Pied piper to wonderland

21st April 2000 at 01:00
Aberdeen's reader-in-residence Kenneth Steven talks about his job and his ways of encouraging people to read and explore the riches of books.

When family and friends got wind of the fact that I had been appointed reader-in-residence for Aberdeen City Libraries, they asked sardonically if I was going to be paid to sit in a room on my own with a good book. I grew to answering them with reptilian smiles, but I wasn't entirely sure what was going to be expected of me.

Aberdeen City Libraries had been determined to raise the profile of books in the National Year of Reading. Librarians themselves were all too busy with the day-to-day running of their buildings to be able to devote adequate time to subsidiary activities. So what about a reader-in-residence?

The first thing I did was to set up a poetry group. There are plenty around the country that are purely for writers of the genre. This was open to one and all, but was intended first and foremost for readers of poetry.

The concept came to be to look each week at a "classic" text - anything from Homer to Yeats - and break it apart to see why it had been awarded the classic label. The idea was to dissociate ourselves from the aura around a text and to look at it dispassionately and unadoringly, with all our critical faculties prepared. The exercise was truly enlightening, and often quite startling.

I then set about getting readers' groups organised. I was particularly keen that the Central Library shouldn't steal all the Olympian thunder, that some of the satellite libraries in the city should be included. But the first task was to discover what people wanted.

Groups were - and indeed are - predominantly composed of women, and the majority of members were interested in crime writing and romantic fiction. All right, so the opportunity was provided to read some "set texts" which could be discussed once the group had devoured them.

One or two writers representing the genres came along to shed light on their craft, to answer curious group members questions about why the gun had been dropped by the Colonel and never retrieved, or whether they actually had been to Barcelona to become familiar with the cathedral for the scene involving the two sisters. Real readers meeting real writer - the learning curve and the fascination is there for both parties.

In the libraries - both the central and the satellites - I set up reading competitions, for junior bookworms and for the older faithfuls. Among the teasers prepared for the children were questions about everyone from Harry Potter to Aslan. The adults were quizzed about biographies and novels, light reading and poetry. The idea was that each competition should be filled with as much light and shade as possible.

In addition, the intention was that readers, both young and old, should burrow through the shelves of their local library for answers to the questions they didn't know already. So it was crucial that borrowers in one district weren't more privileged book-wise than those in any other. No one complained, and there were prizes for all the winners - book tokens, of course.

One of my main hopes is to set up a group for teenagers. They are seldom to be seen in the libraries of the granite city (unless, that is, it is at the point of the bayonet), preferring to remain safe in front of a computer screen or even safer in front of a television set.

Part of my remit as reader-in-residence was to be a Pied Piper, to inspire young people with books past and present and, having started them reading, to keep them reading. Well, I didn't relish attempting to get 20 strapping fans of heavy metal music to sit in a circle and read Jane Austen. I didn't even relish attempting to get 20 teenage girls to do that. It seemed wise to think about sugaring the pill.

I've joined forces with a youth worker in Aberdeen doing some excellent and exciting projects with film. The hope is that we can look at some contemporary writing and turn it into celluloid drama. The signs are promising and the potential rewards considerable, with both the BBC and ITV offering an ever-increasing number of awards for short films by young people in particular. The future's bright.

It now looks as though the reader-in-residence programme in Aberdeen will continue and be extended. And other local authorities and libraries have been showing considerable interest in the workings of the scheme. I very much hope that before I finish in Aberdeen I'll have some colleagues in other parts of Scotland.

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