When staff volunteered to open Plymouth’s central library for two-and-a-half hours last Christmas Day, they thought it might give a few homeless residents somewhere warm and welcoming to go.
Instead, explains librarian Mandy McDonald, they were taken by surprise. People of all ages came to the library to enjoy free mince pies, biscuits and hot drinks, as well as a festive film showing. One family even brought some of their Christmas presents to open. “We had a massive response,” says McDonald. “There were people who just wanted to come and have some company, or use our computers to contact family.” That included one man living in temporary accommodation who used the library systems to get in touch with his son, to whom he hadn’t spoken for some time.
“It’s about health and wellbeing,” says McDonald. “We helped to combat loneliness on Christmas Day.” The event cost nothing “apart from a little bit of electricity”: it was run by volunteers, including McDonald’s own teenage son, and local residents and businesses donated food, clothing and toiletries. “A lot of volunteers, me included, felt it was in the spirit of Christmas,” she says. “It was humbling.” The library will open again this year, for slightly longer – and with more party games.
Libraries up and down the UK may have been financially squeezed, closed or forced to rely on volunteers, but they are fighting back and asserting their vital role in local communities. National Libraries Week, from 8-13 October, focuses on how libraries benefit wellbeing. That’s fitting, given that World Mental Health Day this year falls in the middle of the week, on 10 October.
In Rhoose, near Barry, the community-run library is offering a free mindfulness taster session on Friday 12 October. In Blackpool, residents can sample salsa, Pilates and story time for adults, while libraries in, among other places, Wolverhampton and Northumbria are providing wellbeing and health checks. And on Monday, Leeds central library hosted a performanceby the Giving Voice choir for adults with neurological conditions and their carers.
Meanwhile, Oldham Library, which last year became the first public library to offer a free Comic Con event, has been able to use interest in comics to get young people talking about their mental health. The Comics and Cosplay: Caring forYoung Minds project was funded by Carnegie UK and the Wellcome Trust. “We invited young people in Oldham to watch a performance and take part in a workshop in which they explored the issues affecting their mental health,” explains senior library officer Victoria Varley.
These discussions, in which more than 100 young people took part, were then documented by writer Rachael Smith and illustrator Jacob Phillips, who produced a graphic novel called Jack & Lucy. “The young people told us that sharing their stories had a really positive effect on their wellbeing, and the graphic novel also provides a unique resource for young people struggling with the same issues and the people supporting them,” says Varley. The novel was launched at the second Oldham Comic Con, held in the library in May, and organised in partnership with Dennis Whittle, who runs a comic shop in the town.
Until recently, there hasn’t been a lot of evidence to back up the feeling that libraries support health and wellbeing, but that is starting to change. Nearly every library in the country runs regular rhyme time sessions for parents and under-fives. The sessions are fun for children, and help with language development, socialisation and empathy.
New research has also highlighted the positive effect rhyme times have on the mental health and wellbeing of mothers. A recent research project run by consultants from Shared Intelligence and Essex Libraries, funded by Arts Council England, has demonstrated that sharing rhymes in a group in a library gives mums an instant mood boost.
Synchronising movements produces higher levels of the maternal dopamine associated with mood and pleasure and stronger parent-child bonding. Row Row Row Your Boat is a particularly good song for this, with parents and children holding hands and rocking back and forth.
“The research saw a very noticeable improvement in mothers’ moods immediately after rhyme time – with the percentage describing themselves as ‘very happy’ more than doubling from 25% to 59% in the space of 30 minutes,” says Sarah Mears, programmes manager at Libraries Connected, the membership organisation for public libraries in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It’s about more than just singing: the researchers found mothers’ moods improved by the interaction with other like-minded parents, which reduced loneliness, boredom and stress, while adding structure to the day helped with self-motivation and promoted feelings of achievement through the simple act of getting to the session.
Libraries are good for our health. One research project from 2015 showed that not only were library users more satisfied with their lives than non-library users, being a regular library user was also estimated to save the NHS just under £30m a year. Those are big claims. But if they help prove the value of libraries, and prevent the closure of any more, that will be a huge benefit for all our wellbeing.