Spine and Dandy – The Crookes Library Adventure
When Lit-pop stars The Crookes turn up for their volunteer session at Sheffield Central Library with partially scrubbed off words on their mugs we’re intrigued…
Is it an over-enthusiastic piece of method acting? Have they spent so much time reading they’ve finally turned into books? Not as such. They’re actually fresh from shooting one of the videos for new double A-Side single – ‘ Bear’s Blood’ , which involved writing all the lyrics on their faces. “All our clothes and stuff are covered in this song,” Frontman George explains apologetically. “I woke up this morning and I still had loads of ink on my face…”
The Crookes’ bookish appearance in the library’s art deco lobby confirms their literary credentials though. From the On The Road guest star of ‘Sal Paradise’ to the DH Lawrence referencing ‘Backstreet Lovers’, this is a band that's better read than the rude bits in a Katie Price novel. We're here for a morning working the stacks and shelves of Sheffield’s beautiful Central Library to highlight the cuts faced by the city’s branches (and sneak some sweary Jay-Z & Kanye onto the library stereo). Are you sitting comfortably? *Exposed opens large print version of Big Book of New Pop * Then we shall begin…
Whether you're trying to make do on £53 a week, pay your way through college or find a job you don't need Exposed to tell you times are tough. And with the council facing some pretty frightening budget cuts, Sheffield Libraries have a massive budget gap of £1.6m for 2013/14. Which is horrid because we love libraries; gorgeous places full of ideas and surprises and secrets and copies of Game of Thrones that come free with the lovely feeling of a shared experience in someone else’s footsteps in the spine and a smell you just don’t get with an ebook. Almost half of Sheffield’s libraries are currently under threat but there’s lots of ways we can help, including everything from dropping them a line with suggestions to how to make savings to just using the library’s super-duper services – aaaaand volunteering, which is why we’re here with Dan, Tom and George from The Crookes and pinning on our guest badges upside down while Service Development Librarian Music & AV Sarah Hogan is going to give us a quick bit of training. Then we're off! Peeling into separate fact finding groups based around the band’s core specialisations of music, working with members of the public and having lovely hair reading lots of footie biogs.
But first, a question. “Does this mean we get to wipe out our fines?” George ventures (The Crookes frontman is the biggest library user out of the band – his default setting during our time at Sheffield Central Library is the kind of infectious, child-like awe normally only seen in Wacky Warehouse first-timers). But our slates aren't going to get wiped clean, unfortunately. Even library staff have to pay for borrowing music and DVDs – not to mention fines. Rats!
So what happens when you return a book into the library’s new computerised system? It doesn’t go through a complicated series of pneumatic tubes before landing in a magical kingdom populated by shelf-stacking pixies as one member of The Crookes had surmised. More’s the pity. Instead it lands on a wee cushion although Sarah does mutter only slightly jealously about The University of Sheffield’s sorting room which has a huge machine full of conveyor belts that automates this work.
Anyway, shhhhhh! Sarah's back and it’s time to work out what everyone’s going to do. Tom volunteers for shelf stacking, and George and guitarist Dan jump at the chance of picking CDs from the music library for today’s library playlist. “Haha! Me and George are gonna go Pop all the way now!” Dan gloats at an unimpressed Tom. “Pop Rock.” George corrects, prompting Sarah to split the two of them up and move George to floor walking.
Before we know it Tom has taken charge of his own portable set of shelves and is wheeling a pile of returned CDs across the library to be put back out again. Have you been given targets, Tom? “It’s just shelf, shelf, shelf…” Tom mutters as he struggles to find the folk section. Sh*t just got real. It would be cheating for us to tell him it’s next to the Quintets section.
Over to George, who appears to be doing stretches as he awaits his Mr Miyagi, librarian Jo. This lad will go far, mark our words; there’s lots of bending and stretching in this job. “And some of the books are quite heavy,” George’s librarian mentor points out helpfully. So what does being a floor walker actually involve? “We’re around for anyone who needs assistance,” Jo explains. “And we fill up the stands if they’re looking a little dilapidated. But it’s mostly about interacting with the customers.” Sounds like the kind of thing The Crookes will be good at. But wait! “You’ve got to be able to know when someone wants help and when they don’t. You don’t want to offend.” I volunteer to keep a score of how many people George helps and how many he offends, but The Crookes' frontman actually turns out to be something of a natural, keeping an eye out for people who need a hand working out how to use the new book returning machines in between charming the pants off everyone he meets. That said, after a bit he does starts threatening to say ‘yes’ to every question, which Crookes fans would no doubt love but would leave Sheffield Central Library open to people bringing their BMXs in and letting off air rifles the like.
