At time of writing, it has been 144 days since the official start of lockdown and things are continuing to open up. Holidays are being taken, relatives visited and shopping done. However, many places abroad are seeing the much-feared second wave and the curve for the UK itself is looking worryingly upward-turning. In public libraries, more services are being added and librarians continue to emerge blinking (and, one cannot help but notice, often very tanned) into the new world, with as far as I can tell only 3 out of 150 English services (Barking and Dagenham, Bedford and Sandwell) still not offering some sort of physical service.

Speaking personally, the high point of my week was hosting a very successful session from John Kirk, who did a brilliant online Twits show for 40 or so enthralled (and highly participating) children. Interestingly, that’s more kids than I’d normally expect for a physical show. We got talking afterwards (see the interview below for the result) and discussed what will be happening to libraries medium term. And basically what we agreed was that it is going to be online. It looks like Covid may well come back, or at least not go away, and that the risks it induces mean that physical events will be difficult for the foreseeable future. This, combined with more people getting used to teleconferencing, shows the need for us to do more of that. And, as time goes by, the quality will need to continue to improve.

The good news is that digital should be very cheap and it is just the skills and the will that libraries need to develop. For example, it’s far less costly for a library service anywhere in the country to hire a storyteller like John for Zoom than it would be to pay his travelling expenses. And if 2 or 3 library services clubbed together, it’d be frankly ridiculously cheaper. So the opportunity is there. Libraries just need to grab it, as they have done before, and not let the digital slip but, rather, continue to improve.

An interview with John Kirk, professional storyteller

What do you enjoy most about storytimes in public libraries? 

I have been working in public libraries since 2012.  To date, I have worked with 80 library authorities in England, Scotland and Wales and a few school’s library services.  I love working in public libraries.  For me, it’s all about getting out there, meeting new people, seeing new places and sharing the fun of stories with family audiences.  I suppose these are also the things I have missed the most during the lock down.  Nobody treats me and my work with more respect than the library staff I have worked with and it’s a real privilege to be a small part (in some cases a fixture) in some family’s summers. 

Nobody treats me and my work with more respect than the library staff I have worked with

What do you least enjoy? 

My life has changed hugely over the time I have been telling stories in libraries.  As the years have passed I do more and more travelling.  It’s very satisfying to work with library audiences across the UK but the nights away from my three year old daughter can be tough at times.  I also find it quite hard to have built relationships with librarians, to hear about cuts and restructures and then to invoice people I consider friends – there are some libraries whom I would pay to work with I enjoy visiting them so much, honestly I would! 

Is there something that a library service did that really impressed you?) 

Librarians are an incredible breed of people.  I don’t think they always get the credit they deserve for what they do in their communities.  They are also risk takers and I owe what has been a fabulous period of my life to people like Sean Edwards, Geoff James, Lesley Davies, and Hilary Marshall to name just a few of the wonderful people who have been so very supportive of my work. 

For me there are a couple of authorities who offer a really varied programme of activities and then promote them really well to their audiences (not to embarrass them but Brent and Redbridge). 

For me the biggest challenge that libraries face is telling the world how great the stuff they do is; that libraries are about more than books.  For me there are a couple of authorities who offer a really varied programme of activities and then promote them really well to their audiences (not to embarrass them but Brent and Redbridge).  Most libraries now push events on social media but nothing beats proactive staff talking to their service users about what they are doing and posters, big, colourful posters. 

Looking at the changes wrought by the current crisis, where do you see storytelling in the next year or so? 

In a word; online.  In the week before lock down I was touring Yorkshire Libraries.  On the Monday we managed to persuade a group into a library in Wakefield, on the Tuesday Rotherham Libraries ran me round to the local schools but by that evening remaining dates in Sheffield, Barnsley and York were indefinitely postponed.  In the following weeks I had to cancel my plans and bookings for summer 2020 and put an entirely new plan in place.  This summer I have run sessions using Youtube, Facebook Live, Zoom and Google Meets literally all over the country (in one day I worked with Stoke on Trent, Bristol and Swindon and North Tyneside without going beyond my front door!). 

