Demopolis librarian travels to England

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 13, 2003

This wasn’t Lindsy Gardner’s first visit to England. She last went as part of the Alabama Oxford Program in 1998. But this one was nothing like the first.

Gardner took part in the Rotary Group Study Exchange May 13 through June 12, traveling to England with four others in this Rotary district. Next year a group from the host district in England will tour through central and south Alabama.

One of the others with Gardner was Lester Stewart of Dothan, a retired English professor in his mid-70s and the only man in the group.

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All the women were in their late 20s, and only one is married. They were Indie Underwood, speech therapist; Amy Mendheim, assistant district attorney for Houston County, and Kristi White, an English professor.

The host Rotary clubs crammed as much as possible into each day. The five visitors went from daylight to dark &045; and since dark came very late in the evening, they "really got tired by the end of the trip, but we couldn’t say ‘no’," she said.

With the sun coming up early and birds chirping outside their windows, the visitors couldn’t stay in bed very long, either.

But the rest of the four weeks spent touring southeast England was filled with experiences not to be forgotten. They learned some of the local lingo. (A one-story home is a bungalow; swish means fashionable, and when you wear a jumper, you’ve put on a sweater to get warm.)

At a local barbecue they had chicken legs and lambburgers. An "American supper" was pot luck. They were amazed that the price of gas at $4 a gallon was the lowest it had been in quite some time. Half million dollar townhouses were for sale an hour outside of London.

Sightseeing took them to museums, factories, libraries and a women’s prison. They made presentations at each of the Rotary clubs that hosted the group, invariably wearing the uniform of the day, a navy blue blazer and khaki pants or skirt.

The area they toured is one of the more affluent sections of England, but with 64 million people in an area just larger than Alabama, England is "cramped for space." The perception of land affects everyday life, and people are very protective of their property, Gardner said.

Overall, the British "are more formal and a little more detached in their everyday life," she continued, but "British humor is something you have to learn to appreciate." Eventually the five started including some of that dry wit into their presentations to the Rotarians.

The best part of the trip, said Gardner, was "actually getting to know the people, getting a feel for the day-to-day life there." Each of the members of the Rotary Group Study Exchange stayed in the homes of local Rotarians, ate meals with them and got to know their families.

One of the items Gardner took with her were several newspapers showing photos of turkey hunters, which generated a lot of questions from their hosts. The Alabama group also were asked about the socio-economic situation in Alabama.

The four women took part in a charity walk for St. Christopher’s Hospice, organized by one of the Rotary Clubs, that raised $225,000 for the facility, but such fund-raising efforts are not found in all areas.

Gardner, being a librarian, visited some 20 British libraries. She toured all kinds, including those in schools, dedicated to research and even the prison library. But most were public libraries of the size of the one in Demopolis and larger.

The primary difference she saw between American and British libraries is that here a library is a point of community pride, while in England it is seen as a government service. Libraries do not accept private donations.

Money raised through the lottery benefits the libraries, especially in furnishing them with computers. Some of the libraries were cutting edge and state-of-the-art, but most lagged behind the Demopolis facility.

Local history collection is very strong, she continued. Gardner has brought back ideas she hopes to implement locally, such as providing a CD-Rom of the history of the area. A British web page designer also gave her some ideas to use, and she is intrigued with one of the methods used to organize children’s books.

But what the libraries do not have are fund-raisers, even though they have income targets. Instead, libraries in England are set up more as bookstores run more with a business perspective. "They have video and DVD collections that rival a video store," Gardner said.

There is lots of display shelving, and patrons can purchase cards, bookmarks and other items. The libraries still impose a fine on readers for returning books late, and a charge is levied for an audio book or to put a book on the reserve list.

In spite of how tired she was, Gardner has no regrets about taking part in the Group Study Exchange, especially with the people involved. "I can’t emphasize enough how well planned it was," she said. The clubs put in a lot of time to prepare for their visit.

Gardner is expecting to become a member of the Demopolis Rotary Club next week, and as a member she plans to be on hand to welcome the visitors from England when they come here next spring.