Interview with Amina Marix Evans, Founder of the Kittiwake Trust Multilingual Library.
What is your background?
“My first job was in the library of the Institute of Race Relations library. I subsequently worked in bookshops in London and Sydney, for publishers in the Netherlands, became a foreign rights agent and did freelance translation and editing.
“Around 2001 there was a lot of publicity about large publishers pulping huge quantities of books, while I was aware that many people had no money for books. This developed into an idea for an organisation that would collect unwanted books and redistribute them free of charge to people needing books. This grew into Borderline Books.
“It was quite hard to get publishers to donate books at that time, but a few did. We were also given books by prisons and refugee centres in a variety of languages. Some of these we were able to give away to a large TB hospital in the north of the country, the rest we brought to England when I moved back here in 2007.
“Running Borderline Books in the UK turned out to be a lot easier than it had been in the Netherlands as there was no stigma against free items. A donation of library shelving from the Robinson Library in Newcastle meant we needed to find a space with high ceilings, and we managed to find an empty office in Team Valley. One or two large donations from UK publishers, alongside books we had brought from The Netherlands meant we soon had a great variety of books to give away.
“At one point we had a couple of students from Northumbria University sorting and shelving books. One of them happened to comment that we had more books in different languages than the university did. From that moment on we decided that we could share the books with far more people if we created a library instead of giving the books to individuals. “
How long have you been involved with the Kittiwake Trust Multilingual Library?
“At first, we worked with the West End Refugee Service who started a small library in Arthur’s Hill.
“After about a year they lost their library space and returned the books. We were then offered an empty shop in Eldon Garden in 2015. We started the library there and soon took on a second shop which was used for meetings and language classes.
“Around the time we became a charity, in January 2016, I contacted David Crystal, who has written over 120 books on language and asked him if he would like to be a patron. He readily agreed and has been an enormous support. He came to the library and gave a talk in 2016. He has continued to be very supportive and a great help with information and advice on many different aspects of languages.”
How many different languages are covered in the books of the library?
“There are around 120 languages and dialects in the collection – sometimes, as with Klingon – just a dictionary.
“We have always enjoyed seeing how happy people are when they find a book in their own language. Even when we have only one or two in any language, they are so pleased to see themselves and their culture represented.”
What is the purpose of the library?
“Apart from making people feel at home when they see books and other items from their culture, we hope to bring people together.
“We aim to have newcomers who are learning English volunteer alongside native English speakers in order to learn ‘workplace English’ that will be useful if they later find work. It is also really useful for language students to have the opportunity to work with native speakers of the languages they are learning.”
Why is there a big section about Newcastle and the Northeast?
“In Eldon Garden we were situated on a route to the football stadium. We dedicated on of the huge display’s windows right next to the entrance to local history, shipbuilding, mining, local artists, writers oh and football!
“We also giving recognition to Geordie as an accepted and distinctive dialect. We have always had a dialect section in the library with books we collect on English and Scottish dialects.
“I think it’s good for people to see that there are many different dialects of English which can make learning the language somewhat more of a puzzle.”
Why is the work of the library important?
“It’s important to be able to offer as many languages as we can find. It is really sad that people who come to live here tend to let their language drop.
“While the children can speak their mother tongue, most can’t write it or read it. It is important to encourage parents to teach the children to read and write their own language, otherwise we will be losing a generation of translators and interpreters.
“Also, it’s important that they can communicate with grandparents and other family members still living abroad. Of course, the children will learn English quickly at school, but keeping the parental language alive is part of their identity.
“One thing that is new that we have a music space where there are a variety of instruments. Some people already come in just to play for a little while and we hope that this will continue and grow, and that people will make new friends through the universal language of music.”
Can you tell me about successes?
“The Kittiwake Trust Multilingual Library was the first Library of Sanctuary in the Northeast, six months before the Newcastle city library.
“It happened during lockdown and then we had to leave Eldon Garden, so we did not get the chance to celebrate, and the media was not aware that we were already a Library of Sanctuary.
“Gateshead Council gave us the former Gloucester pub in June 2022. What with one thing and another it took another year to get up and running so we could open in August 2023. The building is right opposite the Registrar’s office of the Civic Centre, and about 3 minutes’ walk from Gateshead Interchange. There are also 10 buses that stop outside the front or on the High Street, so it is very accessible.
“We have gained more than 100 new members since August as well as several former members signing up again. Many people drop in to see what we have done with what was once their ‘local’ so we meet many new friends who would never normally be particularly interested in a multilingual library.
“We have also just signed up as a warm space so we will get new people coming in as the weather gets colder. We’ll keep the kettle on and make sure people can have a brew and a chat.
“We put all the cookery books in the community area to help people become friends talking about recipes, and there is a collection of chess sets, dominoes, Go, Mahjong, and jigsaw puzzles; games people play all round the world without needing to speak the same language. In the next couple of months, the upstairs rooms will be ready to rent out for language classes or meetings.
“We won’t be able to let the spaces as cheaply as we did in Eldon Garden because the heating hills have gone up so much, but hopefully it will be less than people pay in other places. We don’t put on language lessons ourselves but offer the space for language teachers and conversation groups.”
Can you tell me about your plans for the future?
“We plan to have language tasters and events, celebrating different festivals. We try to find lots of ways of learning about languages and things that belong to different countries.
“We just realized how many cultures have a festival of light when the days get darker, so we have plans for next autumn!
“We definitely want to have school visits and we invite teachers to get in contact to arrange these for their children.
We will hold some sessions during March as part of the Festival of Languages, with an open day on March 23.”
Which other organisations do you work with?
“The Comfrey Project helped with the planting in the front of the library, and we look forward to working with them in the Spring.
“We have worked with Gateshead Council as well as International Newcastle, the City of Sanctuary Network, Peace of Mind, The Baltic, English for All and more.
“As time goes by, we hope to be working with more local organisations such as Gem Arts and others.”
Is there anything else you would like to add?
“We have a lovely team of volunteers – some are language students and people who have moved here recently, one or two are former librarians or bookshop workers.
“We would very much welcome speakers of languages like Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and Nepalese to come and volunteer with us so that we can add the many books in our collection in these languages to the catalogue so that we can finally make it available online.
“The English books we have tend to be items that are not available in public libraries.
“Our library is – as far as we know – the only multilingual library that is open to anyone rather than being attached to an institution or a university. We are pleased to see more people starting up multilingual libraries – often just for children – around the country and we’re building a network so we can share information and books where we have duplicates.
“Several authors and publishers are now donating translations of their books to us, so we have a much more up to date collection that we had previously.
As always, we encourage parents to come in with their children and read to them and show them all the wonderful picture books and toys in the children’s area. – We hope to see you soon!”
High West Street, Gateshead NE8 1EJ Opening hours: 11:00 – 18:00 Monday – Saturday