Celebration Series Blog 7: Art of Libraries – My time as a Creative Catalyst
Debbie Christie talks about her time as a Creative Catalyst in Matson Library
Matson came on board as one of the Art of Libraries test libraries in October 2017 but before I talk about the project, and my role as a Creative Catalyst, I just want to set the scene and talk a bit about Matson, just to give an understanding of the context in which we are working.
Matson is a large housing estate at the foot of Robinswood Hill. It comprises of a variety of housing type and tenure but the majority is social housing managed by Gloucester City Homes. The area is proposed for future regeneration over a 20 year programme subject to funding.
Despite being a large estate, Matson benefits from being embedded within some beautiful scenery such as Robinswood Hill, an abundance of parks and open green spaces. Matson Library was built in 1963 and sits in the centre of the estate.
Matson has a real sense of community and only when you operate within the area do you really get a feel of how connected and cohesive the community is and a real sense of belonging that people feel.
However, it is difficult to access arts and culture unless you travel outside of the estate. Which is where the Art of Libraries Project comes in – we want to bring arts and culture to our community space to make arts and culture available to our community.
In October 2017 I was approached to become The Creative Catalyst for Matson, the fifth library to come on board for the AOL project in Gloucestershire.
So, What is a Creative Catalyst?
After accepting the role, I asked myself the same question! “What is a Creative Catalyst?”.
I didn’t see myself as an artist and had never worked as a creative or within the Arts, in any shape or form! This was the key difference between myself and the other catalysts. My peers had all worked within the Arts and I was working for Gloucestershire Libraries, based predominantly in Matson.
I wondered whether this would make my job more difficult but actually that wasn’t the case. I already had a good relationship with the library team so didn’t have to start from scratch and I also knew the community well.
As I didn’t actually have to deliver the arts activities this wasn’t a disadvantage at all - I now know that some of the many attributes needed to be a creative catalyst are facilitation, communication, developing and building relationships. And I already had those!
The Library Setting
It’s been particularly helpful being based within the library at Matson because it makes me really accessible and I am at the heart of the community working with existing customers in my library assistant role. I already had some links and it made it easier for me to strengthen these relationships.
I also had a good working knowledge of Matson from my previous role in housing. I had an awareness of the community issues and the locality. I often felt it must have been a challenge for the other Creative Catalysts walking into an area/environment and having to start the AOL without these advantages.
Communication is key
We can all communicate but communicating at all levels and in differing environments is so important in this role. You may be dealing with customers, the team, community partners or politicians and the ability to effectively communicate is critical. There is a need for integrity, diplomacy and being able to listen.
It is also very important to be persuasive and motivating as some staff in the team may feel overwhelmed by the scope of a project. It’s important to be encouraging and supportive, teasing out people’s strengths and developing areas they haven’t experienced before as well as giving recognition when they have done things well. As with many organisations there is often a focus on tasks/targets that have been undertaken but not so often the recognition when things go well.
When we operate in a target led society it’s difficult not to focus on these hard targets. However, recognition that a project has gone well is a key future motivator and confidence builder. This process has really helped me explore and reflect on what we have done, what we could have differently and how we can strive for continuous improvement.
What have we been doing at Matson?
The Summer Programme was really successful and we have all been really pleased with the quality of the programmes that we delivered. We also had a really good turnout at all of our sessions. I feel that this success was due to broadening our advertising methods and using social media in a more pro-active way. Advertising on FB “How to entertain the kids on a budget” has been a real success.
It has also attracted new customers to Matson Library from outside of the GL4 postcode - which if I am honest - I struggled with. I was adamant that the sessions should be for children in Matson, however I learnt that it’s about our library being available to everyone and new customers have commented on how great the library is and they wouldn’t have normally visited. It’s attracted new visitors, who look out for what’s happening in our Library now! For our library to be a cultural hub we need to be open for everyone and to welcome new visitors.
The Summer Programme has been really busy, linking our workshops with the Summer Reading Challenge (SRC). The AOL project has had a significant impact on achieving excellent results in both SRC sign ups and completions. Matson dramatically exceeded its target, 130%!
This is a reflection on everyone’s efforts during the SRC challenge and the influence of the projects that were delivered.
Our link with local schools
One of the best links we have made is through the local schools.
We have school visits every week where the children use the library. They don’t just get out books – we plan an activity around their topic using the resources in the library. For instance we have a class coming who are studying WW2 and I will read them a passage from ‘Goodnight Mr Tom’ before a team activity. They might write down what it might feel like to be an evacuee or write a letter home to a parent as if they were an evacuee far from home.
