Yoker Youth Library is noisy, chatty even boisterous at times. Elaine Williams finds out why it's allowed. Rita Doyle, an assistant librarian at Yoker Youth Library in Glasgow, put the phone down and turned to a young man by the issue counter. "Glenn, that's your mum wanting some milk. You'd better be going home."
The opening of a cut-price supermarket, selling milk and sugar as loss leaders in the first few days of trading, had created ripples of excitement in Yoker, an area formerly at the heart of Glasgow's docklands, an area where unemployment, drug-taking and crime are now rife. Yoker's working life disappeared with the closure of the shipyards. Only the Yarrow shipbuilders re- mains, employing a few hundred men.
Local amenities are poor and were it not for the youth library, the young people of this close-knit community say they would have little to do but hang about the streets and get into crime. Many are second generation unemployed, leaving education with few prospects and little hope of improving their lives.
Claire Spence, aged 14, comes to the library nearly every day after school. On late nights when the library is open until 8.30pm, she goes home for her tea and returns until closing time. "There would be more trouble on the streets if we didn't have this place to come to. The library has people coming in talking to us about Aids and drugs. The staff are the best part of it. We can talk to them and they play computer games with us."
Glenn Porch, aged 16, left school at Christmas and is unemployed. He spends hours in the Yoker library every day, playing sports computer games, talking to friends, watching Neighbours and Home and Away on the library television. The evening his mum had sent him out for milk he'd called in to the library on the way and had forgotten about his initial errand. Glenn never looks at books, although, among the CDs, videos, magazines, comics and computer consoles, a wildly eclectic collection is temptingly displayed.
Seven years ago there was no library and no youth provision. With Glasgow City Libraries acting as a sponsor, a successful application was made for urban aid funding but this will come to an end this summer. Staffing will have to be cut from five - supervision is heavier than in other kinds of libraries - to three full-time and one part-timer, and Glasgow is expected to take over the running when Scottish local government is re-organised.
Teenagers are the heaviest users of libraries nationally and Yoker caters generously for their specific needs. The library is on the top floor of the old Yoker Primary School, now turned into a resource centre. Crossing the threshold is like entering into a world of adolescent dreams. Lilac and purple walls covered in movie and music posters complement a midnight blue ceiling peppered with luminous stars. An outsize model of Spiderman hangs over the Coke machine;the magazine stand currently holds 32 titles including the Beano, Cosmopolitan, Just 17, M8 magazine which serves the Scottish rave scene, and NME.
In the far corner a television stands before a bank of soft seating, placed for the convenience of the weekly mass viewing of Top of the Pops. Four computer game consoles are lined up on the far wall next to the Strathclyde community information computerised link-up and the jobs board. A box of baby board books stands in this area to encourage young and single mothers under the age of 25 to use the library. Picnic tables and chairs are scattered around for reading, playing board games and for gossiping.
Music is played fairly constantly from the library's generous CD collection - ranging from Meat Loaf, to Cliff Richards to Tosca. Among the videos, Jane Fonda work-outs sit next to The Singing Kettle for the benefit of teenage mothers.
Books range crazily from Irvine Welsh's cult work Trainspotting to Anita Brookner's A Family Room, from classic Scottish writers like Alasdair Gray, through horror collections, to Nick Fisher's Living With A Willy and books about bulimia. Delia Smiths's summer recipes and books about fly fishing rest alongside Geoffrey Abbott's Rack, Rope and Red Hot Pincers - a history of torture and its instruments. The Babysitters series and Sweet Valley High - Mills and Boon for teenagers - are well-thumbed, as are the library's 300 graphic novels which cover anything from Tolkien's The Hobbit to The Chronicles of Judge Dredd.
Though perfectly arranged for browsing, Yoker is hardly recognisable as a library as such. It is noisy, chatty, even boisterous at times. Staff organise discos, raves, laser kareoke, rap sessions with groups like Urban Species, visits by the Rasta poet Benjamin Zephaniah, the BBC sports team and the Body Shop. They provide chess and computer game tournaments, fortune-telling, basketball and football coaching, tie-dying, jewellery making and music workshops.
"There may be loud music and youth using it like a drop-in but basically we operate like any other library," says Rita Doyle. "They have to be members and stuff they borrow must be brought back."
