Noted for music and more

4th November 1994 at 00:00
A community library a few miles outside Glasgow offers young people on the bleak Petersburn estate more than books to borrow. Brenda Houghton finds out why it's been shortlisted for an initiative award.

I come here every day after school 'cos there's nothing else to do," says Claire Andrews, settling back on a chair in the Drop-in Centre at Petersburn Community Library. "When it's closed, I just doss about with my pals."

Petersburn, where Claire lives, is a council estate in the town of Airdrie, a few miles outside Glasgow. The estate was built 21 years ago and the four-storey blocks are in reasonable repair, with striking views of the hills.

But for youngsters like Claire it is a bleak place, because the facilities that were supposed to be provided for its 10,000 residents never materialised: there is no playground, park, pub, cafe or takeaway. Not even a laundrette or a video shop. Nothing.

"There used to be a football pitch," says Fraser Hynd, another regular at the Drop-in. "But they took that away and made it into a coalmine. Now that's shut, but it's all just muck so there's nothing."

And in this wasteland lives the highest percentage of teenagers in Scotland, many of them unemployed like their parents, and passing the days in a tedium too often broken by drug-taking and under-age drinking.

So when Monklands District Council apppointed Lindsay McKrell to open a community library in Petersburn in November 1991, one of her priorities was to target young people. And what she offered was so startling it has put the library on to a shortlist of three for the 1994 Library AssociationHolt Jackson Community initiative award, to be announced next Wednesday.

What is special is that alongside the library facilities, the council opened the Drop-in Centre where 12 to 26-year-olds can come in off the streets to socialise, play computer games, watch MTV (the Sky music channel) and borrow pop videos, records, tapes and CDs - as well as books - from the library.

But the Drop-in is more than just somewhere warm to sit around. It offers local youngsters the chance to start making music. They can have free tuition on drums or guitar (bass, electric or acoustic), borrow an instrument to practise on and use the soundproof rehearsal room.

Peter Kelly and Steven Reilly are still at school but have a flourishing band Dragdoll booked to play at a club in Glasgow this weekend. Steve, the drummer, says: "We used to practise in a garage and the neighbours got the police up. You can come in and make a real loud noise in the rehearsal room."

Only last Friday, Dragdoll heard that they were one of three Scottish finalists shortlisted for the national "Battle of the Bands" annual contest sponsored by Panasonic. Their entry was a tape produced at the Drop-in's fully-equipped recording studio where any local musicians can cut a tape for free. David Fagan, one of the three men who run the centre, explains: "We see it in the old tradition of the libraries. We've always lent books free. Now we lend these facilities free."

It takes a pretty special kind of librarian to handle a set-up like this. George Williamson, who started the Drop-in and David Fagan and Stuart MacLeod who began as volunteers and then got staff jobs, not only have the usual qualifications, but have all been in bands and made records themselves.

The idea of using music to draw the youngsters off the streets was an instant hit. "Councillors tend to be a bit stereotyped when they address the needs of teenagers, and immediately think of things like sports grounds," says David Fagan. "But we felt they'd rather have music."

And they were right, because the Drop-in has unleashed a wealth of local talent. Some groups come with a song all ready to record, but most people have just the bones of a song in their head and Stuart will flesh it out for them, sending them off with suggestions to develop for the next session.

Terry Kerr, who left school 10 years ago, comes in regularly. "I'm unemployed, I've no money. This facility would cost me more than I could ever contemplate, " he says. He has joined a writers' group too, and is writing poetry and songs.

"I'm a scheme writer - a scheme is an estate. Most poets go into the hills and the like. I stay within the schemes and write about the people who live there. There's a lot of young people with problems with drugs and drinking and no sort of life."

Among Terry's friends are people in their thirties who've never had a job. "You get to the point where you think, people who work, they're the mad ones. I try and get the feelings across so others will understand."

One of Terry's songs features on the Drop-in's boldest venture yet: at Christmas it is bringing out a CD featuring 13 of the bands who've sprung up in Petersburn since it opened. To make "Elvis Help Me", the Drop-in first set up a record company, PDCRecords, with grants from Monklands District Libraries and the Scottish Office. One aim is to make single CDs in future under the PDC label.

What the staff care about is the learning that goes on as all this happens. "The process is as important as the finished product," explains David Fagan.

