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Opinion

‘A library for homeless people can offer more than books, it’s a space to be’

Streetreads Library has launched to offer homeless people a purpose-built facility in Edinburgh. Coordinator Emma Jardine explains why the service offers a safe space that other libraries can’t.

For a number of years, I led a current affairs discussion group for a charity supporting people experiencing homelessness.

To be honest, ‘current affairs’ was a bit of a highfalutin title for a weekly hour of animated chat and banter about anything vaguely topical. One week the subject was libraries.

As usual, I’d prepared some stimulus material – some quotes about reading, pictures of different types of libraries all over the world, newspaper articles about the importance of libraries – and was looking forward to facilitating the conversation from there.

During the class, I asked if any of the guys had ever been in Central Library on George IV Bridge, and one of them said, “Nah, it’s not really for people like us.”

“But it is,” I replied earnestly. “It’s a public library. That means it’s for everyone. Libraries are paid for through council tax, the same way as bin collections and street lighting. You’ve as much right to be in them as anyone else. If you want to go into a library, there’s nothing to stop you”.

“Aye there is,” he said good naturedly, “it’s full of folk like you”.

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Later, one of the other guys in the group took me aside and told me that he used to love going to Central Library, but that he wasn’t allowed in anymore.

“How come?” I asked. “I was there too much and I asked the staff too many questions,” he said with a shrug.

Eat your heart out, Joseph Heller. I’ve found you another Catch-22.

Despite my protestations that they’re meant to be for everyone, a bit of digging taught me that much of the public library reform of the 1850s was in fact, founded on the principle that “Education [was] the enemy of revolution”.

Libraries were thought to be able to offer something that would distract the working classes from “more dangerous pursuits such as drinking and socialism”.

Despite their outwardly benign intentions, it was beginning to look like early libraries weren’t primarily designed so much for personal enjoyment, as much as to keep the working classes exactly where others wanted them.

Mmmm …. not quite the place of democracy I thought they were then or now.

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Today, many of the ways in which members of the general public access books are closed to members of the homelessness community.

They’re unlikely to be able to purchase books, and let’s face it, you can’t eat a book and it’s not going to keep you dry. But that doesn’t mean that they’re a luxury either.

At Streetreads, now a part of Streetwork at Simon Community Scotland, we’ve been taking donated books out to individual rough sleepers, soup kitchens, night shelters and refuges since 2016.

It’s always been about connecting people to books. Taking books to people wherever they may be and in whatever way they need to access them. Providing them in foreign languages, or large print, or popping a pair of reading glasses in with them.

But deep down, the hope had always been that we could provide a safe, welcoming, cosy place for the ultimate enjoyment of books.

A place where there was the rare opportunity to trade the unfavourable identity of being ‘homeless’, with the more favourable one of being just a ‘reader’ for a few hours.

The Streetreads Library was launched on August 24. It’s a beautifully designed, purpose-built space, where solace and comfort can be found in its books.

It’s not just where books are kept and lent or gifted. Our library doesn’t just provide books to read, but rather a space to be.

As the writer Caitlin Moran puts it so perfectly: “A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life-raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen instead.”

Emma Jardine is the Streetreads Coordinator for homelessness charity Simon Community Scotland. Streetreads Library is located at the City of Edinburgh Methodist Church at 25 Nicolson Square, Edinburgh, EH8 9BX. To use the space for any activities which would support readers, contact Emma at emma.jardine@simonscotland.org.

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