Dear, Dear, Terry Deary! Are Libraries Finished?

Terry Deary Who has put the cat among the pigeons!

Terry Deary Who has put the cat among the pigeons with his statements about Public Libraries

If it weren’t for me, Terry Deary would be nowhere now! Actually, that’s what Terry joked to me once. I illustrated a book of his, many years ago, which was paperbacked by Scholastic. That was his first book for Scholastic and the beginning of their very profitable relationship that lead to the amazingly successful Horrible Histories series.

Terry is a Card-carrying, old-school renegade. He’ll make a stand against anything that looks like authority just to make a bit of noise. I’m afraid that Terry, is just “being Terry.” You have to remember that Terry is an actor first and foremost and he loves a bit of drama.

Terry is more a manufacturer of commodities than what one imagines an author to be. At the height of the Horrible Histories fame, he set his researchers going at a new subject on the first of each month. Then, together they cobbled up a new book with a snappy title and added it to the production line. Librarians loved them, bought them in droves and promoted them like nothing else. Now they don’t have the funds to buy more of Terry’s books, Terry rails at them for lending out his books. He claims to have lost £180,000 a year in lost book sales because Libraries lend them out! Well, of course that’s not true. People who borrow books for free wouldn’t go out and buy them. And it’s a little ungracious of him, he would have to spend that much every year in marketing and publicity just to buy the promotion that Libraries have given him for free all these years.

But all the same Terry is expressing the little voice of doubt that nags away at all authors and librarians. Authors, publishers and librarians don’t know what to do. The Tsunami of the internet, for so long a problem that would have to be dealt with one day, is building a giant wave in front of our eyes and it is starting to crash all around us. Libraries let the computers in a long time ago. Appeasement hasn’t worked – it never does!

Two years ago, I wrote about Libraries being the Pillars of Civilisation. A lot has changed in that time.

I’ve had quite a few conversations with librarians since. I’ve met some young librarians who can’t wait to get rid of all those horrible dusty books and get down to the real work of organising all that loose data that’s floating around out there. Some have great visions of community informations centres. Others have seen the writing on the wall and are preparing their escape plans. Others are stunned, powerless in the face of the oncoming juggernaut.

Authors don’t know what to do. Anyone can be an author these days and they are jolly well taking up the chance. You can’t move for people who are writing books and flinging them up on the wall of Amazon to see what sticks. I’m afraid authors have had their day too. Or at least the old idea of being an author, someone special, chosen to be good enough to have their idea turned into a book. Our comfortable, middle-class existence has come to an end. We have to join the cue and try to shout louder than everyone else – which is what Terry Deary is doing now – and doing very successfully. See how much press he’s getting? Remember there is no such thing as bad publicity, you just need a thick skin to put up with the temporary flak.

The fact is that our gentle, rose-tinted image of libraries, has had its day. When we think of a library, we imagine a large room full of books and a nice lady stamping them in and out at the desk. Well, half of that has gone already. No one visits a library for the reference department any more. It’s all online, why would you bother battling through the sleet and snow to look something up in the Encyclopaedia Britannica? Reference departments in libraries have been reduced to a single bottom shelf for several years now. The specialist stuff, local history and the like, continues but even so – it’s slowly being digitised and as such is so much easier to search and access online.

So what is a modern Library for? That is the big question.

Everyone who is campaigning to save the libraries is campaigning for their own personal idea of what a library is. Look at the statistics – public libraries are used by old people, who still have a reading habit, but that sector will be in sharp decline. Old people can and do use kindles and the internet. Once a negative critical mass is reached, Libraries will not be able to justify buying thrillers and romance books for them anymore and the adult fiction department will close. I’m sure Boots the Chemists will check to see if there is a chance of opening up that old part of their business that was nationalised by public libraries.

Libraries are also full of people using computers – emailing home to Poland, running eBay businesses even looking up the Encyclopaedia Britannica – like in the old days.

But it’s the Children’s department that continues to flourish, even with all the distractions of the internet and tv.

It may be because the School’s Literacy Strategy has been such a disaster. Parents who care, realise that the only way to get their children to learn to read is to go and borrow lots of books from the library and read stories with them. That’s how it’s always been done and how those who learn to read, despite the literacy strategy, still do. Stories have been removed from education but, thankfully, the libraries are still full of them. They even have story time sessions and when did schools last have those? Libraries, in fact, are the most essential part of the education system, and that’s what they always were.

Public Libraries grew up out of the worker’s institutes, places where you could educate and improve yourself and get away from the grim realities of being at the bottom of the heap. If you wanted to read a thriller or a romance, you went to the circulating library and paid your weekly subs. Why did free entertainment become become a right? Terry Deary has a point there.

I think we need a new name for public libraries. A library, by definition, is a collection of books and a librarian is one who collates and looks after them. Just as merchant banks and high street banks need to separate, so do libraries need to separate from local education/information centres, which is what I think the public library has become.

