This weekend the place to go for a good night out is the library, as Hilary Macaskill discovers.
National Libraries Week culminates in a dizzy weekend of non-stop activity, from Shouting Not Shushing - a hectic, interactive Living Library exhibition in London, with large numbers of authors dropping in - to a gala children's day at Gateshead. But the real fun is tonight, when libraries around the country will be open, some of them until dawn.
The idea came from the last National Libraries Week in 1993, when Birmingham Central Library stayed open and had nearly 1,500 people visiting between 8pm and 9am. Birmingham is not participating in this particular shindig, but 20 libraries, from Manchester to Monmouth, are. What is on offer is nothing so mundane as renewing your books at midnight (though you can do that too). There will be poetry workshops in Perth, a science fiction evening at Bath, Murder in the Library - a murder mystery with audience participation - at Heath Library in Hampstead. And, in complete contradiction to the tradition of silence in the libraries, there will be line-dancing (Halifax), Irish dancing (Bevington, in the Wirral), a tea dance (Sutton), jazz (Manchester and Knowsley), rock music (Aylesbury), a brass band (Leeds) and folk singing (Paisley). Other activities include a treasure trail (Hull), book auctions (King's Lynn) and Body Shop makeovers (Sutton) as well as author visits, pyjama parties, ghost stories, fines amnesties - and advice sessions on sleep problems. Several libraries are laying on breakfast.
Of course, some visitors may just like the midnight opportunity to browse through books and CD-Roms - or to surf the Net. Allerton Library in Liverpool will have 15 terminals available through the night for sending e-mail. Manchester is linking up with other Saturday night libraries via the Internet relay chat line. Wokingham is setting itself up as a cyber cafe.
For the more serious-minded, the all-night opening will provide an unbeatable chance to catch up on some work: students at Birkbeck College can write their essays in the early hours, as the library will be open 31 hours non-stop. Southend Hospital Library will link up with libraries world- wide by e-mail and provide access for doctors and nurses to medical databases.
Those without the stamina to stay up all night should check out their local library for activities - a number of libraries are also experimenting with Sunday opening - or make their way to London's Living Library at the New Connaught Rooms in Covent Garden. "Exhibition" is too static a word for this army of events, which take in dramatised readings, competitions, demonstrations (of how to preserve a book, for example) and events in more than 20 subject areas including health, history of London, cinema and fashion.
On the sports stand visitors will be able to try virtual reality cycling, get advice from a sports scientist, and see the plans for the new Wembley Stadium. On the Crime and Punishment stand, made up like a prison cell, visitors will be able to explore London's crime sites, learn about the Met's Operation Bumblebee and construct their own identikit mugshot.
London's Living Library will also host the biggest author signing session ever, with Jilly Cooper, Ruth Rendell, Colin Dexter, Beryl Bainbridge, Sarah Harrison, Jeffrey Archer and Magnus Magnusson among the authors who will take part.
At the other end of the country, "From Longships to Microchips" is a day of activities for children in Gateshead, with storytelling, meetings with authors, IT Microsoft workshops and the launch of Infoplanet, a virtual reality children's library.
The only problem with all this is that it may just make your local branch library look just tiniest bit dull. But libraries in general are generating a great deal more excitement than they were, with cafes, creches and cinemas. They provide Internet access, and lend out CDs, cassettes, videos and toys. Where new libraries have been built, they have been placed at the heart of the shopping or town centre, in a prime position to attract the non-traditional user. At the new library in Lincoln, borrowings have thus increased by up to 50 per cent in non-fiction, for example.
Croydon Central Library is adjacent to a museum, a cinema, art galleries, a cafe and shops. The Wavelengths Library in Lewisham is part of a complex that includes a swimming-pool, exercise rooms and a cafe.
With puppet performances for toddlers, reading and writing groups for children and a mobile cyber cafe for teenagers (the Rolling Zone in Hertfordshire), libraries are a focus for the community more than ever before. And, just in case library users from the other end of the spectrum feel neglected, Sunderland has a Nifty Fifties Club. It is extremely popular.
`Shouting not Shushing', London's Living Library, New Connaught Rooms, Great Queen Street, London WC2. 10am-6pm. Admission free. `From Longships to Microchips', Northern Children's Book Festival Gala Day, Gateshead Central Library.
For more information about participating libraries, contact your local library or see website http://www.bbc.co.uk/ education/library/winfo.htm
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