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On the road with the Highlands' mobile library van

By Barbara Henderson

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The phone rings. “I’m sorry. Mobile library van’s off the road.”

My heart plummets. I’d so looked forward to joining the mobile library van on tour, dropping in on schools along the route for author visits. I’m patrolling the book, just like the Excise riding officer on whose diary my novella is based.

“We’re going to be working out of the boot of a transit van instead, all right?” the caller continues. “See you at 9.30 on Wednesday.”

Looks like my bookish round trip is still on the cards, hooray.

I have a sort of romantic obsession with libraries, and the mobile libraries are the pinnacle of that. Landscape and books are a bit of a winning combo. Let the sun shine, let the sun shine.

It’s fair to say that that particular request was not granted. Wednesday morning is a deluge. Torrential rain is interspersed with spells of soul-destroying drizzle. Low-hanging fog obscures all but the most immediate surroundings.

Oh well. It’s all about the books anyway. And my companion for the day, library driver Scott, is an entertainment act if nothing else.

Endowed with the gift of the gab, he is a raconteur and storyteller who stops the van to point out places of interest along the route. I’m glad – it would have been a very long day if it hadn’t been for our discussions on politics (where we broadly agree), religion (where we don’t) and just about everything else in between.

Mobile library driver Scott advises a customer from the back of the van.
Mobile library driver Scott advises a customer from the back of the van.

First stop is Aldourie Primary School where, thankfully, they are expecting me. The water is still tipping down and I sprint inside to give a couple of readings and do a wee smuggling drama activity with the kids. I am constantly checking my watch but I needn’t have worried – time is not an issue. We set off when we’re good and ready, apparently.

What an absolute beauty this service is, how special, how rare!

I had expected it to run like a bus, essentially driven by the clock, but quite the opposite is true – people are more important than projects.

At our next stop, a lovely gentleman called John waits by the road to offer us cake and a coffee top up. We accept, and spend some time inside his kitchen swapping more stories. Next we pause at a house up the hill for discussion about recipe books and crime.

Onwards to a village corner. Here, Scott the driver gets out his comprehensive list and rings every last regular customer to let them know we are here – they might not realise the hire van is in fact their library service.

I am amazed. He knows every reader by name, knows their preferences and interests and can tell me a quirky fact about almost every place. Three lovely ladies arrive in the driving rain and choose armfuls of new books. One notices my bag of Black Water on the passenger seat and chooses to buy one – probably out of sympathy, but I’ll take that! Bless her!

And another thing occurs to me. They don’t just meet the library van. They meet each other too.

Lunchtime, and both Scott and I would have liked a walk to stretch our legs, but it’s simply not leg-stretching weather. It’s weather for curling up with a hot drink and the heating on full blast, so that’s what we do. After lunch, it’s Foyers Primary, so I get to do another quick author visit.

“Take as long as you need,” Scott says. “In this weather it won’t be busy on the road.” The children at the school are few, but really enthusiastic, so I return to the van a little later than planned. Scott is utterly unruffled.

Despite personal phone calls to all regulars, there are a couple of no-shows, and only a few takers elsewhere. But it doesn’t matter to Scott – he talks to each customer as if they were his first.

If I’ve learned anything, it’s this: mobile libraries are so important! Not only are people offered books at no cost at all, they are also given time. Conversation. We must defend our libraries with everything we’ve got.

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