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A Magazine for Sheffield

The Library of Life

Sheffield-based online library lending service celebrates the rich and diverse cultures of Africa and the Caribbean.

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We spoke to Library of Life manager John Kamara to find out more about the work he and his team are doing to increase the visibility of authors from throughout the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, and to hear how The Library has been celebrating Black History Month, and rising to the challenges presented by the pandemic.

The Basil Griffith Library has recently rebranded to The Library of Life. Can you tell us a bit about this transition and what prompted it?

Unfortunately last year we received a cease and desist letter in regards to the use of the name 'The Basil Griffith Library', so we reverted back to our alternative name, The Library of Life. The name change represented a change in which services we offered and also how we wanted to work within the community. Our transition was very straightforward because the only thing which changed was the name, but our ethos, enthusiasm and commitment remained the same.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and the other people involved in The Library of Life?

The Library of Life is an independent, pop-up library based in Sheffield which specialises in promoting literature by authors from across the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, black British authors in particular.

Currently we have several other services on offer including: community philosophy sessions; an educational programme called Beards & Books, which includes tuition, storytelling, subscription boxes, online educational content and mentoring; and presentations on entrepreneurship. We have a team of over 40 active volunteers working to ensure that there is increased representation of BAME individuals in education and British culture.

The inspiration behind starting The Library of Life came from noticing the lack of visibility of Black literature. As an avid reader, I have spent lots of time in university libraries, public libraries and school libraries and, regardless of which library I was in, the collection of books and literature which reflected our diverse society was either non-existent or extremely limited.

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In a 2017 research project funded by Arts Council England, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education asked UK publishers to submit books featuring BAME characters. Of the 9,115 children’s books published last year, researchers found that only 391 – equivalent to 4% – featured BAME characters. Just 1% had a BAME main character. In fact, it is more likely for the protagonist to be an inanimate object or animal than a non-white character (CLPE, 2020).

Our mission was to create a space which could not only house our extensive collection, but be a catalyst for discussion, intellectual thought and development of community projects.

The process which we use to select books is very simple. We listen to our community, we read online reviews, we get in contact with independent authors, reach out to established publishers for bestsellers, and welcome book donations which fit with our ethos. Our speciality is Black literature which is very extensive, ranging from Black British history, American history, African history, Black fiction, politics and music.

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How will the library be celebrating Black History Month this year?

The Library of Life usually organises events throughout Black History Month. However, the widespread impact of Covid-19 means that we have had to adapt our approach ahead of this important month. This Black History Month, we’re excited to announce that we’ll be collaborating with a larger company to produce educational content for school-age children for delivery during the half-term break. The Library will also be celebrating its second anniversary, so this joint effort will be a highly-rewarding opportunity for us to demonstrate the amazing growth we’ve experienced in the past two years.

Throughout the year, The Library of Life runs monthly community philosophy sessions where participants gather virtually to discuss a given stimulus. This month we will be discussing the place of Black History Month within our society. Throughout October we hope to launch a new book club in association with an academic from the University of Sheffield, which will involve discussions of literature by BAME authors. We hope that the book club will allow participants to increase their awareness of different perspectives and experiences within the Black community, as well as providing a platform to showcase literature by a diverse range of authors from across the Afro-Caribbean diaspora.

As the pandemic continues, how have you been helping to ensure people can still access your range of literary works and other resources?

The pandemic has made managing The Library of Life rather difficult because we have been unable to access our main office space. Nonetheless we have made use of our time by organising and cataloguing our ever-expanding collection of books, which will allow us to become more efficient as an organisation in the long-term. Over the past few months we have been in touch with schools to discuss the possibility of taking our literary collection into schools. We have also been busy seeking potential collaborations for us to deliver content as part of Black History Month.

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What are your hopes for the future of The Library?

Over time we would like to expand our range of available services so that we can engage with people on a national scale. We hope that we are able to form part of a movement towards a more diverse and inclusive society where BAME excellence is supported and honoured in British society. Depending upon the growth of the organisation this could even lead to scholarship, mentoring opportunities and internships for young people from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds.

Another major aim is to ensure that school curriculums in the UK offer more representation of black experiences as a part of UK history and contemporary society. Furthermore, we would like to see greater objectivity in the teaching of important topics such as the British Empire, which is often taught with an imperialist lens.

The Library of Life is nothing without our amazing volunteers. Therefore, we would like to offer more opportunities for training and coaching for our volunteers which will aid their own professional and personal development.

by Felicity Jackson (she/her)

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