How's Dan getting on in the library's tidy but lovely (Exposed makes a note to return to investigate a live Pulp album we'd never seen before) CD section? Well, no-one's told him to stop building his playlist for the library stereo and he's now weighed down with armfulls of discs. How’s he found the day? “It’s been lovely, but I’d be terrible working in a library. I couldn’t do it. I love chaos too much.” Crookes' manager Penny tells us how she orders her albums alphabetically but her singles randomly, which piques Dan's interest. “There’s a brilliant book called À rebours or Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans. The guy in it is a mad eccentric who’s got this room which he partitions into nine parts. Each partition is a different colour so when he’s in a different mood he’ll go and read in a different room. I think that’s what I’d do if I was rich.” There’s a nice ‘no brown M&Ms ' rock star indulgence to that. “Yeah! In another bit the character decides he wants to read some Dickens – “ Dan continues, clearly on a roll “ – and he travels from Paris to London just so he can read it in the right place. He’s also got a piano – and each note on the piano is linked to a different spirit, so different melodies would make him different cocktails. There isn’t really a plot…”
And we're in danger of losing it too. Books offer something of a lifeline for The Crookes though – especially on tour. “They’re essential really,” George confirms. “We spend so much time in the back of the van driving thousands of miles to the next gig. We always underestimate the amount of books we’ll need. By the time we get to the first venue we’ve normally finished them all.” Dan concurs. “Last time all three of us brought along the same book! We need to start some kind of rota in advance.”
Question time! We've already highlighted the extraordinary amount of sports biographies The Crookes beaver their way through while on tour, but who can find the Sports Biography section fastest? “I can. It’s there.” George pipes up before the words have even died in my mouth, his arm pointing off to back and to this right, before dashing off to help another visitor. “I’m not doing my job. Can’t lark around with you lot all day.” We talk about him after he’s gone. Dan thinks George has the correct, zen-like temperament for library work. “George would do well in a library environment. He’s very peaceful, very quiet. I can imagine him just working away, just getting on with it..”
So what have the band been reading recently? Dan reveals the most recent book he’s read was The Beautiful and Damned. Aha! The excellent Brian Clough psycho-bio about the greatest manager England never had's ill-fated time at Leeds? Erm, no. The excellent jazz age novel by F Scott Fitzgerald. My mistake. George is on Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love and also “a terrible football book by Danny Kelly and Danny Baker that I got on tour from a charity shop in Lemington Spa.” And Crookes guitarist Tom? “Last thing I read was a book Dan gave to me – Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s amazing.”
Our work here is done, but before The Crookes dash off to practice for their tour, there's a bit of a treat. The library does tours of the stacks waaaay down in the depths of the library – they're full of amazing old books and records going back hundreds of years – everything from periodicals to literally shelves and shelves of patent records – but we're also gonna get a look in the 'strongrooms'. With their huge and heavy fireproof doors, they remind Exposed of the store Jack Nicholson gets locked in in The Shining, but your fave newpop trio are unflapped by our playful threats to lock them away until they stop acting crazy.
Wandering around these rows of shelves filled with books full of stories and worlds that haven't been touched in years does get us thinking though. Just a few feet above our heads, there's rooms full of secrets hiding in plain sight and while we might take the mickey out of Dan and Tom and George for their love of footie bios the fact remains The Crookes are buccaneering pop stars with heart. This library – and the others nestled in communities across the city – need lots more people to survive though. They're palaces of ideas and stories but the heroes and princesses and Nottingham Forest Managers that live inside are relying on us to come to their rescue. So drop in and start writing your own stories in their history.
Got an inspiring idea for library services, using the libraries' space, or new ways to deliver the libraries' services? Visit the Sheffield Libraries website, or drop them a line on Twitter(and cc us in – there may be the odd music-ey prize for the best)!
The Crookes' new single 'Bears Blood/Dance In Colour' is out now on Fierce Panda Records. Visit The Crookes' website for more info.
Words by Rob Barker. Photography by Georgina Martin.