Boox for Us has had to break down prejudices on both sides of the literacy divide. Geraldine Brennan reports.
"IT SMELLS funny and you feel ashamed when you go in ... The staff look rich and healthy ... They look like posh idiots ... I don't know them, they don't live around here."
So much for public libraries and librarians, seen through the eyes of 13 to 16-year-old white working-class boys from a large estate in Leicester. They live near a library but, to quote a consultant on Boox for Us, a National Year of Reading project to tackle social exclusion, would sooner have their heads boiled than cross the threshold.
They may have a point: an early Boox for Us training session which encouraged librarians and teenage library-users revealed prejudice on both sides. The librarians described the teenagers as being, "unpredictable", "challenging", "insecure", "emotional", "demanding" and as having "attitude problems".
Teenagers thought librarians were "uncool", "patronising" and that they had "attitude problems" but "no sex life".
Boox for Us was set up earlier this year to support librarians and youth workers who were working together to confront these prejudices and get disaffected youngsters into libraries. Six projects in socially-deprived areas reported back on their efforts at a recent conference in London.
Steve Taplin, Boox for Us consultant, said: "One young person who took part had only ever read Teletext. We took in a range of very poor social conditions, situations where there was conflict between the adult community and young people."
In one library on Merseyside which encouraged teenagers who had previously been disruptive in the library to make use of it, two youth workers ran activities inside the library while another two policed the pavement outside.
ents from the Leicester group, who were all at risk of being excluded from school when they were recruited, explain why no boys of their age used the local library: they did not expect to be allowed to use the computers, they thought they would be told to keep quiet or be thrown out. One boy remembered being ordered out in the past for wearing muddy trainers.
Yet within a month the Bad Boys Buy Books reading group in Leicester (a title they chose themselves) had started borrowing regularly and had each been given pound;30 to spend on books to donate to the library. Their choices ranged from The Simpsons and Goosebumps titles to Buchi Emecheta's novel The Slave Girl.
"Almost without exception they bought books that were already in the library, so either they couldn't find them and didn't want to ask for help or they didn't want to be seen looking for books by their peers," said Leicestershire area librarian Nicky Morgan.
"At first they clearly did not feel comfortable in the library, but they now come in independently and come to homework-club sessions. The books they have donated are on the shelves with their reviews inside and their names in the front. They come in to check if anyone has taken them out."
Strong long-term relationships with staff whom the young people perceived as rooted in their community were the key to the success of this and similar projects, she said. "If you don't come from the neighbourhood it takes longer to build up a relationship. Also I think you need to meet more than once a week. You need the combination of connecting well with young people and having a wide knowledge of books."
"A lot of snobbery, guilt, elitism and worry gets in the way of young people expanding their horizons through reading," said Miranda McKearney of Well Worth Reading at the conference, where school standards minister Estelle Morris was a keynote speaker.
"The reader development work that libraries are doing connects young people to each other and builds readership for imaginative literature in new sections of the community. But the stereotype of the isolated, introverted reader is not attractive to young people who are worried about their image," Ms McKearney said.
The Boox for Us projects varied from a reading group for young carers in East Sussex to a programme to introduce girls in care in West Yorkshire to books on sexual health and relationships. One scheme was based at the Scotswood Attendance Project on Tyneside, run by a teacher, Steve O'Gara, for secondary pupils with long-term absenteeism records. He recalled how one boy had refused to read any poetry - "the most polite thing he said about it was that it was soft and boring" - but has now had his poem about Newcastle United published in the club fanzine.
The groups made a relatively small National Year of Reading grant (pound;500 each) go a long way, introducing the participants to performance poetry, storytelling and creative writing. A pound;50,000 Arts Council of England grant will fund similar work next year.
Well Worth Reading has launched The Reading Kit to help professionals inspire young people to read, which is pound;7.50. For details of this, the teenagers' literary magazine BOOX and other WWR publications, fax 0171 3711750 or email 106077.3102@compuserve. com.