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Books & Ink Bookshop, 4 White Lion Walk, Banbury, Oxon OX16 5UD   
 
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There’s been a bit of hoo-ha this week in Banbury. It all kicked off on social media, captured the imagination of the Banbury Guardian and then other local and national press took up the story as well. What was it that captured the imagination of so many news reporters and so many people in Banbury? The story of the library in an old-fashioned red phone box on South Bar, in the town centre.

A brief re-cap: Some months ago a well-meaning Banbury resident put up a couple of small shelves in the South Bar phone box, furnished them with books and set it up as a small free book exchange – people were free to take a book, leave a book, borrow a book and return it, whatever they wanted. It was a generous community-spirited act and it seemed like such a great idea. These free book exchanges have been popping up in communities big and small - cities, towns and villages – right across the world in the last few years. Having a free book exchange in a community is an act of trust, relying on the goodwill and good nature of people to use and enjoy the service and not abuse it. How lovely to see it being instigated and used in our town centre.

“We are however concerned the books and shelving could cause injury if they were to fall.”

(Letter from BT, retrieved from Twitter 19 Feb 2015)

BT put up a notice in the phone box a few days ago asking for the books and shelving to be removed by Tuesday 3 March 2015 and if they weren’t removed by then, they would be obliged to remove them themselves. What a shame. And this is what caused the whole thing to leap into the public eye.

#SaveOurPhoneBoxLibrary

It soon became apparent that a community could adopt a decommissioned public BT phone box for as little as £1 and they could then put it to whatever use they wanted.  Councils and commuities have turned them into defribrillators, information centres, exhibitions and, yes, book exchanges. However, this phone box is very much still in use, with 1093 calls made in the last year. The next nearest public phone is in Beargarden Road – not nearly such a good location, not visible from the main road through town and not so easy to direct people to, should they need to find a phone in a hurry. BT have offered to decommission the phone and let the council adopt it but this isn’t a viable solution for the council as they see a need for a functioning phone to be accessible in this part of town.

BUT, I don’t see why a different solution can’t be found. The community (or at least the online part of the Banbury community) has really been united by this cause. The town council (I haven’t spoken to them myself) seem to be keen on the idea in principle, many people agree it would be a shame to lose this great facility but instead of hammering BT (who after all own the box, the phone and are liable for the fixtures and fittings inside and anything that should happen to them, or to people who use them), instead of complaining about the ridiculousness of health and safety policies gone mad (which they have but surely this isn’t news!?) I wonder if the community could come together and find another solution.

Free book exchanges have been popping up right around the globe, so is there anything stopping our community and our councils facilitating / enabling / supporting / building a dedicated free book exchange facility and installing it in town?

It IS such a great community-enhancing facility to have. Yes, we have a good library in the town centre and supporting libraries is WAY up there on my list of important things in life. Sometimes it’s possible to pick up a free book in other places too but a free book exchange is quite different and it’s about so much more; it’s about sharing a book you loved with a complete stranger; it’s about having the freedom to pick up a book at any time of the night or day; it’s about not needing a library card – passing travellers, the homeless, literally anyone can use this facility; it’s about sharing ideas, dreams, finding and trying out a book you would never have thought to try before; it’s about a LOVE of books, of reading, of learning, of sharing; perhaps, more than anything else, it’s about a love of our community. A free community book exchange facility in the town centre, accessible all times of day or night to any person – what could be better?

A gentleman in Sherman Oaks, California, who put up a little book exchange in his front yard, commented that his little library,

 … ‘turned strangers into friends and a sometimes-impersonal neighbourhood into a community’.

In fact, it’s interesting to have a read of the article where I found this quote. Like the Banbury phone box some of the little free libraries or book exchanges in California have fallen foul of officialdom, as Michael Schaub notes in this article in the L. A. Times (Feb 4 2015):

 "Crime, homelessness and crumbling infrastructure are still a problem in almost every part of America, but two cities have recently cracked down on one of the country's biggest problems: small-community libraries where residents can share books”.

But in other countries they are absolutely on the right side of the law and the French and Canadians seem to have adopted official book exchanges in a number of towns. Here are a couple of small and unobtrusive examples (which would fit in quite nicely in our town centre):


Retrieved on 22 Feb 2015 from: http://lyon.citycrunch.fr/suggestion-damelioration-des-boites-de-livres-service/2014/04/24/

 

Retrieved on 22 Feb 2015 from: http://www.ncmb.fr/livre-echange-2427

 

Or perhaps the council could go all out and facilitate a local artist’s design competition and we could see a book library in the shape of our iconic Banbury Cross… just a thought!

Here’s one in Germany made out of a tree:

I really hope the lack of resolution over the phone box library does not result in the loss of the concept altogether. Banbury has united over the phone box library, more so than we’ve seen on any other issue for a long time, including the closure of some facilities at the Horton Hospital. What seems to have been missed in much of the media coverage of this issue is that at the heart of it all is one person’s dream to make BOOKS accessible to everyone. We’ve heard about the health and safety, the shelving, the telephone but what is important to keep alive is that this is about reading, books and the freedom to exchange them freely. If the phone box idea cannot be resolved at all then it would be wonderful to see it as an opportunity for creating something new and keeping the free book exchange alive and well for everybody to use.

Pinterest users might be interested to take a look at a board of free book exchanges or libraries that I’ve put together, showing all sorts of ways in which communities across the world have created their own free libraries. You can have a look at it here. Happy viewing.

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