Connecting communities

Orkney's mobile library service has been bringing books to all corners of the islands for more than fifty years. We took a trip to the islands of Rousay and Egilsay to experience a day with 'the mobile'.

The life of a librarian doesn’t usually involve ferry timetables, fuelling-up and weather forecasts.

But, here in Orkney, that checklist is as important as cataloguing and classifying books. For a mobile library driver in the islands, it pays to be prepared.

A normal commute for Orkney's mobile library service

Early starts and sometimes wild weather can make the days long and eventful, but the impact of maintaining that connection with communities across this archipelago can’t be overestimated.

The Orkney Library and Archive’s mobile library service has been running since 1963, with island visits beginning in 1990 following the introduction of ro-ro ferry terminals. The big blue bus, affectionally nicknamed ‘Booky McBookface’, heads to rural parishes on the Orkney mainland and nine different islands over the course of its two-month rotation.

It’s a library in miniature. It houses 2,500 books – from fiction and non-fiction to large print, audio books and children’s titles – with a regularly rotating stock. And when it comes rolling off the ro-ro ferry or appears on the horizon, regular customers are always waiting to replenish their reading material.

The mobile library can hold up to 2,500 titles

‘It really is just a small library,’ said Simon Brown, one of the local drivers. ‘Customers can request books and we carry a full range of titles and subjects, just like the main libraries in Kirkwall and Stromness.’

‘You get to know the people that come, so we can pick out certain books to take on the mobile depending on where we’re going,’ he said. ‘In one island there might be a reader who loves Westerns, so we take some on that trip. It really is just about knowing your customers.’

We accompanied Simon on a trip to the islands of Rousay and Egilsay on a recent visit. The day started bleak and stormy, with rain and wind buffeting the bus as we headed to the ferry terminal at Tingwall. After our short trip across Eynhallow Sound, we made our first stop next to the school in Rousay.

It quickly became apparent how popular the service was with islanders. Pupils arrived to eagerly search for their next book before regular borrowers came aboard later to browse the shelves for new reading material.

Pupils from the Rousay school come aboard to browse for new books

‘One of the things I love most about this job is getting to know everybody,’ said Simon. ‘You know who is going to come along at certain stops at certain times, it’s very reassuring!’

Everyone seemed happy with the range of books onboard, and we were soon on to the next stop. Later, there was another short ferry hop to Egilsay, before the journey back to the mainland and the warmth of the main library building in Kirkwall.

The second ferry trip of the day, to the island of Egilsay

The librarians also offer a ‘book box’ service to other islands that can’t be reached by the mobile library. A selection of books is sent to residents who then read and return them with a form included highlighting what worked and what didn’t. The staff in Kirkwall then use the comments to build a new box of books which soon heads out the door to the isles once again. It’s a unique service that ensures the library can continue to reach all parts of Orkney.

In recent years the Orkney Library has achieved international fame through its fantastic Twitter feed, creating connections with thousands of people across the world, including authors like J.K Rowling. Although the mobile library service offers a more traditional form of connection, it’s one that is becoming increasingly important.

Mobile library driver Simon Brown in his mini-library

‘The mobile service is an integral part of the community, and an integral part of island life,’ according to Simon. ‘We’re one of the services that helps keep life in the isles going. If it didn’t exist then it would just be another aspect of island life to disappear.’

‘People have come to rely on it.’

Find out more about the work of the Orkney Library and Archive via the official website.

Find out more about life in Orkney and the communities the mobile library serves with our Explore Orkney section. You can also sign up to our newsletter for regular updates from the islands.

The Digital Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020 Programme. Newsletter

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