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Information Scotland

The Journal of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

ISSN 1743-5471

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June 2003 Volume 1 (3)

Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland


Room of their own

Colin Will explains how libraries offer creative spaces for writing groups.

Many writers groups are based in libraries, and in general the host libraries seem very hospitable. Hosting is often seen as part of the library's community cultural involvement, and councils find it a positive way of delivering a local service which at the same time fits in with our national cultural strategy. And it's not expensive.

Most groups, particularly those without pushy leaders, are relatively undemanding. If they are given a warm, quiet room, tables and chairs, that's often all they either want or need. And yet I'm sure if librarians interacted more with their writing groups, both parties would gain much from the experience.

For many years I've been a member of a poetry writing group meeting in the Scottish Poetry Library. Peer criticism, a positive atmosphere, the backup resources of the Library, and a well-established formula which works, have contributed to the success of this group, which has been in continuous operation since 1981. It's an example of a leaderless self-help group with access to its own specialist resources.

I've also worked with several other general groups, all supported by local authorities, and most holding their meetings in public libraries. They're extremely varied, but from this experience I've developed the following framework:

Ten Topics for Writing Groups

  1. Every group is different; every member or potential member of every group has different hopes and aspirations.
  2. Atmosphere is crucial; the most successful groups are welcoming to new members, hospitable to everyone, nourishing, supportive, stimulating and challenging.
  3. Everyone is capable of writing better than they think they can, but not everyone wants to.
  4. Every group should have short-term, medium-term and long-term goals.
  5. Good writing communicates well; the best writing communicates on many levels.
  6. Good, honest, informed criticism is good for the writer, and for the critic.
  7. There are limits to the potential of self-help; sometimes outside help needs to be welcomed.
  8. There are no universal right answers, and there is no rule-book; you are your own best referee.
  9. Sometimes it's nice just to go for a walk.
  10. At the end of the day, it's all about people.
  11. This list may change, and ten is just one number among many.

How does this affect libraries, and the groups they support? Let's start at the top:

While the network of Writers-in-Residence within authorities have done sterling work in setting up, supporting and encouraging writing groups in libraries, some groups want to stand outside the system and do their own thing. Libraries shouldn't treat these independent groups differently from the 'official' groups. Then again, not all areas of the country are served by Writers-in-Residence. Library staff can help groups by talking informally to members (many do this already, and it's much appreciated) to find out what they're interested in, and how they can best be supported.

Libraries can provide a welcoming and creative atmosphere. Comfortable quiet rooms, open at times convenient to the group and to libraries, should be the aim. With most groups, the social side of things is extremely important. While writing is usually a solitary activity, writers like to get together and talk. Tea is an excellent social lubricant.

Some groups aim to publish anthologies, broadsheets or more ambitious publications. Librarians can often provide advice in this area, and can possibly suggest local funding, printing and distribution services. They might also be able to support editorial work to some degree, through allowing access to computing services. They can certainly promote and possibly sell publications by 'their' groups.

Another aim might be public readings of work by group members. Why not hold the readings in the libraries used by group members? Do enough of our libraries have suitable performing spaces? I suggest not, and I suggest further that all new libraries should aim to provide suitable multiple-use facilities for many kinds of community arts, including poetry readings, storytelling and literary performances. Poetry goes well with music and the visual arts too.

One thing that I stress in the groups I lead is that reading improves writing. Some writing groups would benefit by having small dedicated collections of relevant books available for reference or lending. The collections needn't be large, but they should be selective, and related to the needs of specific groups. Maybe the new network of Reader Development co-ordinators could help to set them up? Depending on the make-up and interests of the group, they might contain poetry, short stories, novels, magazines, self-help books (for example those by Natalie Goldberg and Julia Cameron), and the odd literary reference book.

Sometimes guest readings, visiting workshops and talks by established writers can stimulate groups and individuals. Can libraries help by putting together co-ordinated programmes within and between authorities?

Finally, there sometimes appears to be a chasm between young persons' writing programmes and the adult groups. How can we integrate the system so that we support creative writing as an activity for all ages and for all sections of our communities? Social inclusion isn't just a political target - diversity within writing groups is stimulating, challenging, and ultimately rewarding for all.

Colin Will (

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Information Scotland Vol.1 (3) June 2003

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Last updated: 13 February 2004