People · places · School & Library Visits

Carnegie Libraries – and the Tipton Slasher!

This week I have been in Sandwell, west of Birmingham, in the West Midlands. Also known as the Black Country, because it was the heart of the industrial revolution with foundries and smoke everywhere, making stuff for the British Empire.

Several of the libraries are Carnegie Libraries. Andrew Carnegie was once the richest man in the world. He sold his steel empire and spent the rest of his days giving money for libraries and learning institutions around the world. Carnegie Libraries have a feel about them. They are usually quite ornate in a Art Nouveau/Arts and crafts style. Many libraries retain original features. I used to love the old toilets that would have mahogany seats and giant wooden cisterns and sometimes floral paired bowls! They all seem to have been replaced with modern systems now but often the brass looks and door fittings remain.

Find out more about Andrew Carnegie here:    and more about Carnegie Libraries here:

Sandwell in the West Midlands is one of the few authorities still trying to keep up their Libraries. As they keep stocking them with new books, so new subscribers come from adjoining authorities who are cutting back, which goes to show that if you provide the books, people will come. Library usage statistics are so easily distorted – if there are no books, obviously no one will visit the library, giving evidence and support to those wishing to close them down!

Thimblewell Library, run by Julie who looked after me this week, is thriving with music events and all sorts of community groups meeting and using the most adaptable and wonderful art deco building.



People · places · School & Library Visits

My memories of Dunblane

Twenty years ago this morning Sandra Reid, then the Children’s Librarian in Stirling, picked me up from my hotel and took me to my first library visit that day. We drove through Dunblane. I remember Sandra saying that we wouldn’t normally go that way but there was traffic on the main road. She said that she had wanted to take me to Dunblane Library that day, but the children weren’t free that morning so we went on to the next library, which I think was Doune. It wasn’t very far away.

I remember that session well. It was full of fun and cheekiness and laughter. When I finished Sandra led me to a desk where I began signing books.

Then the atmosphere changed. Suddenly there were parents in the room, children were surprised to see them. I carried on signing, joking with the children. I began to be aware of tears and people hugging each other. Pale shocked faces as the news spread through the room of what had been going on down the road.

In the confusion, I must have been the last to get the message.

The rest of the day was a bit of a blur. We went on to another library, Callander I think, and then on to a school up in the hills. All along the way, cars were parked by the roadside. Shocked people listened to their car radios. I could see the tears in their eyes. As we listened to the news, Sandra seemed to know everyone being interviewed or talked about.

We went through the motions the rest of the day and Sandra put me on the train to Edinburgh for my library sessions there the next day. The passengers were grey and silent. My landlady was very upset.

My proximity to the events of that day hit me properly when I phoned home that evening and heard the relief in my wife’s voice. She’d been worried all day that I’d been involved, only aware that I was visiting schools and libraries around Stirling. She’d been wondering wether I’d been at the school that morning – waiting for and fearing a call. We didn’t have mobile phones or texting back then.

I had nightmares for months afterwards. I’d wake up in a sweat and then not be able to get back to sleep , going over and over again what I could have done if only I’d been there that day and not a few miles down the road. I couldn’t shake off the thoughts, even though they made me feel guilty for freeloading on the real grief of those who were truly affected.

But, I could have been there. If I had, could I have done something? Would I have done something? Our minds play strange tricks on us.

The TV, radio and press were relentless for months afterwards, not letting anyone forget or quieten their thoughts.

Sandra asked me back to Stiling quite a few times. I suppose that day bonded us together a bit. Eventually she took me to Dunblane Library, feeling there was unfinished business. We had such fun that afternoon. One library customer thought I was a drunk and offered to help get rid of me!

But even today, in the still, dark, wakeful hours, those thoughts creep up and take me unawares. I find myself rehearsing the possibilities – maybe fire extinguishers would be the best tools of defence or attack one might find in a primary school? I can feel the heft of them in my imagination.

Twenty years later I wonder where the years have gone. Schools changed that day and have turned into fortresses with electronic gates, bristling with cameras. Children’s librarians have been taken from us and are nowhere to be found.

Innocence and innocents were lost that day.




books · Reading and Literacy · School & Library Visits

Opening the new library at Mowmacre Hill School, Leicester

open-library-2 open-LibraryI was so pleased when Hope Toms-Fitzgerald, the Reading Champion at Mowmacre Hill Primary School near Leicester, asked if I would come and visit the school for the day and open the new library. Ans so I did, a couple of weeks ago. Where has the time gone?

Hope and her army of helpers have been working away at this wonderful project for over two years, raising funds and turning a cold, jumbled storeroom into a warm, friendly and inviting library for the children of the school.

Hope truly is a Reading Champion! The only way to learn to read is to read. Knowing all the ins and outs of grammar may score you marks on some Ofsted scoresheet, but true literacy comes from the process of actually reading a lot of text. Books are still the dest delivery vehicle for that process.

The way to engage new (and reluctant) readers is to give them a choice of wonderful and engaging books that will get their attention and turn them into readers. There is nothing like a school library for raising reading levels. Not grammar testing, not iPads, not websites, just a plain, good old-fashioned library full of books that make you want to read, that entertain, thrill, educate and maybe even make you cry.

To become truly literate, the words need to be screwed down on the page, not dancing around and singing to you. To become truly literate, you need to witness language being used at its best, to see how words strung together evoke mood, character, place and emotion as well as providing information. Reading is not an exercise in syntax. The very best writing tends to break the rules of grammar anyway.

So well done Hope and well done Mowmacre Hill. It was a pleasure to visit and an honour to cut the ribbon and declare the library open for business!

Pictures from Mowmacre Hill – thanks!