I’d love to think that on a given date at a given time I could do an event and simultaneously broadcast to every library in a given authority.  Yes, it’d probably be a technical headache but imagine the sense of community when the different audiences could see each other joining in with a story?  Then there are all kinds of opportunities to work with other library services.  One of my favourite moments of the summer was when I told “The Gingerbread Man” and staff from Croydon, St Helens, Hertfordshire, Thurrock, Swansea, Kingston and Tameside Libraries were there because they had promoted the event in their authorities.  To be a part of the discussions afterwards was very special. 

Two children at home interacting with John Kirk onTV
John Kirk, and children, in action

Yes, this isn’t how I saw my summer and I am gutted not to be telling Mr Gum in libraries as planned but actually the crisis creates an opportunity for storytellers like me to work with more libraries in far flung places at much more affordable prices (I don’t have to charge travel expenses to walk from the kitchen to the spare bedroom).  I can see libraries reopening but I can’t see face to face events taking place for a while yet.  That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to do live events.  It’s a lot easier for a public audience to socially distance if the front portion of the room isn’t taken up with my kit. 

Is there anything libraries can do to adapt to the new world better? 

I think that libraries have to embrace the new normal and the technology.  If you don’t have an active social media channel where you control the content and are engaging with service users everyday this should be a priority – Greenwich Libraries Baby Rhyme Time sessions on Facebook are brilliant example of how social media can work harder for library services.  I know that there has been resistance to Zoom from some councils because of security concerns.  I will always preference video conferencing over video sharing platforms because in a shared space, albeit a virtual one, you can interact with the audience.  In my retelling of Roald Dahl’s “The Twits” I encourage the adult in charge to spray sticky glue (water) over my audience.  I have also developed a scavenger hunt storyline for families with children 3+.  These elements of my sessions have been very popular and came about because I have tried to push the limitations of the technology and make my storytelling a 4D experience. 

How did you get into storytelling? 

Twenty years ago I trained as an actor.  When I decided to stop I struggled with an office job and it was suggested that I should write my own show.  When a school described me as a storyteller the title stuck.  I am still a high energy performer with a fairly theatrical style but these days I do a lot more traditional storytelling.  I have been very lucky with the authors I have worked with; people like Jeremy Strong, Terry Deary and Tom Palmer were brilliant to work with but the key moments were when Haringey Libraries recommended me to tell Michael Morpurgo’s “Private Peaceful” as part of City Read 2014 and when I got the rights to tell Roald Dahl’s “The Twits” in 2016; in two years I went from working in a small area of north London to travelling to libraries, schools and festivals around the country and to date have worked as far afield as Germany and the UAE.  I love what I do.  I wouldn’t have changed the last twelve years for anything but it’s not been without challenges and whatever the world looks like for me after the current crisis you can be sure it’ll include storytelling. 

How do you adapt storytelling to Zoom? 

It hasn’t been easy but I try to make everything I do fit the camera.  I am very conscious of framing when I tell a story to the camera.  I also like to play with my proximity to the camera (I’ll come right up to it and I’ll talk directly to members of the audience).  I’ve already mentioned some of the ideas I have played with to make my sessions more interactive but I also encourage the children to pull faces and I do a lot of role play and movement within stories.  I am also conscious of the adult watching and encourage them to take photos, leave comments and like and share videos.  It’s all about getting them to come back to the library’s website and enagage with the next activity so that when services return, libraries hit the ground running. 

How do kids take to it? 

I do tell a lot of different stories but by far the most popular are by Roald Dahl.  I use wigs, instruments and props to find fresh and dynamic ways to tell my stories which hold the children’s attention but The Twits and The Enormous Crocodile endure as masterpieces and I reckon a child would be hooked by Dahl’s words if they were watching whilst wearing a swimsuit in an igloo.  Seriously though, the feedback has been beyond my wildest expectations and I’m just so happy to have been a part of my seventh Summer Reading Challenge. 

Have you been surprised by anything online / had an amusing moment etc? 

A couple of weeks ago I completely forgot I was supposed to be running a session and had to do all my preparation in literally ten minutes – I can laugh about it now but at the time I was frantic.  I was interrupted by a lawnmower whilst running a session for Thurrock and one of my neighbours went to check on another of my neighbours after hearing a lot of shouting – it was me, I had the windows open!  They’re all quite used to it now and some say they know all the words! 