There are 2,500 members and 1,500 regular users, few of whom would ever think of stepping foot inside a traditional library, let alone picking up a book. According to the librarian in charge Anne-Louise McGough, a spirited individual with a wry sense of humour, there's hardly a bookshelf to be found in the whole of Yoker. But out of a total issue of 22,038, books remain the largest single category with 5,769 taken out in 1994, graphic novels making up a quarter of them. The underlying aim, she says, is to encourage reading but no censorship or political correctness is applied. As the age of library users ranges between 12 also 25, some material, unsuited to young readers, is marked 16-plus. On the whole the library stocks material which interests its largely male membership: war, horror and sci-fi.
"In the end," said Anne Louise, "you have to trust them as you would trust an adult." Eclectic reading, she believes, can just as easily lead a young person into the classics as into graphic novels. Yoker's teenagers would not brook a hierarchy of literature.
No fines are charged on overdue books. "Nobody would ever pay them," says Anne Louise. But a collector is employed to knock on doors rounding up strays. "Parents are so relieved it's not the DSS that kids get a rollicking and we get the stuff back. We lose 3.5 per cent of our stock each year, which is low compared to other libraries. There's a lot of peer group pressure for stock to be returned. It's their library, they have a real feeling of ownership about it."
Library staff work closely with community policemen, but problems on the street are rarely brought into the library. Should there be trouble, scuffles, verbal abuse or aggressive outbursts, offenders' names are written down in a Black Book decorated with skull and crossbones. They are then banned for anything from a day up to six months. They are always desperate to return, says Anne Louise.
Anne Louise, a musician and an actress as well as a librarian, ran the Theatre Seanachaidh (Gaelic for storytelling) for some years, which sent 34 Equity players into community centres, schools and homes for the elderly across Scotland, relating traditional tales through acting and music. She now employs all of those skills and draws on all of her contacts in providing as wide a cultural diet as possible for the teenagers of Yoker.
In many respects, Yoker stands at the heart of the debate about teenagers and their library needs. Some in the library profession believe that specialist libraries run the risk of ghettoising young readers, but their specific needs should be catered for, according to Mel Gibson, a Northumberland librarian who represents the northern region on the Youth Libraries Group national committee.
She believes a library like Yoker creates an environment when learning is more likely to occur. "When all forms of consumption in the library are made of equal value, then reading becomes sexier again. In this kind of environment reading seems more daring and more attractive."
Co-author of Graphic Account, a critique of graphic novels, she believes this genre is undervalued by many as a tool for the promotion of reading among teenagers. "I read Superhero comics from the age of three though it was not something you admitted to as a girl. I read Star Trek, Dr Who and then went on to Dickens. The graphic novel is a genre that can relate any story, from Superman to The Hobbit.
"It works well as part of an integrated approach to young adults. You also need staff who can remember what it was like to be a teenager, who will be welcoming and be able to sell their services. You cannot sit behind a desk and wait for them to come in." Mel Gibson says many librarians feel nervous when confronted by groups of young men coming through the doors, with time on their hands for librarian baiting. Graphic novels provide a way of diverting their energies.
Some libraries allow access to the adult library from the age of 12; others demand users must be 16. However, she believes it is crucial that libraries seriously address the needs of this group.
Provision across the country is patchy. Hertfordshire is working with teenagers in rural areas by sending out mobile libraries with youth workers on board; Warwickshire has introduced teenage areas into most libraries; Cheshire has increased teenage library use by 50 per cent through the use of a promotional video, Murphy Say Something, made by teenagers themselves.
The Petersburn Library and Youth Drop-in Centre in the Monklands area of Strathclyde, which lends guitars and offers recording studio facilities, claims that vandalism in Petersburn has dropped by 20 per cent since it opened.
Bradford Exchange, a small library within Bradford's Central Library, has attracted large numbers of Asian teenagers. the idea was to get groups of young men hanging around on the library steps, into the building. "How do you do this?" asks Mel Gibson. "You buy in graphic novels, magazines, board games, a computer, television, music and certain non-fiction books."
"It is said that young men stop reading, but they don't stop reading altogether. They stop reading fiction but carry on with books about fishing and Newcastle United. We have to change our perceptions and rethink what we should be offering them."