Time for a book break;Libraries

10th September 1999 at 01:00
Ford car workers choose more than a cheese and tomato roll when the trolley arrives: David Newnham finds a mobile library with a difference.

It's trolley time on the Ford production line. One woman pushes, the other pulls, and together they manoeuvre their heavy box on wheels up a ramp to park in their usual spot.

"Morning Ken." A worker saunters over and inspects the wares. What's it to be today? Earl Grey and a cheese and tomato roll? Wrong sort of trolley for that. In fact, it's a book by Bill Bryson that Ken's after, and he also wants to know if he can lay his carefully cleaned hands on something about carp fishing.

For this is a library trolley, and since the middle of May it has been touring the Ford body plant at Dagenham, taking books to workers whose shift patterns and lifestyles mean they are less likely to become regular users of a local library.

The pressing and stamping of car bodies goes on here 24 hours a day, which means that workers regularly start at tea-time and go into the early hours, or begin in the dead of night and arrive home exhausted when the rest of the country is thinking about lunch.

The library trolley, known as the Book Shift, is a six-month experiment. Together with a similar experiment targeting office workers at the Ford headquarters a few miles up the road, it is part of a pound;500,000 project called Reaching Parents, which aims to inspire adults to support the development of children's reading. Reaching Parents was created by LaunchPad, a library development agency involving professionals from the library and marketing worlds, with the help of a National Year of Reading grant.

When LaunchPad came to the plant with its idea for a trolley laden with books so that fathers could take home books to read to their children, the committee of the employee development assistance programme (EDAP), which is run by the trade unions and Ford management, suggested broadening the project, and found the cash to buy several hundred more books that the workers might also like to read for themselves.

"We wanted to bring the whole environment of the library into the plant," says Mick Hadgraft, chairman of the committee.

"And when the trolley project comes to an end, we will probably set up a permanent library here with the books we now have."

Already the trolley has attracted 80 borrowers, and the number is rising steadily. Although the books are signed out, loan periods are flexible and designed to fit around people's shift patterns.

"For us, the fact that so many people are participating when they may have as little as half an hour for their break is a sign of how well received it's been," says Mr Hadgraft.

A typical trolley round might involve a librarian from a local library, as well as a literature development worker - such as Eva Lewin, who has been involved with the Book Shift since the start and has seen it grow into an accepted part of the shopfloor scene.

"People come up to the trolley and pick up a book and maybe say that they don't really have time to read it," says Ms Lewin. "But because it's there, they'll take it home anyway."

There are about 700 titles in all, some donated by the publisher Random House, some library surplus, and around pound;400 worth that have been purchased by the EDAP. They range from VS Naipaul and Milan Kundera, through Stephen King and Nick Hornby, to books about beer and football - and cars.

Every so often, there is a special request - the book about carp fishing, for instance. Then the librarian will try to find something in the service's own stock. In that respect, the trolley is acting as an arm of the library, a foretaste, perhaps, of the shape of things to come, as libraries emerge from behind closed doors and reach into workplaces and shopping centres.

Inevitably, the borrowers will stop for a chat. "What did you think of that last one?" asks Ms Lewin.

And then she's involved in a discussion about science fiction or cricket or even a novelist's description of 18th-century London that has fired a toolmaker's imagination.

"Perhaps one day having a library at the plant will seem as natural as having a canteen," she says. That's certainly food for thought.

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