Hackney librarian Sue Comitti thrilled to receive British Empire Medal

Hackney librarian Sue Comitti receives British Empire Medal

Hackney librarian Sue Comitti receives British Empire Medal - Credit: Local Democracy Service

It’s not surprising that lifelong librarian Sue Comitti enjoys reading social history in her spare time – including the history of women’s achievements.

She joined Hackney’s library service in 1971 as a Saturday assistant and was sponsored to do her qualifications.

However, during the 1970s she was told she would never be promoted because of her gender.

She said it was typical of the times and carried on.

Fast forward to 2016 and she was promoted to libraries and heritage services manager, fulfilling a long-held ambition to be responsible for running and developing the library service.

“Hackney’s given me my career,” she said as she reflected on the work that has led to her being awarded a British Empire Medal (BEM) in the Queen’s Birthday honours.

It includes the refurbishment of Hackney Central, Clapton and Shoreditch libraries, and helping generations of residents discover a treasure trove of books and activities.

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Despite the pressures of Covid, Hackney-born Comitti was given a surprise celebration to mark her 50 years working in the borough’s library service last year.

She said she has been surprised again this year with the special Queen’s Jubilee honours.

“It’s a lovely surprise,” she said. “It’s nice to think that people recognise what you do.

“When your customers thank you for helping them because you’ve helped them find a job or helped them find a book or you’ve changed their life, that’s important.”

She added: “I want to promote to the staff and the children that they feel they can do anything and be anything that they want to be.”

One of Hackney’s most famous sons, The Repair Shop‘s Jay Blades – himself a holder of an MBE – recently spoke openly about his struggles in learning to read.

Comitti has been a long-term champion for adult literacy. She started the very first reading groups in Hackney libraries, and there are now many for children, adults and young people, as well as a poetry group.

When she did her training, she went outside of the borough and pretended she wasn’t able to read, just to find out what it is like to ask for help with reading and filling in forms.

“It was dreadful,” she remembered. “Everyone was staring at you. I saw what reaction you could get.”

It is crucial to help people with numeracy and literacy, she said, and staff are now helping Afghan and Ukrainian refugees with their English skills.

Comitti has also worked with many charities and community groups, arranging regular drop-in sessions at libraries with organisations such as Macmillan Cancer Support and the Epilepsy Society to help people learn more about their health and access support.

During the pandemic, libraries opened up access to their computers to help people with job-hunting and keeping in touch with families.

They also continued with the community library service, recommending and delivering books to people isolating.

“We did lots of online things and story sessions and had a telephone book group for those not online, said Comitti. “We were also calling our older customers to help if they needed food or medication.”

The 67-year-old’s citation for the honours states: “The pandemic affected the libraries and heritage services profoundly, and presented her with some of the greatest challenges of her career. She worked hard to create Covid-safe working environments for staff and gradually reopened services in a way that ensured Hackney’s most vulnerable, digitally excluded residents could be supported throughout the winter lockdown.”

It also highlighted her work to launch online book groups and other projects to support residents throughout the pandemic.

Comitti said it was crucial to take care of the 138 library staff and “reassure them” over their concerns about Covid and keep them safe as they helped readers.

“The director of public health Sandra Husbands said libraries were at the forefront of making sure our staff were safe,” she explained. “We started the digital support early on. People were desperate to keep in touch.”

With the cost-of-living crisis and the digital divide, she said, this need will be there long after the pandemic.

“We are here for people who really need us,” she said.