Posted by Bernie McGill at 05/03/2013 13:19:57
Why, you’ll be wanting to know, have I posted a photo of an NEELB van on the Libraries NI website? Surely that logo is long gone? Well, for the most part it is, but you happen to be looking at a picture taken on Rathlin Island last Friday and as anyone knows who’s been there, the island has its own exigencies. For library deliveries you need a vehicle that will happily reverse on to the ferry for a start, and one that will negotiate a tight turn or two, and one with fairly robust suspension and this ex-Post Office van is the only one for the job so livery aside, this is the perfect vehicle. The reason the door is open is that Corinne Doherty, the Libraries NI van driver, has just nipped into an island house carrying a blue plastic crate labelled with the householder’s name and crammed full of books. She will return shortly carrying the same crate containing books to be returned to Ballymena Library. I’ve scooted back up the road a bit to get a panoramic shot, and that, added to the cups of tea and chats we’ve been having as we meander along, is adding considerably to the length of time it’s taking Corinne to complete her circuit of the island between ferry crossings. At this point she’s still too polite to scold me, or threaten to chuck me in the Moyle. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to the Libraries NI mobile delivery service to Rathlin.
Weather permitting, the library van crosses to Rathlin on the first Friday of the month. We are blessed this Friday with sunshine and sparkling water and only a bit of a swell on the crossing but there have been at least two Fridays this winter when the ferry didn’t run and when that happens, the van crosses as soon afterwards as it can. We are equipped for our journey with a detailed print-out giving driving directions to each of our delivery destinations, including advice as to what to do if we get there and there’s no-one around. It’s a little while since Corinne has done the run so we’re relying on the accuracy of the print-out - and on my dubious skills as navigator. On the boat one of the ferrymen leans in the van window, tells us one of the residents on our circuit is gone for the day, gives us instructions as to where to leave their books. I have to confess, I’m a little distracted, by the sun on the water, the movement of the boat. I’m not really paying full attention and orienteering was never my thing. After a pleasant crossing, the ferry docks, we’re first off, and up the hill we go.
In one of the first farmhouse kitchens, over a cup of tea, a resident tells me, ‘It’s like Christmas when the library van comes, you never know what’s in the box.’ It turns out that some time ago, the islanders filled out a form outlining their tastes, describing the kind of thing they enjoyed reading. The staff in the library in Ballymena choose their books for them. They even mark the items borrowed with the individual islander’s initials so they don’t send out the same books twice. How’s that for personal service? ‘There’s often something in there that you wouldn’t have chosen for yourself,’ I’m told, ‘and that can be a good thing.’ I have some experience of book borrowing by proxy. As a child in the school holidays, I was the one charged with exchanging my father’s books at the mobile library van. The excitement of its arrival was surpassed in my view, only by the chimes of the ice cream van. He was a big fan of Agatha Christie, a writer called Ngaio Marsh whose name I’d no idea how to pronounce, and of course of anything with a cowboy on the cover. I’m not sure he always approved of my choices but he read them anyway. He’d be proud of me, I reckon, if he could see me now, riding shotgun in the library van.
Further round the island and Corinne, it turns out, is something of a dog whisperer. I’m sitting in the van, trying to get a phone signal (I’ve promised to tweet a photo from the island) and I hear her talking in the porch of a house. The conversation seems very one-sided, but what of that? I can see her elbows scissoring as she takes books out of the crate, puts books in, then she pulls the porch door shut and comes back down to the van. ‘The print-out didn’t mention the huge black savage dog?’ she asks. So that’s what she was talking to. ‘We came to an accommodation,’ she says, ‘he barked, I talked, it worked out.’ I’m very glad I stayed in the van. So far we’ve encountered a bevy of grey seals, several free-range chickens, three donkeys, a pet lamb in a cardboard box in a kitchen being drop fed by its owner, a handsome young bull (don’t ask me how Corinne knew its age but she was raised on a farm in Queensland so I don’t dare to question her), countless rabbits and a Kerry blue terrier with a very beautiful face. We’ve had advice on growing tomatoes and potatoes, we’ve admired some fine samples of Spode, we have learnt that the island has no hedgehogs, or foxes or badgers or squirrels. One of the directions on the print-out is to look out for a golden retriever and sure enough, we round a corner and there he is, doing his duty as an island landmark. We have several conversations through the van window with islanders who give us delivery advice and neither of us can remember the ferryman’s instruction as to what to do with the absent resident’s books. We’re clashing now with the school run: we drop books on windowsills, in porches, at one point I consider an upturned wheelbarrow. We’re on a similar route to the postman and we’re trying to race him round the island. The ferry leaves at three and we’re running out of time. This is book borrowing guerrilla-style.
At two-thirty Corinne drops me at the Post Office for a pre-arranged meeting with a fellow tweeter and goes off to make her final deliveries. Another cup of tea and some lively chat later, I walk back just as Corinne arrives at the ferry and reverses on with minutes to spare. It turns out that we left one lot of books at the wrong house. Corinne has had to fly back up the road, retrieve them from a windowsill, leave them in a neighbouring porch. The good news is that somewhere along the way (while I was tweeting or taking photographs or - most likely - drinking tea) she’s been given the correct instructions as to where to leave the wayward books that the ferryman has mentioned. We have had four hours on the island and it hasn’t been long enough. I didn’t get a chance to speak to all the library users and there are people I could have chatted to for hours, but I’ll be back again before too long. As the boat pulls out of the harbour and the eider ducks protest, I promise Corinne that if I’m here on a first Friday, I’ll look out for the library van. If she happens to be driving it, she tells me, she’ll run me over a cliff. Probationary period as Libraries NI mobile library van co-pilot – failed.
A big thank you to Corinne Doherty, to Lynn Buick, Operational Manager and Ciara Gault, Cultural Services Manager with Libraries NI for their help with facilitating my visit, and to Joe Mullan, Web Officer with Libraries NI for his help in posting this blog.