The Harold Acton Library in Florence

Sofia Novello is Mom of two and the Special Events Organiser at the Harold Acton Library, the Library of the British Institute in Florence. Here she talks to MumAbroad Life about the Library, the cultural and educational events it offers, and why it is important to encourage an interest in books and reading in children of all ages.

What role does the British Institute in Florence play in Anglo-Florentine cultural life?

The British Institute of Florence was established in 1917 by a group of Englishmen and Italians to provide cultural and linguistic exchange between Britain and Italy. For almost a hundred years it has occupied a special place in Florence’s vibrant cultural life, acting as a key educational resource and focus point between the city and its Anglophone visitors. In 2017, the Institute has celebrated its centenary and its aim for the next hundred years is to better serve our students, local residents and visitors to Florence, by developing and extending our cultural programme of events, improve access to UK students through bursaries, to high quality tuition of art history, offering exceptional opportunities in the birthplace of the Renaissance, continue to provide the highest quality language tuition in English and Italian. And make our unique archive, which preserves the extraordinarily rich stories of the Anglo Florentines, more accessible to the public through the continued employment of a professional archivist and the acquisition of new collections.

Tea time in the Library

The Harold Acton Library has a large lending collection of books in English. How does it acquire its books?

The Library was born from smaller donated collections and has matured into the present collection of over 58,000 volumes of books. The collection gives particular focus to History of Art, English and Italian literature and language, History, Travel, The Grand Tour, and Music. About 500 new titles are added to the collection every year. The British Institute receives no funding from the UK Government but we are very fortunate to be able to count on the generous support of donors both institutional and individual for the maintenance of the Library and Archives. One practical way that users of the library can help is to buy a book for us. On our website we have compiled a list of desired books which we would love to add to the collection if people would like to donate a book. We also rely on donations for children’s books in English, so if you have a book your children don’t use anymore, take it to the library and give it a new life!

What books does the Library offer for children?

The Harold Acton Library has developed a varied children’s collection over the years and we now have a children’s section in the library with picture books, patterned concept books, rhyming books, fables and books for kids and young adults which are kept in the cosy children’s room of the Library with a beautiful view over the river Arno.

Can children become members of the library?

Yes, the Library is open to all. We have a Junior membership for children aged 0 to 14 years old. With 20 euros they can borrow items from the children’s collection and take part in the events for children that we organise throughout the year. We also have a Family membership for 3 or more people (this is an Annual membership and it costs 110 euros for 3 members, each additional child pays 20 euros).

The Children’s Collection

What events do you organise for children?

We have a regular Story Time event. The monthly sessions last approximately one hour and introduce children aged three to eight to stories, craft activities, workshops, animated films, songs and rhymes. The reading and activities are open to members of the Library. They are held in English and run by our mother-tongue Library staff and volunteers.

Which kind of stories are the most popular with this age group of children?

Picture storybooks are very popular among our young members, and fables. Our little readers have loved listening to “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”, “Where the Wild Things Are” and “The Cat in the Hat”, stories which were read in past programmes, but have also enjoyed a classic tale like “Three little pigs”. A nice book with big, coloured pictures and an engaging narrative voice make the trick!

How important is it for young children to engage in books and storytelling activities?

Storytelling is so entertaining for little children and so stimulating. It inspires their imagination and their creativity, it enhances their empathy, it encourages the expression of their emotions, and helps to develop their listening skills. There are so many benefits attached to reading stories! We like our story time to be fully interactive, with children sitting alongside the reader, free to move around and browse the books, free to touch the book in the reader’s hand and turn the pages and participate actively to the story with questions and comments. The whole experience of storytelling is pure magic and we are happy to be able to offer a regular story time in English which seems to be so appreciated by our little ones.

Do you also organise events for older children and teenagers?

The British Institute takes part in an educational initiative called “Le Chiavi della Città” organised by Florence City Council, and offers a Library tour and quiz to primary and secondary state schools. After a Library presentation and a power-point introduction to the history of the Library and to its collections, students are asked to answer some questions in English on what they have learnt during the visit, they have to work in groups to browse the catalogue, check the bookshelves and search books in the Library.

The British Institute also offers workshops for high school students which are held in the Library on various topics of English literature and culture.

Can you describe the Harold Acton Library in 3 words?

Special, cosy, friendly

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To find out more about The British Institute in Florence visit the website: www.britishinstitute.it


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