The sound of children, exhorted to raise their voices as loudly as possible in a chorus of “row, row, row your boat”, is perhaps not what you’d expect in a library.
But instead of being shushed into silence by scowling adults, the morning’s smallest visitors to the Blackheath Library in Sandwell are urged to “scream!” And they give it their very best.
Blackheath Library is actually a trio of libraries – Cradley Heath and Oakham are the others – in Rowley Town, itself a part of Sandwell, which has 19 libraries and a mobile outreach library in its service.
This is a cheery, new building that seems at odds on a traditional high street, but you don’t have to be there long to realise that it has already sealed its place as a hub of the local community.
On a grey winter’s morning, Shazziah Rock – a part-time customer service officer/part-time library supervisor in Sandwell (and a UNISON steward and health and safety rep to boot) – is preparing for the new day.
9am: The library opens to the public at 9.30am, so beforehand, Shazziah and the team get together to discuss what lies ahead.
Today, their first task involves tackling the recently-installed room dividers that will allow a local out-reach group to meet in quiet.
And it’s some job, to be undertaken only with a precise mix of patience and good humour – and jokes about having to remove it later so that the library can be used that evening for yoga.
Only a few days earlier, there’d been an open mic comedy night there. The library plays host to a huge variety of events, and its fully mobile shelf units and small ‘pod’ counters mean that it can easily be converted to different uses.
9.15am: Within moments of opening, people have taken up seats at computers. One man, wrapped up in a padded Eddie Stobart jacket, with a flask of tea beside him, logs online to follow his favourite subject, stopping only to cheerfully impart the news to staff that he’s just seen a Stobart truck outside in the street.
An elderly woman comes in and, with a flourish, magics from her shopping trolley a roll of the day’s newspapers.
Surinder explains that, since there is no letterbox on the library, the papers are delivered by whichever local pops into the newsagent first.
And with that, she’s off, a bundle of posters advertising the month’s events under her arm, to deliver to local shops and the nearby church.
10.15am: By now it’s busy. Customers are being helped to use the computerised system for borrowing and returning books, while a small room is being prepared for a local bereavement group to meet.
The team know their regulars and are able to offer help when they know it’s needed – for instance, where someone is disabled. One of their regulars has Tourettes, but as staff explain, both they and locals know about and understand it.
Between taking possession of a delivery and checking data on a computer, Shazziah enthuses about her job.
Its role as a community hub is, to her, absolutely at the heart of what a library is today.
She loves the work – although it can be distressing when you’re unable to help a person who is, for instance, in despair about difficulties with benefits.
But the library can and does have arrangements for helping local people to find work, preparing CVs and actually hunting down vacancies.
11am: A dozen small children arrive from a local nursery. It’s storytime – and if you expect libraries to be places of solemn silence, then look away now.
First there is singing and then that scream, which help to settle them. And then Shazziah, her face animated, opens the pages of the first book as the children huddle around.
First up is a story of Hairy Maclary (a particularly furry canine). Then, as Michelle takes over the storytelling role, the children welcome Woody Bear to join them.
Just who fills the furry suit seems to be Sandwell libraries’ version of a state secret – although Michelle later insists (not without a sparkle in her eyes) that nobody is ‘inside’ Woody but Woody himself!
After a tale of Prickles the Hedgehog, with its safety message about not touching any substances one might find lying around at home, Shazziah concludes storytelling with an adventure from the Gruffalo.
It seems entirely apt that the sun chooses this moment to finally break through the gloom outside.
Then, the children take a small goody bag each and leave, after photos with the incredibly popular – if remarkably silent – bear.
The morning has had an ebb and flow to it, but Shazziah and her colleagues seem to ride it serenely, guiding and helping visitors.
They do have awkward squad moments – like everyone – but all suggest that these are rare.
Later in the day, they’ll often get teens in – “sometimes a bit rowdy, but it’s just showing off: they’re not bad kids; just normal”.
The library offers a place for them to do their homework and socialise in safety.
2pm: After lunch, as Shazziah is catching up on some administration, UNISON’s Sandwell branch secretary Tony Barnsley pops in with a delivery of union materials.
They take a few minutes to chat, before it’s time to head out and off to Cradley Heath, another of Sandwell’s trio of libraries.
3pm: After checking with the staff on the counter at this much more traditional – in appearance at least – library, Shazziah spends some time filing books.
It’s a leap back into library tradition after using new tech earlier in the day to help customers.
Each library has a wide range of books – from fiction to non-fiction, from history to guides for older people trying to get to grips with smartphones and tablets – as well as the computers that are vital for these communities, not just to find out about Eddie Stobbart trucks, but about jobs and services too.
And when a young man comes in looking for advanced information to help him with his embryonic photography business, Shazziah’s able to guide him straight away to a range of books that the library stocks.
4pm: As the early evening sunlight warms the red brick around and about, it’s time to head back to Blackheath.
Shazziah has spent her working life in front-facing roles and loves being able to connect with the public, and sees the job she and her colleagues do as making a valuable contribution to their community.
And the staff create a sense of calm and relaxation that sees people from across their communities making full use of the facilities.
But yoga, stand-up comedy, silent bears and screaming: one thing’s for certain – libraries weren’t like this in the olden days!
UNISON’s campaign Love your Libraries aims to ensure library services and staff are protected and invested in for the sake of local communities.
But we’re worried about the cuts the government is making to libraries.
In the last financial year over 260 libraries were threatened with closure or being passed to volunteers.
The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy reported in 2014 that full-time staff numbers have fallen by 22% over the last five years.
To find out more about our campaign visit facebook.com/loveyourlibraries