The Little Libraries of Bristol

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By Flossie Palmer, Features Subeditor

As the UK is plunged into its third national lockdown, we have again been forced into a state of physical disconnection and housebound boredom. Where non-essential services have closed, one key service has been critically undermined in its closure and threatened by government funding cuts – our local libraries. With schools and universities transitioning to remote online learning, access to libraries has been severely restricted for both the public and students.

However, Bristol has recently seen a boom in so-called ‘little libraries’, which operate as centres of book-swapping within different communities across the city. There are now 28 'little libraries' operating within Bristol, and an interactive Google Map has been created by Jade Palmer of the Bristol Book Share Facebook Group to keep track of their locations.

'Olivia's The Little Library, located on Elton Road, Bishopston.' / Epigram / Olivia Clements

With access to local library services having been made inaccessible by Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, the volunteers behind these ‘little libraries’ have provided the Bristol community with the chance to continue reading for free on a much smaller, yet nevertheless significant scale.

I spoke to Olivia Clements, who has set up The Little Library on Elton Road, Bishopston, about the box of books in her front-garden which has caused a national social media frenzy.

Olivia’s mother suggested that she set up her own book-swap during lockdown, especially considering Olivia’s experience as a bookseller for Waterstones, Bath, and Max Minerva’s in Henleaze. The Little Library began with a stock of Olivia’s own books; having been given numerous proofs of books and being from a family of avid readers, Olivia admitted that ‘we’ve always got too many kicking around!’

‘It’s an opportunity to have your own little adventure and especially now, I think we need that escapism; it’s been really nice to be able to offer that.’

Setting up her very own ‘little library’ was a perfect solution for recycling her unwanted books while charity shops remain shut under lockdown measures, as well as a means of connection with the Bishopston community. Olivia admitted that the act of sharing between neighbours on her street– in her case, through the development of The Little Library – has helped to forge stronger bonds with her local community during the pandemic; 'We'd never got to know each other as well pre-all of this.' Olivia told me.

However, with The Little Library growing in popularity, books are constantly re-circulating as they are swapped with members of the public bringing their own to share.

‘My first thought was that it was really for our entire street - realistically it’ll be my road that uses it’ Olivia explained. Despite this, ‘The Little Library’ has since been shared in a local WhatsApp group for streets surrounding Elton Road, and its proximity to Gloucester Road has seen a greater influx of visitors than Olivia could have ever expected.

As The Little Library has attracted readers from all over the city, Olivia’s lockdown passion project to prevent boredom has transformed into an important means of connection and variation in a time where life has become so limited and mundane.

‘I’ve gotten to meet and talk to lots of people so that’s been really interesting’, Olivia said, ‘Covid has been so awful for so many people and it’s been such a rough year – it was a little silver lining to it that our street especially started talking to each other and started looking after each other and sharing things. It was really nice to keep that going.’

Being a lover of books herself, admitting to reading nine books in January alone, Olivia also recognised the importance of literature in providing a refuge for us all; ‘It’s an opportunity to have your own little adventure and especially now, I think we need that escapism; it’s been really nice to be able to offer that.’

'It’s so important for the rest of your life. Reading has always been so important in helping with empathy, learning about people who are different from you, countries that are different from yours. It's so important that kids read.'

The appearance of ‘little libraries’ throughout the city has had an impact on the younger generation in particular, as Olivia has seen with The Little Library. While schools remain shut until at least March 8th and screen-time being the most popular form of lockdown entertainment, the challenge to keep children reading in a community of closed libraries is faced by all parents across the UK.

The Little Library, with the majority of its visits being made by families, has developed a larger children’s fiction section in comparison to the other books on offer. ‘It’s so important for the rest of your life’ Olivia began, ‘reading has always been so important in helping with empathy, learning about people who are different from you, countries that are different from yours. Having all of these different types of stories widens your horizons and makes you think and feel for people that you may never have come across - it broadens people’s imaginations. It’s so important that kids read.’

'A similar 'little library' spotted on Sion Hill, Clifton' / Epigram / Flossie Palmer

Fortunately, Olivia has seen that The Little Library has attracted the attention of children in Bristol, proving that ‘little libraries’ are effective in encouraging children to read more during the pandemic - ‘There was a little girl there who was fiddling around and she picked up a picture book and went home. I had a mum say that she struggles to get her son reading and he picked something up – it’s just the best thing. Even to know that even though you may not change this kid’s life, it’s one little gold star that you’ve done something good for someone.’

Despite Olivia’s ‘little library’ receiving extremely positive feedback, with bookworms across the globe sharing their own ‘little libraries’ from Texas, Canada, Barcelona and beyond, it has also caused unforeseen backlash.

Groups of library campaigners were alerted to Olivia’s use of the term ‘library’ to describe her book-swap, claiming it was problematic and counter-productive to raising awareness for local libraries which currently face government funding cuts. However, Olivia clarified that ‘they’ll never replace public libraries – never – and that’s not the intention. They are an addition rather than a replacement’

Regarding the appearance of ‘little libraries’ like her own, she thinks ‘people really feel their loss during Covid and it’s a nice thing to help people get by a little bit until the real thing comes back.’ In support of the work library campaigners are doing to keep our local libraries open, Olivia is planning on supplying The Little Library with pamphlets advertising local library events taking place in the community once easing lockdown measures allow them to re-open.

If anything, the appearance of ‘little libraries’ in a time where local libraries are needed yet inaccessible raises more awareness of their integral importance to communities across the city and the UK overall.

While Olivia’s ‘little library’ has received positive feedback both in Bristol and online - despite attracting the unwanted attention of the odd Twitter troll - it has overall provided a significant means of access to literature for all those suffering the loss of community libraries during the pandemic.

On a lighter note, it has also created a sense of everyday magic for all those who happen to stumble upon it. Olivia has single-handedly proved that something small can evolve into something much more influential in connecting us all together in a time of extreme disconnect.

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When asked about any advice she would give for setting up a ‘little library’, or any other passion project, Olivia said ‘If there’s nothing stopping you, go for it, see what happens. And if it’s a flop it’s a flop! Even if it has a small impact and only makes a small number of people smile, you've still made those people happy in a time where that's really needed at the moment.'

Featured Image | Olivia Clements


Have you spotted any 'little libraries' around Bristol recently?

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