Surrey's libraries are throwing away the rulebook

If you're one of the many people who've let their membership lapse, you'll be amazed at what's on offer at Surrey's libraries today - from celebrity book readings to help with your family tree and even a live e-mail service to assist children with...

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine May 2009If you're one of the many people who've let their membership lapse, you'll be amazed at what's on offer at Surrey's libraries today - from celebrity book readings to help with your family tree and even a live e-mail service to assist children with their homework. DEBBIE WARD finds out more

It's Tuesday morning at Merstham library and manager Fay Parkinson is passing out bells and rattles to a group of toddlers and encouraging them to make as much noise as possible. Percussion-accompanied nursery rhymes are followed by a rousing burst of the Hokey Cokey amid the bookshelves before the children sit down to enjoy a story. It's certainly all a far cry from their parents' experiences of libraries at the same age. "I went to this library when I was little and I remember my mum saying, 'Shh, don't speak,'" says Ruth Triance, who has joined the Rhymetime session with her three-year-old daughter Poppy and two other girls she childminds. "I think it's nice they do this - it helps get children into the library." Afterwards, everyone heads into a neighbouring room where there's a special toy library run by charity Welcare in East Surrey. "There's such a treasure trove in here and it's all so nicely kept," enthuses Alison Osborne-Simister, a teacher from Bletchingley, who is visiting with her ten-month-old son Rohan. "We've got one of these pop-up toys at home and when the pig pops up again, you do think, 'it'd be nice if it was, say, a cow for a change!'" While a toy library might be quite unusual, child-friendly facilities and weekly Rhymetimes and Storytimes can be found at most Surrey libraries these days. It's just one of the ways in which they have been moving with the times. "The days when there used to be complete silence and hundreds of rules are gone," says Helyn Clack, Surrey County Council's executive member for safer and stronger communities. "We have modern services and are more family-friendly. The change is quite phenomenal really. "Having said that, libraries are for all people so we work on striking a balance between the livelier activities - such as Rhymetimes and coffee mornings, which are held at regular times - and the quieter times that other users enjoy." She says lapsed members encouraged back to Surrey libraries during a recent promotion were particularly impressed with the up-to-date book selection, cheap DVD rental, free internet access and longer opening hours. "We got comments like, 'I only popped in for two minutes and stayed for two hours,'" she laughs. For one thing, computerisation has revolutionised the service. A database of all Surrey's book stock now makes inter-library borrowing easy, while the introduction of self-checkout scanners across much of the county has meant librarians spend less time stamping books and more time creating appealing themed displays and helping customers. You don't even have to leave home to make use of a Surrey librarian's expertise these days. For the past four years, the Enquiries Direct helpdesk has been taking questions by phone, e-mail, fax and post. Not even requests for wartime pictures of a German salt mine and a price list for vintage pub beer mats have stumped their team of eight professional librarians, who regularly help PhD students, competition enthusiasts, business people and the simply curious. By the book The same team covers Homework Help, a live e-mail service for Surrey schoolchildren, which information delivery coordinator Isobel Blackley is quick to stress is not a way to cheat: "We'll send a relevant website link to them," she says. "Not say 'the answer is George V'!" Family and local history questions are commonly put to Enquiries Direct, too, but several of Surrey's libraries also have volunteer local historians visiting once or twice a week to help with such research face-to-face. In a corner of Horley library, surrounded by a wealth of antique maps and archives, members of Horley Local History Society regularly help people uncover their family trees, the heritage of their homes and more. At a recent weekday session, for example, volunteer Peter Cox was giving demonstrations of the newly released 1911 census on the internet, a schoolboy dropped in to ask for help with a project, and former projectionist Ian Sargent continued his research for a book on Horley's cinemas. Being based in the library means the society benefits from locals' knowledge as well. Visitors have been able to share their wartime experiences, identify relatives in old photographs and even produce rare artefacts, like the handwritten ledger signed by all of Horley's fire-fighters from 1891 to 1910, which someone found in an attic. "We get a lot of information coming the other way," says volunteer Brian Buss. "In the main, we're just the stimulus to open people's eyes." Community involvement is at the heart of Surrey's modern library service and many see social interaction as key to encouraging newcomers. Farnham library, with the help of an active Friends group, runs a particularly lively programme of events. It has organised visits from conjurers, authors and local celebrities, hosted talks by experts and thrown garden parties, all with the aim of stimulating library membership across the community. One member of the Friends group, John D'Arcy, 80, would like to see more people benefitting, as he has, from the educational side of libraries but believes they need coaxing: "I think there's been a shift and people are less into books and spend more time watching TV," he says. However, with the credit crunch biting, it may just be the push that people need to rediscover their local libraries. In fact, Merstham's Fay Parkinson has already noticed an increase in borrowing: "People used to just throw books into their trolley at the supermarket, but now they think, 'I have to pay for that'," she says.

To find out what's on at your local library, call 0300 200 1001 or see For Enquiries Direct, call 01483 543599 or send them an e-mail to

Did you know?

All Surrey libraries have free internet access and most run free computer help sessions for those new to the web. Egham is the most recent of many Surrey libraries to undergo refurbishment and there's also a new library at Walton. New books arrive at libraries daily and the popular Richard & Judy Bookclub titles are often highlighted on shelves. Staines library runs a Books on Prescription service through which GPs can recommend self-help books to tackle problems like stress and phobias. Camberley library has a Reminiscence Collection with books, music, videos and artefacts for professional carers across Surrey to use in therapy with the elderly. Epsom library has a large range of books on art and art history that can be borrowed across Surrey. There's a Performing Arts Library situated in the grounds of Denbies vineyard at Dorking. Over 250 reading groups are supported by Surrey libraries, while Oxted library also hosts a monthly writing workshop. Mobile libraries cover several areas.