In the current climate, we have all been prompted to think more about loss: the loss of normality, loss of work or income, and the loss of loved ones. Public libraries can play a role, as trusted services, in supporting communities at this time.
Three library services in England - Redbridge, Newcastle and Kirklees – are exploring the role of public libraries as death positive spaces, where the public can have conversations around loss, grief, end of life planning and legacy.
Tickets for the Afterlife is part of the Engaging Libraries programme, run by the Carnegie UK Trust, Wellcome Trust and the Wolfson Foundation.
The Tickets for the Afterlife project is working with researchers from University of Northumbria to allow the public to explore the latest research in the fields of death studies, Medical Humanities and Anthropology, through creative activities, debate and discussion.
With physical doors to libraries closed due to Coronavirus, Redbridge, Newcastle and Kirklees Libraries have been among the many around the country that have nevertheless been open for business, supporting their communities during these challenging times. As part of this they have provided a supportive space for people to discuss death and loss. This support has been so important at a time when a growth in numbers of people experiencing loss corresponds with diminishing ways to safely connect to share and explore loss.
The project team experimented with creating digital spaces to host an online book group and an online death café during Dying Matters Awareness Week earlier in May, to allow people to share thoughts and discuss things relating to the end of life.
The online book group featured a reading from author Kate Mayfield of her book The Undertaker’s Daughter, followed by a discussion which facilitated by Dr Claire Nally from the University of Northumbria. It was hosted on Facebook Live, and a recording of the event can be viewed here.
The book group enabled people to explore the themes of death and loss within the “safe” boundaries of a book. The project team are hoping that these book clubs will create new models of public engagement around the topic of death that can be adopted by other library services.
Online activity also included sharing a virtual gallery of artwork and words on Instagram from patients at Marie Curie Hospice Newcastle, who had been exploring how art and literature helps people to think about death in new ways. The gallery had been due to be exhibited in Newcastle City Library during Dying Matters Awareness Week.
The online death café offered a digital space for participants to share stories, hopes and fears about loss. Some participants had attended a physical death café previously, while others were new to the concept. The online event used ‘breakout rooms’ on Zoom to allow discussion in smaller groups, with each breakout room facilitated by an End of Life specialist, who were introduced to the project team by their research partners.
Tickets for the Afterlife has built on Redbridge Libraries’ previous work on the subject of death and dying, and collaborated with trusted partners to deliver activities. Given the sensitivity of the topic, it is important for appropriate planning to be undertaken as well as safeguards put in place before hosting an event like an online death café.
Moving public engagement activities online is also not without its challenges. Registration and a pre-screening questionnaire was required for attendees at the online death café. Whilst digital options are not always ideal, the activities provided an important way for library services to support their communities.
The Tickets for the Afterlife project are curating a book list around the themes of end of life and loss which is available at https://visionrcl.org.uk/events/the-death-positive-library/. Sharing the titles available as eBooks can be the first step to introducing these concepts and bringing people into contact with ideas.
At a time when many library staff have been redeployed, or furloughed in the case of Vision Redbridge, the project team found it very beneficial to be working together across three library services.
The adaptation of activities due to Coronavirus meant that staff worked together more closely than they might have done when holding physical events in their libraries, sharing tasks and exchanging skills, particularly around technology for hosting online events. The learning from running these events will be shared within the library services and the sector.
Tickets for the Afterlife are hosting further online book events, with the next taking place on 10 June with Kevin Toolis author of My Father’s Wake, followed by Kathryn Mannix talking about ‘With the End in Mind’ in July. Follow @RedbridgeLibs @KirkleesLibrary and @ToonLibraries for more information, or like their Death Positive Libraries Facebook page.