The children and schools get a lot out of these visits and because of their link with the library, a lot of children now visit after school with their parents. I credit these visits with Matson not being the bottom of the list for visits any more. We really are getting more people through the door which is great.
Eddie the Eagle Pop Up Cinema
Another great project with the schools was a pop up cinema event we did. We worked with Robinswood school to host it. We wanted to have a local film that would appeal to more people. I contacted Eddie the Eagle’s agent to see if he would come – just on the off chance and he said yes! I didn’t have as much luck with Hugh Jackson though! This is another good example of the community pulling together as The Gateway Trust stepped in at last minute and did the food and drink for the event. It was a great success with loads of people having their pictures taken with Eddie at the end and over 100 people came.
The Pebble Project
The pebble project was one of our Summer projects. It was an enabler to encourage children to sign up to the SRC. It was a partnership project with both Robinswood and Moat School, facilitated by Harriet West. As a library we designed approximately 60 Beano themed pebbles which were also hidden in the community. The children would then find pebbles, return them to the library and be entered into a prize draw; after signing up to the SRC. The children found this activity really interesting, it was like a treasure hunt that they could do with their families too!
Some of the children in Matson had little else to do in the holidays. They weren’t going on days out or having family holidays. The library is a safe house for them and the little things make a huge difference to those few. So, despite it being a labour intensive project it was critical that we stayed focused and positive about the challenge.
I hope that an outcome from the AOL process will be to review how we set our service targets. We talk about changing libraries and embracing new ideas but we need to set our targets accordingly and move away from how many books we have issued and look at the social impact of our services.
In the Autumn The library co-commissioned the Can’t Sit Still performance “Plink and Boo” and I think this demonstrated how libraries can be an integral player. The shows were a huge success attracting an audience total of 203 over the six performances. We have the perfect setting, in the heart of the community. We have rehearsal space, a captive audience and staff that can support the artists. Our most recent production by Hammer Puzzle, “The Velveteen Rabbit” also saw a full house at Matson Library.
Over the past two months we have been focusing on how we carry this project forward. I have been trying to firm up relationships that I have made with Culture Matson and the other local partners. All of the team will regularly attend Culture Matson now which is a great way of continuing and expanding our relationships.
The question of funding
I was really concerned that when the seed funding ended we wouldn’t be able to continue with the AOL legacy and deliver future projects. However, I am delighted that we have been successful with our own fund raising. We had some training on fund raising which was particularly helpful and I think it inspired staff to look outside of the library way of working and be more creative in their thinking.
As a team we have secured funding for Matson Library Community Garden Project. This has been developed by one of the library assistants who has also secured funding from the Barnwood Trust, Morrisons and donations of signed books from Alan Titchmarsh. She has secured total funding and is also working now in the wider community with other partners to develop the scheme across the estate.
We have also secured funding from Gloucestershire Gateway Trust for our “Making Matson” event which is a cardboard community event facilitated by artist Matt Shaw. Our local schools will be visiting during the day to build our community through their eyes. The Gloucestershire Gateway Trust have also donated £100 towards our poetry competition which has involved our local schools and they will also be hosting the awards ceremony at Gloucestershire Services.
I am literally over whelmed at how many projects the team are initiating and so successfully. We are certainly working at a pace! We have so many projects on the bubble that it’s really strengthened my feelings on how as a team we have come forward and literally take risks, ask for money and just go for it!!
The main thing I learn’t was about developing partnerships. The more we work with local groups the more successful we all are. We are part of Culture Matson which is a ‘doing group’ not a talking shop. The schools, Gateway trust, Bob at the Baptist church and GCH – we all work together.
So, If I could identify five areas to build a solid foundation, these would be the top five!
Effective and open communication building trust, at all levels
Identify key community partners and develop relationships
Talk to your customers, its their community and their potential cultural hub
Work as a team and support other community partners to strengthen and broaden project scope
The Art of Libraries project hasn’t ended…
In summary I don’t now view AOL as a project, as a project generally has a defined end. The purpose of AOL was to build arts and culture into the library setting and be “business as usual”. Matson is going from strength to strength and I think every member of the team is constantly looking for new ideas and initiatives. It is a key part of our role now. I almost feel that it has given the team a more interesting and fulfilling role as a library assistant too.
The only factor we have to be mindful of are targets. If we are judged solely on hard targets and overlook the social impact then the AOL affect will dip as staff will be mindful of how they are judged.
The Art of Libraries project hasn’t ended, it’s just beginning!! It just needs support and an awareness of the impact the legacy delivers to the community.