Our people receive regular emails about the different training events and benefits we offer, such as wellbeing open days and our Bike to Work scheme. One of these emails in February 2008 promoted a sign language course that was being organised by the HR Business Partner at St Pancras. It turned out to be extremely popular, with a number of staff from different British Library departments at both St Pancras and Boston Spa learning British sign language.
The aim of the course was to give our front-line staff a chance to develop an additional skill that would be useful if they were dealing with deaf Readers and other Library users. Eventually, however, we opened the training out to people from all departments.
One of our Service Improvement Assistants who signed up for the course was Lawrence Alphonse. His role involved dealing with Library visitors, Readers and the general public, helping them with any complaints they had and responding to their comments by correspondence and face to face.
As Lawrence points out: "I thought the course would be a good idea to have someone who could sign within the team, because we deal with a diverse group of customers on a daily basis. We already had French and German speakers and I thought that sign language would be a useful addition to our skills."
The course involved two hours a week for 30 weeks and led to a BSL (British Sign Language) Level 1 certificate. It also turned out to be a good way of meeting people from the different parts of the Library - people that Lawrence wouldn't normally come across.
"We had a very broad spectrum of staff on the course, from library assistants to reading room managers, curators and reference specialists," he says. "The atmosphere was very relaxed and we'd often meet up to practice throughout the week."
These meetings helped the group to bond - as well as being a good opportunity to practice their signing. Lawrence found these particularly useful in helping him to learn how to understand other people's signs. As he explains: "In sign language, some people sign quickly and some more slowly. It's similar to a spoken language with people speaking at different speeds. If someone signs very quickly, it can be quite difficult to understand what they're trying to say."
The course was designed to give our staff a new way of communicating with Library users. Lawrence believes this kind of training is important to ensure the Library is welcoming to all visitors, no matter how they communicate. As he says: "I think it helps to promote better customer service and demonstrates a constructive awareness of diversity."