Sarah Pitt pays a visit to Okehampton Library to find out how a passion for reading is being encourage alongside other events to encourage people to make more use of the library

LIBRARIES, dark and dusty? A thing of the past? Not a bit of it. In Okehampton Library, in this digital age, the youngest generation are discovering books. Not e-books – although the library does these too – but real books, with bright covers and catchy titles and a place on real shelves.

Among those perusing the shelves on this Friday morning are Tessa Curtis, from Okehampton, and her son Wren Curtis-Cooke, who is six.

Wren is just starting out on Book Track, a popular scheme at the library in which children are challenged to work towards reading 100 books, with incentives of badges and a £5 book token from the Friends of Okehampton Library on completion.

‘We come to the library every Saturday,’ says Tessa. ‘Wren’s just started his Book Track and he’s very excited. We use the library for the events as well and my youngest likes borrowing DVDs too.

‘We’ve been coming since they were babies, starting with the Bounce and Rhyme. It is lucky, we are literally two minutes down the road and they do such a variety of things, such as plays at Christmas. We always come to those. My boys love the Lego club as well.

‘When I was Wren’s age we always used to come to this library after my dad had finished work so it was a big part of my life for a long time. It is lovely that it is now becoming part of his life as well.’

Library first assistant Fiona Mokandpuri is helping Wren choose books. She’s also presenting a parrot badge to seven-year-old Ayla Warrington, who has just passed her first milestone of reading 25 books for Book Track. Part of Fiona’s job is encouraging youngsters to discover the pleasure of reading through Book Track.

‘It is about finding the right book for the right child, she says. ‘Here you are reading for pleasure and that makes all the difference.’

‘Ayla hated reading at school then we started coming to the library,’ says Alya’s mum. ‘Now we’re flying with her reading, we read every day.’

With library services now available online, the emphasis has widened into making better use of community spaces. Events include ones you might typically find in a library such as author events but there is also storytelling through Lego, knit and natter, glassmaking workshops and free computer training. You can sit and read with a cup of tea or coffee — the library charges 50p for these — and you can research local history here or use the computer.

‘The core issuing of books is declining so we have got to think about different ways to encourage people in,’ says library supervisor Carole Cornwall.

‘We have author events, which promote reading and highlight what is here at Okehampton Library.

‘We have a huge range of events and activities and try to advertise our one-off events. We do a lot of activities and events for different age groups.

‘We have started a Lego animation club for children, for instance, using an app from Aardman Animations. We’ve also got a children’s book club that meets once a month.

‘At the end of the day we want to encourage people in to use the library and use our services. A lot of people who come in think you have to pay to join the library but we are trying to get across that the core service is free.’

Library books can be renewed online and they can be physically returned to the library after-hours as well by posting the books in the drop-off box in Waitrose in Okehampton.

‘We have only got a small letterbox here which meant people weren’t able to post their books back,’ says Carole. ‘This means people can now return books in the evening.’

Devon’s libraries have had to battle to stay open in recent years both, hit both by cuts in government funding and the cataclysmic impact of the internet.

Proposals back in 2014 to close more than half of Devon’s 50 libraries after government funding was slashed were averted by the creation of Libraries Unlimited, a social enterprise which runs the library service on behalf of the county council.

This means that all of Devon’s libraries remain open but with massively reduced budgets. While the budget in 2010 stood at £10-million, this was down to £3-million in 2014 and this has been reduced still further since. What this means is libraries like Okehampton really rely on their volunteers to supplement the work of the staff.

‘We have a group of volunteers who fill in during the week and on Saturday mornings and they meet and greet our customers and help us with shelving stock and dealing with the basic library duties which then frees us up to do more work and more within the community,’ says Carole. ‘We have also got our Friends group and they raise funds to help run events and purchase equipment. They recently paid for us to have WiFi installed.’

For everyone at the library, the primary motivation remains seeing people enjoy the pleasure of reading. Other things may tempt people in but they still hope it will be the ever changing selection of books that encourage them to stay. And with Christmas on the way, staff are busy wrapping up books for a book lucky dip.

‘In December, we do our “surprise reads”,’ says Carole.‘The idea is that we have about 60 books we wrap up and people then pick one. They don’t know what they are getting to read. ‘It could be anything, it could be biography, crime, historical, funny or romance.

‘We try to make the books so they could appeal to both men and women. The idea is that it is a surprise and means they might get into a genre they haven’t tried before,’ says Carole. ‘You never know until you try.’