John Kirk is originally from Chorley in Lancashire but is now based in East Sussex.  He’s trained as an actor, been involved in several theatrical productions, as well as doing other jobs. John works regularly work in early year centres, primary schools, libraries and museums and has been involved in several major events including the Cultural Olympiad (2012), Great War commemorations (2014-2018) and #Shakespeare400 (2016)His website is here.

National news

  • 1000 Tiny Fun Palaces – Libraries Connected. Watch recording of webinar from Stella Duffy “This year, Fun Palaces weekend on 3 and 4 October will be different – sometimes smaller, always safer, but as ever remarkable. We hosted this webinar on 4 August led by Fun Palaces’ amazing and inspirational Director Stella Duffy to talk through the new possibilities for extra-small, hyper-local Fun Palaces in libraries.”
  • ‘George Eliot’ among 25 female writers being republished using their real names – CNN. “The 25 novels are being offered as e-books, which are free to download via the prize’s sponsor, Baileys. Physical box sets of the republished titles will also be donated to libraries across the UK.”
  • Library Open Data: an update – DCMS Libraries. ” How can we engage services and library staff to understand how important this data could be? How do we make sure that staff have the skills and confidence to take on a data role? We hope that some of the examples on the schema site will go some way to highlighting what can be done if data is published in an open and standard format.”
  • Local advocacy – Libraries: An essential part of local recovery – Libraries Connected. “In our new local advocacy resource, we’ve identified five key areas where libraries can play a central role in meeting the needs of individuals and communities who may be struggling to overcome the effects of the Covid-19 crisis.”
  • Supporting public libraries through a national digital presence – British Library. Looking at the minimum viable product (that is, the least that can be done for it to be worthwhile) and what more could be achieved, plus progress before and future plans.
  • What does quality mean for a modern library service? – Libraries Connected. 21 August 2pm webinar. “The session will begin with some provocations from speakers outside of the sector talking about what a quality library service means to them. The virtual floor will then be open to everyone who would like to contribute, or just listen in on what should be a great discussion.”
  • When will libraries open in Scotland and have they reopened in the rest of the UK? – Metro.

International news

  • Colombia – Pandemic pen pals: How Colombian libraries lift spirits – Christian Science Monitor. ““the kids kept coming to the library,” she says, and family programming continued. “It’s the protective space of the community, a space of liberation from the problems of the neighborhood. Here, libraries have played a really important role in constructing peace, but even more than that, creating community.””

“The written word allows us to understand other humans, and whether we’re reading a novel, a story, or a letter, it helps us understand we’re not alone,”

  • EU – Will European public libraries be set back tens of years from 2021? – Biblioteket tar saka. As well as the likelihood of budget cuts “it will not be easy to run, or to re-invent, a library in a generalised two-meter society where events are forbidden, 75 % of chairs are removed, services to customers have to comply with social distancing rules and library’s outreach is restricted in many ways.”
  • Ireland – Libraries remove vital trans teen book after disgraceful far-right letter writing campaign linking LGBT+ lives to paedophilia – Pink News. “Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin consists of six interviews with trans teenagers about their lives and was published in 2014. Since then, the book has been assailed by anti-trans activists who have called for it to be banned. Cork City Libraries opted to remove Beyond Magenta from its shelves and have it re-processed for “adult/YA lending” – which requires adult consent – after they received a letter from a far-right activist.”
  • Lebanon – Help rebuild Beirut’s libraries – Libraries Deliver. “Among the tremendous human tragedy and loss of life caused by the explosion in Beirut on the 4th August came the heartbreaking news that three of the main municipal public libraries in the city had been destroyed”
  • Pakistan – Charting the Role of Pakistani libraries in a Post-COVID19 World – Global Village Space. “Crisis like these can be redefining moments and with close collaboration, technology, and digital transformation, public libraries in Pakistan can break free of their old mold and have an overhaul, which is long-due. It is a pity that very few public libraries have any online services and have remained closed, but that could change with collaboration between volunteers, NGOs and the government.”
  • USA – Envisioning the New Model Library: Navigating through the pandemic and beyond – Hanging Together. “Our broad questions include:
    • Will the current environment of physical distancing and precautions persist in the post-pandemic era? • If so, will most of our services and programs continue to be offered in an online environment? • How will we – or can we? should we? – create experiences similar to the physical spaces in our libraries in our virtual library spaces?””

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