Memories of a patients’ library

Antony Porter
Retired Librarian

Many of the larger hospitals, including hospices, have patients’ libraries, some of them organised by the British Red Cross Society. However, they can vary in size from large rooms well-stocked with books to a few paperbacks on a trolley in somebody’s office. They may be amorphous in other ways in that most of their contents are based upon donations from well-wishers.

Curiously, patients’ libraries appear never to have been given much attention by library professionals and so this article is intended to fill that gap. Such libraries I define as those in which books are taken around hospital wards by volunteers who also function as temporary befrienders to the patients, especially those who lack mobility or are bedridden.

Hospitals often provide shops or trolleys from which other items such as magazines, newspapers and toiletries can be sold. These services will not be discussed here. Rather, I prefer to present my experiences of several patients’ libraries that I got to know around the time I had obtained the Library Assistants’ Certificate and was keen to move on to Library School.

Having earlier been employed for a few weeks as a Nursing Auxiliary I was not unfamiliar with hospitals, their sights, sounds, noises and smells and so when I learnt that the Red Cross wanted help in a local hospital’s patients’ library I jumped at the chance! Three people worked in it when I first joined, and when the senior team member became unwell, I soon took over her responsibilities.

Our library functioned two days a week. In the morning myself and the two volunteers would transport our trolleys around several busy wards, carefully avoiding the Psychiatric Ward as well as the Limb Surgery Unit. Nevertheless, it often bothered me that we were bringing well-thumbed books into wards full of surgical patients, although this was rarely viewed as a problem.

In the afternoon when the other library volunteers had departed I opened up the library to visitors and then spent my time processing the new books and cleaning or repairing the old ones. Although nothing was sold, we kept a donation box for the unwanted paperbacks, these proving unsuitable for lending. The more mobile patients as well as the staff frequently called in to browse around.

It was fun having my own little library and I would be constantly tidying and improving it. Most of our books were novels. The rest included biographies, history and travel works, also picture books that were easy to read or handle. Unfortunately the large print books were not always popular with vulnerable patients because of their size and weight.

Nowadays many patients possess their own mobile phones and other electronic gadgetry. Sometimes these would be brought to them by relatives and friends. However, at that time many patients welcomed our trolley rounds, particularly those who were chair-ridden, disabled or elderly. A few simply wanted somebody to talk to.

Unfortunately many books went missing or were returned in a grubby state from food and drink being placed upon them. A glossy book on royalty disappeared the first time it was issued. Then a psychiatric patient came in and took three of our best books and was never seen again. Nevertheless, such problems were offset by the many donations of books from various sources.

Most users however, respected the library. I was able to get a letterbox installed so that books could be returned at any time. I also installed a corner mirror to deter visitors from taking books as souvenirs. I even managed to get a set of encyclopaedias from somewhere – so useful for answering questions in those pre-Internet days!

A lively elderly man entered one day asking for voluntary work and I kept him busy scampering around the hospital searching for missing books! He thoroughly enjoyed this role, even though the books he returned often belonged to the hospital’s medical and nursing libraries. Occasionally he brought back collections of books left by the families of patients who had died.

Another psychiatric patient came in seeking work in return for a reference. I got him to help me move books up and down to improve the appearance of the library. By this time we had some twenty shelves of books. Sadly, the senior staff seldom visited and rarely did I receive any approval of my work. And not once was I ever advised about “stranger danger” or health and safety.

Eventually I obtained a place at Library School. This coincided with the removal of the library to another part of the hospital. I now regret not taking a photograph of it before departing, for when I revisited many years later the whole hospital had been demolished and rebuilt, with no evidence of what became of that so familiar collection of books!

HLG Newsletter
Spring 2022

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