities.
Edinburgh is home to some of the most famous, and infamous, characters in literature. This strong tradition was recognised in 2004 with the United Nations bestowing the city with the first UNESCO City of Literature status in 2004
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