We need public libraries to help young families keep up the reading – kids need lots of books and lots of practice to get the knack of reading and that is a skill we require our citizens to have and should be prepared to support them in their endeavour.

We need information centres where we can find stuff out and learn those skills that don’t need a college course or module points. We need a new breed of Public Librarian – someone who knows, or knows how to find out, someone who will help you find the information you need or put you on the right road to discovering it yourself. Someone who can put you in touch with your local history and let you feel part of somewhere. Someone to coordinate and bring together a sense of community in a rapidly fractionating world.

Books on loan, especially children’s books, may well be a part of the mix, but let’s not get hung up on an old technology that is rapidly being surpassed by ebooks, TV and the internet. Children are not born with an innate allegiance to paper books. They don’t care about the medium – it’s the stories and the pictures that matter.

I love libraries. I love their smell and their ambience, but so do I love old country houses. I’m sure people loved having only two channels to watch on TV and only four radio stations to listen too and… oh! …sending children up chimneys and polio and dyptheria, those were the good old days!

I’m sorry Authors. We have had our golden years. It’s been great and thanks for the ride. It was a wonderful time we will look back on. A time we could live quietly in our nice middle class comfort and bask in the glamorous title of Author, but it’s over, everyone’s an author now – move on. We have to find some new way to validate our existence.

If you want to see libraries running as they used to, all silence, dusty books and fearsome Librarians, then start a re-enactment society. I’m sure you’ll get a few visitors on a wet bank holiday.

For those who cannot or can’t be bothered to read, there is a YouTube spoken version of this text. It gave me a great opportunity to test my newly constructed teleprompter.

18 thoughts on “Dear, Dear, Terry Deary! Are Libraries Finished?

  1. Andrea Hassan

    Dear Shoo,

    While I know you have a point I also disagree that it’s the end for all us librarians and budding authors. I am a high school librarian and have read so many articles saying that teenagers don’t/won’t/can’t read but I will not be swayed! I have put in place a reading award in school which encourages students to read 25+ books every year. The majority are managing this, or at least trying their best to, and the success has been so great that our book borrowing figures have gone up by over 60% as a result. Ofsted wanted a report about this and I was able to say with complete confidence that not only have the borrowing figures shot up but students are now sourcing their own copies of books. Every student has a reading session in the library once a fortnight where we read and discuss books, students and staff alike. They love the chance to sit in peace and quiet and enter new worlds. As a direct result lots of students have put books on their Christmas lists and show them off with great pride. Parents/carers have emailed me to say their boys, who had never read a book before, are reading voraciously, and in one case the parent was really put out because he wouldn’t even put it down to eat breakfast. Another boy told me he had asked his dad to install a light next to his bed so he could read before he went to sleep. These are the students who will go on to encourage this love in their own children. Students are always popping their head round the door to boast they have read another book. I could produce a mountain of evidence from our students if anyone would like to see it – you’d be very welcome to come here and see what we do.
    So, while I agree that non-fiction is bowing to the on-line age, fiction most definitely is not – well not in our school anyway!
    Thank you for reading,
    Andrea

  2. Shoo Post author

    Hi Andrea, well done, but you have achieved this despite the National Literacy Strategy. What I was saying is is exactly what you are doing. Provide lots of books for the children top read. It';s not the form it arrives in, but the story itself that is the the thing and that’s where librarians are needed to point the way.

    The National Literacy Strategy has forsaken the whole idea of story. It treats story as something to be chopped up an analysed. Your kids are reading because you have enthused them and shown them that al those words thrown together in the right order allow them “to sit in peace and quiet and enter new worlds.”

    You are doing exactly what libraries should be doing – you are doing what the Literacy Strategy should be doing.

    Every time I’ve heard of a school adopting a reading for pleasure policy, like you, up go the achievement levels. Sadly the central polit bureau of eaducation is stuffed with structuralists who won’t ever admit that they are wrong.

  3. Richard Veevers

    Hello Shoo:)
    That was a magnificent reply to Mr Deary’s message, and I loved what Mr Deary said. I might not agree with *what* he said, but I will defend to the death his right to be a…well whatever it is that Mr Deary wants to be;)
    I happen to agree that it is unfair that authors are rewarded differently for their art than say, a painter, actor, musician or programmer. I differ from Terry’s view in that I think DVDs, CDs, video games and software, should all be free from libraries.
    I’ve been a public Librarian for the past decade or so. For the past couple of years I’ve helped to arrange open space meet ups for librarians to talk about all things library, at Library Camps.
    Your, and Terry’s, points of view are exactly the sort of incendiary device capable of setting our sessions alight. I’ve invited TwistedTales along to one of our un-conferences and we’d be delighted if you’d come along too.
    Our budget is basically brew and biscuits, but I’m sure you will have paid for something you’d enjoyed a lot less than an afternoon spent with us. Have a look at our website and if you have any questions please ask.
    Thanks for giving me a laugh
    Richard Veevers

  4. Shoo Post author

    Hi Richard, I’d love to – afraid I can’t make the upcoming camps though. let me know when there are more. I’m in Gloucestershire on the Welsh Border

  5. Saviour Pirotta

    Interesting, article, Shoo. The main flaw in your thinking is that everyone can be an author. While it’s true that everyone can churn out a book and is, not everyone can be a GOOD author who writes a good book. How many self published ebooks have you read that are good. I might have repeatedly drawn the short straw but i have yet to stumble a good one. I’m not sure how you work with your publishers but my editors have an invaluable input into my books, something which doesn’t happen with self-published books.