Making the compilation CD has offered lots of chances for informal teaching. "The group that's bringing it out is made up of representatives from all the bands," says David. "One group had to find companies to press it, another is working with a graphic artist doing the cover, another looking into the legal side and copyright conditions. And they're all learning to work together. I don't think they know the learning's going on. It's a hidden agenda."

But you don't have to make music to get something out of the centre. "There are people who just use it as a meeting place, but they can also get involved in the job club or the video studio. Some just come in to socialise with their friends and we pull them on to training courses," David explains.

This is what happened to Fraser Hynd. "I used to come in to play computer games with my friends. I couldn't get a job or go to college because I have ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis). They started saying, 'Why don't you just do this, keep your brain ticking over?' So I've been doing courses in sound engineering with Stuart." Stuart's course leads to a SCOTVEC certificate, so students can go on to college.

The Drop-in also helps the youngsters with the dispiriting hunt for work - 35 per cent or more of those under 25 are unemployed - through an informal job club, extra to the adult job club run in the library. Youngsters seeking work have access to a computer to write a CV, to photocopiers and a phone. David Fagan says many youngsters prefer to look for work through the Drop-In, because they feel a stigma about going to the job centre and admitting they're unemployed. "You go thereIand you feel a failure."

The young people don't just take from the centre, for instance they are putting something back by making community videos. The centre has a video suite where teenagers can take SCOTVEC courses in video and editing. Then they go out with a camera to events like a school play, edit the film in the studio and put it on loan in the library.

One of the most popular videos is the one they made of the Spring Fling, a week-long celebration of sport, drama, writing, dance and live music. Primary pupils wrote about the events and read their stories aloud for the voice-over - it is the video every family wants to borrow.

It all ties in with Lindsay McKrell's determination to make the library sensitive to local needs. When the staff found that boys outnumbered girls in the Drop-in, they started a teenage girls' group which has tried out everything from aromatherapy to workshops on body image, drugs, alcoholism and contraception.

Local children visit the library from playschool upwards, tempted by circus days, holiday events and a junior writers' workshop. Pupils at the local primary have also been encouraged to write small format story books of their own, which have been laminated, bound and added to the lending shelves - a huge encouragement to the proud young authors.

When the library first opened Lindsay organised an open day for women writers. The response amazed her; 50 to 60 women turned up and a workshop started to meet every fortnight. It uncovered so much hidden local talent that an anthology of their writing is in its third reprint.

"There are some well-educated people here," says Marianna Rowan, secretary of the group. "But most feel they've been failed by the system or by financial restrictions making them leave school early. This gives them a second chance. "

There are Open Learning packs which can be borrowed for three months at a time. Marianna has taken a pack on women writers and is currently doing a pre-access course. Even age and infirmity do not keep people out of Lindsay's benign reach: she has started up a reminiscence group at the local sheltered housing.

Petersburn is up against tough opposition for the award. Also shortlisted is the Life Project for elderly people in Renfrew, Scotland, set up when volunteers delivering books to the housebound found themselves bombarded with questions from worried and often isolated old people. A special team now makes home visits to offer support with problems from filling in forms to stopping nuisance telephone calls.

And Sandwell Libraries in the Black Country have been nominated for a writing programme designed to introduce people to the libraries. A writer in residence encouraged schoolchildren to work with the elderly, Asian women were drawn in, books were published and a touring exhibition enabled the community to share the experience.

When the award was launched, Andrew Green, chair of the Library Association's community services group, said its aim was to acknowledge the efforts libraries were making to help the poor and disadvantaged. Petersburn's Drop-in Centre has clearly made an impact. A thousand youngsters a month come through its doors because it has given them an alternative to the drugs and drinking.

Peter Kelly, whose band has a track on the CD believes: "It's launched our careers. Without the Drop-in I'd have been stuck in my bedroom feeling sad."

Paul Vallance, the community police officer, says there has been a great reduction in crime and vandalism since the centre opened. In a letter to George Williamson, PC Vallance wrote that he appreciated having somewhere he could talk to the local teenagers, "in an atmosphere that is pleasing and friendly, unlike the usual scenario on street corners."

As Nikki Traynor, one of the younger regulars, points out: "I come every night. I'm very good at the games. I use the studio to practise my drums. I meet all these people. It's good, aye."

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