Words by Emily Fraser
Photos by Charlie Eleftheriades-Sherry
Newly renovated public libraries in Alexandria and Clydebank are now perfectly poised to welcome us, offering connection, accessibility, and inclusion for each and every local person.
This is partly thanks to the creative yet practical upcycling of their beautiful, historic buildings, blending modern facilities with original features.
But, even more so, it’s thanks to the empathy, commitment and imagination of the library staff, whose talents extend way beyond the bookshelves when it comes to helping our communities thrive.
Having recently interviewed some of these passionate people, I was bowled over by how much is on offer and want to share some of those discoveries, so you’re aware of what’s possible in your local library, if you think outside the books!
My local, Alexandria library, now has a lift for the first time.
This is thanks to National Lottery funding and campaigning of staff who saw customers with mobility issues prevented from using the community and heritage spaces upstairs.
Both Alexandria and Clydebank are now fully accessible from street level, with ramps, lifts, wider layouts, accessible toilets, and design innovations like the ‘wheely bookshelves’.
These not only look cool but can be pushed right back against the outer walls of the main areas to create huge spaces for special events.
And space is something both libraries have lots of.
Sympathetically restored to make the most of traditional wood-panelling and windows, stone pillars, wrought-iron staircases, original skylights and tiled floors.
The new, up-to-date furniture of the cosy reading nooks and various modern-style workstations make them functional, comfortable, and fit-for-purpose spaces.
The refurbishments have created a lovely, interesting, relaxed ambience where anyone could feel at home, want to ‘coorie in’ and linger without feeling obliged to spend money.
That’s rare these days, unfortunately.
Room for Hire
Members of the public can also book the libraries’ numerous private meeting rooms free of charge.
I was surprised by this but think it’s brilliant.
Many groups already take advantage of this opportunity, but you don’t even have to be part of an official group.
It could be for a job interview, family meeting, quiet study, or even for those working from home (on days when you can’t get peace).
Financial accessibility can be just as much of a barrier as physical accessibility when it comes to finding decent spaces for hire, so it’s great to know we have this option.
Besides free Wi-fi, meeting rooms and computer access, there are so many other free resources available.
Just by having a library card, we can use the Pressreader app to skip over the ‘paywalls’ used by many online commercial newspapers.
So, if reading the papers is your thing, you don’t have to miss out due to costs.
We can also access the premium genealogy website Ancestry.com free of charge!
This could be a life-changing resource for someone wanting to trace long-lost family.
Comics Plus and Borrow Box enable you to choose from hundreds of comics/graphic novels, audiobooks, e-Books and magazines to read in the comfort of the library or via your own device from anywhere.
If there’s a book you’d like to borrow which isn’t in the local collection, you can even ‘Suggest and Request’ they purchase it.
Who needs Amazon, that’s what I say!
I Am Me
The WDC libraries are also designed to be safe spaces for all.
Every local library is registered with I Am Me, a charity scheme aimed at helping differently-abled people feel safer in public places, but it can be used by anyone who lacks confidence for whatever reason while out and about.
Police Scotland vet public places before they’re registered and provide staff with training on how to support vulnerable people.
The Keep Safe card is free and available from the I Am Me Scotland website at www.iammescotland.co.uk.
There’s also a free app to help plan outings.
Hopefully you’ll never need it, but the idea is if you’re having a bad day, you don’t have to explain yourself, just show your card in the library and staff will know how to help.
This could be invaluable to people like me who struggle with mental health problems and neurodiversity.
We never know when a panic attack or trigger could hit and it’s sometimes hard to ask for help from a stranger without making yourself feel worse, so I’m definitely going to get this card.
Libraries of Sanctuary is another inclusivity scheme designed to ensure refugees/ asylum seekers have a safe and supportive public space free of racism.
Clydebank Library hosts weekly classes teaching ESOL (English as a Second or Other Language).
They’re also keen to introduce some fun, social groups connecting those new to the area with other Bankies, promoting kindness, friendship and helping people to integrate.
Library workers are trained to have a zero-tolerance approach to any form of discriminatory behaviour in the building.
And there are lots of subtle nods to inclusivity and accessibility in all WDC libraries.
For example, just by placing the complimentary period products in both male and female bathrooms, it sends this message to trans men ‘someone who works here has thought about you and planned for your visit, and it’s safe to be yourself’.
As one library colleague shared… “everyone should come to the library and feel it’s a place for them, that it has something for them, and they can see themselves here.”
Thoughtfully curated book displays recognise a diverse range of characters, lived experiences, celebrations and stories.
Seeing a title on the shelf which you relate to, can make your day.
Both renovated libraries have beautifully decorated, forest-themed junior rooms full of colour and natural light, now with closable doors.
This one simple change means kids are welcome to have fun and play, so they’ll grow up feeling positive about the library while their adults needn’t worry about their noise.
Alexandria is the only WDC library with its own outdoor garden space.
It gives local families access to nature-based fun activities with a fairy trail, bird boxes, mud kitchen, fruit trees and raised beds for planting seeds, all of which are wheelchair accessible via the paved pathways.
Upstairs, the old heritage room has been given a new lease of life.
Now a stunning museum exhibit with ornate decor, colourful information displays and historical artefacts from the 300-year history of the Vale’s textile dyeing and printing works, and the 150-year old Vale Juniors football club.
Primary pupils have enjoyed tours of the heritage room and the space is also used for a range of creativity and well-being sessions.
Our libraries are one of the few public places where it’s still free to just exist or to get involved with any of the above.
They are the glue holding many things in the community together.
And staff want you to know there are no hard and fast rules, only guidelines, as to how to use the library.
“Just ask for anything you need and we’ll do our best to help.
“Even if it’s not something we normally do, the team can usually find a way to make things work.”
Ask for a tour if you’d like to get reacquainted, they love proudly showing people round their amazing new spaces.
Whether you’re a Bankie or a Jeely-Eater (Vale of Leven resident), or from somewhere in between, I really hope your local library becomes a favourite place – if it isn’t already.
The improved accessibility and inclusivity mean more of us can experience the many ways these incredible community assets can enrich our lives and connect us with our shared past, a thriving present and an even brighter future.
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