: Geoff James - Manager, Library Services to Children and Young People

Geoff and a young library member meet Jacqueline Wilson at an Islington event
© Islington Council

Could you introduce yourself and tell us about your role?

I started working in libraries back when the world was very young and have worked in a number of roles including Library Assistant, Reference Librarian, Children's Librarian and now Manager for Children's Library Services.

My job is to oversee the selection of the children's and young people's book stock, devise holiday events programmes, manage the Summer Reading Challenge, co-ordinate our 10 homework clubs and 3 toy libraries and contribute to Islington Libraries annual calendar of cultural and reader development activities such as the major book prizes, Children's Book Week, Black History Month etc. and work with outside organisations on projects to promote reading.

I also manage the delivery of Islington's part in the national Bookstart book gifting scheme, the programme of library baby bounce rhyme times and under fives sessions and a busy schedule of primary school class visits to the library.

How did you get into Library work?

I'd been working as a Saturday Assistant while at college and went full time when I graduated while I considered my next step. The work seemed a unique combination of meeting the public, satisfying their need for information, education and leisure reading and somehow I stayed in the job.

Later on when I found myself in a role that was overly admin based, I took the opportunity to get back to the floor when a vacancy occurred for a Children's Librarian's post. To my surprise, I broke the habit of lifetime by giving a good interview to get the post I'm currently in!

What is the role of Islington Libraries within the local community?

We have ten permanent libraries, a programme of community 'pop up' style libraries and a home library service which means that no one is ever far from our offer of free access to information, books for educational support, reading for pleasure, film, music and activities.

Free internet access, events for all ages and cultural backgrounds and our spaces for hire mean that we offer a truly multi-dimensional service and we always come out well when the community is asked to score how it values its Council services.

We hope we are succeeding in encouraging people in the community to develop an interest in and enjoyment of reading for pleasure and purpose.

How are the workshops and groups at the libraries organised?

Every library offers at least one 'baby bounce' rhyme time for babies up to the point they begin to walk and at least one under fives session for older pre-schoolers. These are really fun times for parents and children as they get to rattle and shake instruments, sing rhymes, listen to stories and, very importantly, get to socialise with other families.

Our homework clubs are more about offering support and encouraging self-guided research than direct tutoring and our specially recruited homework club staff also listen to children reading, something that's very popular.

We have also run workshops by well-known authors such as Eileen Browne ('Handa's Surprise'), graphic novel illustrators and storytellers.

What are the main aims of the workshops you run?

Our ultimate aim is to encourage children, young people and parents to see books and reading as natural things to turn to to enjoy and share together and their local library as a valuable resource. Of course our homework clubs aim to offer children the space and time to research or complete their homework in a relaxed environment, while at the same time encouraging achievement by complementing their time in school.

We also offer adults the chance to extend their personal learning using computers, either as a way of learning new skills, improving their basic literacy and numeracy or to discover how to use computers themselves. These are especially popular with older residents.

How are you involved with local schools?

We receive visits from more than half of Islington's primary schools and our offer to them is varied, ranging from the chance to borrow books, listen to a story or poem and say what they liked or disliked about it, to providing a programme of library skills sessions to encourage children to understand how to use the library and become more self-reliant in discovering things for themselves in general.

How do you see libraries developing in the future?

Libraries are constantly changing. We have to react to the technological and social changes that people experience in their everyday lives, whether by providing access to the web, new media such as e-books or means of communication such as social networking.

Also, we are increasingly using technology to improve how we run ourselves, whether this is offering equipment to enable the customer to check items in and out for themselves or using software to monitor our book stock so that we get maximum value from our book budget.

We are also aware that we are not an island and that we can do more by working with other Council services, community groups and businesses. Our New Horizons community library programme has taken libraries and reading to hard-to-reach Council estates and we have successfully bid for Lottery funding to turn our hall spaces into learning zones.

Key to our success are our staff. An awareness of how important good customer care and community involvement are is crucial, and to ensure this we've trained the majority of our staff in how to deliver baby bounce and under 5s sessions. All libraries build into their rotas visits to local playgroups, nurseries, young parents groups and so on.

What's the future of the Islington Libraries in view of the current public spending cut backs?

The community and the Council are strong supporters of libraries and, while all parts of the Council are having to operate with reduced funding, we are constantly looking at ways of changing what we do or how we do it to achieve as much as we can with the funding we have.

Partnership working, external funding and identifying savings have enabled us to avoid closing libraries or relying on volunteers. If we continue to be prepared to provide a service that the community wants and make sure we highlight this to the community, we are confident that we have a bright future.

Islington Libraries bucks the trend that other libraries are experiencing. While book loans and visitors in many authorities have declined, ours have grown.

Key to this is the fact that children and young people are a strong force in our library service, accounting for a large proportion of our loans, visitors and activities. While there are always other tugs on their time and attention such as online gaming, sports activities, social networking, our reading-based offer to children, especially for families with young children, is something we feel will always have a unique place in their lives.

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