  6. Sarah McIntyre

    Dear Shoo, thanks so much for this thoughtful and good-natured article.

    With all the vitriol flying around the Internet, it’s refreshing and gives me hope that we can have still have a good debate about the future of reading and stories. You’re right, we sort of need the drama that comments like Terry Deary’s give to the issue (good point about his acting background) and I feel sad that he had to suffer so much personal abuse for sticking out his neck to say something different. We need lots of fresh ideas, not everyone companionably rallying around a single idea. We’ll get much more ongoing debate if the media sees us as many stories, not just one old story (even if it’s a good one), flogged over and over again.

    Good words, thank you.

  7. RadialSkid

    “I am not sure exactly what you have read of my views – the media distorts and edits mercilessly while the US press has been positively mischievous in re-editing statements to mean something different – when in fact the problems of the British library system are nothing to do with them! America land of the free and freedom of speech? No America of the McCarthy witch hunts and the attempts to censor JK Rowling because she offended a few Christian Fundamentalists. America, land of the obese, because they are so weighed down by their egos.” – Terry Deary

    Seriously, to hell with this guy. Between his blatant, arrogant hatred of apparently everyone and everything and his apparent belief that random, tired British anti-Americanism is something rebellious, fresh, or different, I can’t imagine anyone would want their children reading his material.

  8. Kim

    A good read Shoo – thank you! It’s thrown more thoughts and points into the important debate over what we want and need our libraries to be. Just a quick thought about one point you made:

    “We need a new breed of Public Librarian – someone who knows, or knows how to find out, someone who will help you find the information you need or put you on the right road to discovering it yourself. Someone who can put you in touch with your local history and let you feel part of somewhere. Someone to coordinate and bring together a sense of community in a rapidly fractionating world.”

    In the library where I work as an assistant (and a Chatterbooks group leader) this is what our librarians do, this is what they trained for – the finding, understanding and disseminating of information. And it’s what we’re finding a lot of people are still coming into the library for – what, where, how, when, who? Especially those unable to afford internet connections and PCs.

  9. Shoo Post author

    You are absolutely right, I think what I meant was what we need is a new idea of what a librarian is. I know very well, that Librarians are involved less and less with books. I think books get in the way of the whole discussion. Books are nice, but now what Libraries are really about any more.

  10. Shoo Post author

    Do you not think your reaction is exactly what Terry Deary appears to be referring to in the your edited version of what has no doubt been heavily edited before?

  11. Shoo Post author

    Thanks Sarah,

    Having been around libraries this week, I’ve had even more thoughts. I’ll have to get them written when I have time

  12. Shoo Post author

    Hi Saviour, It doesn’t stop them churning them out though and when they are all up on Amazon, it doesn’t matter who edited or published them – they all start from the same place. Sorting them out is the hard part. You are obviously one of those old 20th century paper book people :)

  13. Ilana

    Hi Shoo! I agree with your point about a new name for libraries. Really what I am starting to think about is how do we remix and update public libraries for today? I think they could have an amazing place as literary centers, as technology start-up incubators, as a community hub, as a network of locations where touring authors could speak. All of these ideas are crazy because of the public funding aspect. So perhaps the future of libraries are private libraries? I could be wrong (I really should go google this before typing it) but didn’t something like this exist in Dickens time? You would pay 20P a year to belong to a library. And before anyone gets mad at me about suggesting a private library, please note that I’m a socialist at heart. So when I start my private library, I’ll means test for the membership fee. Kinda like Panera. Pay what you can, unless you are rich and then you will pay a lot. I guess that doesn’t make me socialist. It makes me Robin Hood!!! ;)

  14. Shoo Post author

    Yes, you are right about Dickens’ time and that’s basically what Terry Deary is saying. It’s the way he says it that gets every one’s backs up. What you are describing, and what many people describe as a possible future, is basically a community centre. But putting all those things together is very messy and people will abuse the space and build little empire’s within it. There is no need for your private library I’m afraid, Amazon is there already.

    The more I think about it, that which we should be prepared to pay for and subsidise, is the education and further education of our citizens so they can live well and independently, and contribute to the common wealth and health of our communities. The library should provide safe places to learn without the need for passing exams or reaching level. Books may well be part of that mix – but libraies being a place for books is an idea that has long been on the wane.

So, what do you think? I'd love to hear from you. Why not leave a reply?