History on the shelf

Victoria Neumark examines the shortlist for this year's Library Association Award

The urge to have a library, says Miranda McKearney of the Library Association, "is deep and primal". Certainly the people of Everest, in the heart of Shropshire, seem to bear her out. A community of 180 people, far from any source of books, started to get together in the school car park to swap reading matter. Now they have formed the Everest Hall Book Club, one of three on the shortlist for this year's Library AssociationHolt Jackson Community Initiative Award. Others on the list include Honiton Library in Devon, which combines its book-lending and reference service with access to local authority services, and Horley Library's local history centre.

Within four years, Horley's library has been transformed into a vibrant resource for local history fanatics, a welcoming study area for school pupils, and an outreach station for Surrey council's heritage strategy. Linda Piercy, area librarian, characterises the atmosphere as one of "quiet passion". Says Hilary Eley, her deputy: "There is a very strong expectation among users that a library will be a focus for the heritage and history of the area. Librarians don't always have the professional expertise to match that. But with our new centre, we have a wide range of material to offer and the enthusiasm to go with it."

The centre was born out of a meeting four years ago when the chair of the town's local history group challenged the library service to meet the need for information. Nowadays, the centre stocks a huge range of copied materials, from tithe apportionments to manorial court rolls, from maps to census returns.

New branch centres are opening as local history catches on. In Redhill, an ancient settlement, the sources lie further back in time than in Horley, which was only a scattered settlement until the arrival of Gatwick Airport this century. In the Caterham valley, which already has a local museum, the library has been able to liaise with a different kind of archive, with objects.

School students have always come to the library with their questions on local studies. Now, thanks to input from the local authority curriculum adviser, the history centre is able to match its resources to the enquiries. Those resources include a roster of eight volunteers, some of them in their eighties, who meet twice a week, once to act as a living memory bank, once as an "open research forum". Some of the best moments have come, says Hilary Eley, when pupils are asking for help on a map or census. Then you will see, as the volunteer bends over the records, how archive material comes to life. "It's not just a question of reading, but of hearing how life used to be in Horley, even before the coming of Gatwick." As wide-eyed child and reminiscing elder share their window into the past, what Hilary Eley calls the "altruism of research" shines out.

Horley, a nondescript small town, dominated by the airport, may seem uninspiring, yet its evolution mirrors that of the whole country from manorial fields to enclosed estates and turnpike roads, then on to the railways, the airport and the designation as green belt land, with accompanying planning battles. Local history is a live issue in Horley, and the library is its nerve centre.

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