People · places · Reading and Literacy · School & Library Visits

What Are Public Libraries For?

Bedford Library - Home of my teenage youth.
Bedford Library – Home of my teenage youth.
I was on BBC Radio Wales this morning, talking about the future of libraries. The discussion, with Andrew Green of the Library of Wales in Aberyswyth, was sparked by the Terry Deary controversy. Terry has been quoted as saying that Libraries are a Victorian idea that have had their day.

It’s a bit weird talking for three minutes on the radio over Skype! I’d been trying to focus my thoughts all day yesterday and said hardly any of what I’d prepared.

Firstly, I think it’s great that Terry has actually started the conversation. We all love libraries and librarians. Authors, in particular, know lots of librarians and count many of them among their friends. Authors rely on libraries and librarians to spread the word about their books. We need the libraries to buy our books, but there is not a God-given right that authors should make a living off the back of ratepayers. However much we would like the situation to continue, the world has changed dramatically.

Libraries are buying fewer books so publishers in my little niche are commissioning fewer titles and we’re all going to hell in a hand-cart!

The last couple of years, we’ve been campaigning for stasis in the libraries. To actually say what it is that we want to save would be to admit that we all have different needs and different ideas about what a library is.

When I think of a library I’d like to save, It’s Watford (or was it Bushey Heath?) Library in the 1960s. A classic Carnegie. The children’s library separated from the adults behind heavy doors with shiny brass handles. It was a temple of culture – so grand, so important – filled with CS Lewis, Enid Blyton and lots and lots of books about space and science.

We were an army family, didn’t really know anyone locally and I only lived there in the holidays any way. But it welcomed us and made us feel a part of the community. I see this role continue in libraries today, giving unconditional help and support to all the blow-ins in the community. The Polish plumber, far from home, the newly-moved family, those on holiday or just passing through. The library welcomes them all without question. I also see it in the Families that come to borrow books for their children. Children need a continual flow of books to be able to learn to read. Learning to read is a really hard thing to do. I think it’s right we support the citizens of the future and encourage them to become literate and cultured. The library is also the first place where children become aware that they are part of a community.

I’d save the brash, new modern Library that opened in Bedford when I was about 15. It served fancy coffee and stocked Scientific American – what a great way to spend Saturday afternoons. The fact that all the good-looking clever girls were there as well had nothing to do with it. While I was busy being a punk, I secretly borrowed Bruckner and Bartok albums, slowly widening my musical taste.

When I left school, my education really began, I discovered fiction wasn’t just stories it was about ideas too. I devoured books at that stage. All that Hemingway, Fowles, Vonnegut and dear Colin Wilson, they all led me on to the philosophy department, teaching me stuff that was never mentioned in school

I’d save the Peterborough Library, another classic Carnegie, that welcomed me unconditionally too. I’d moved there to be with my mother, just after my father died. I was 20, I was a mess and I knew nobody. But the kind librarian found things for me and suggested others and got me started on a road of learning about art that a couple of years later saw me going off to art college.

If it hadn’t already been knocked down, I’d save my local library. I’d go down with the kids and bring home armfuls of picture books. We’d snuggle up at bedtime and read them all. My son hated books when he was born, but we kept working on him. Eventually we found the key to his heart – Lucy Cousins’ Maisie books were irresistible. We’d never have been able to afford to try out all those books before we found the one that got through to him.

We all know, with out thinking that libraries are, “A GOOD THING!” Many of my generation owe their sanity, good fortune and cultural grounding to their local library.

Without a doubt we need to preserve specialist libraries, local history, special and historic collections, these are the foundations on which our society is built.

The big question is about the local, public library. Has it had it’s day?

If local, public libraries don’t decide what they are for and decide very soon, then I fear they will be swept away, like HMV and Kodak.

I’m not in the middle of this debate, I’m too busy trying to save my own skin, so I don’t hear everything. But when I see a twitter stream about what libraries should be, what I read is a description of a community centre. I don’t think that’s enough. We already have community centres. You can’t have two buildings competing for the same resources.

Public libraries grew up out of the workers institutes, which were built and funded by those who knew that knowledge is power. They wished to better themselves and did something about it. They raised funds by public subscription, pennies at a time. They left us an extraordinary legacy, which we take for granted.

Carnegie co-funded thousands of libraries in partnership with communities – and they were communities then. Everyone knew everyone and participated in community affairs. London Ministries were far away and distant. It was Carnegie who backed and promoted Napoleon Hill to research and write “Think and Grow Rich”, the classic book for library-going autodidacts that pulled America, and some in Britain, out of the depression and set it on it’s path to the riches of the fifties and sixties.

Now we know it all and have forgotten how hard it was to learn all this stuff. There is an astonishing future ahead of us so we need to learn a whole lot more.

I think public libraries need to look back at their roots. Education and culture is what they were set up for and I think that is where their future lies.

Outside of libraries, we mortals have an image of a librarian as being a person who stamps books in an out. But librarians are diverse people. True, they are all a bit compulsive and like to neatly squared up untidy piles of books and paper, and the majority of them like cats (there are librarians who like dogs too!) but other than that they all have their own different passions. Fiction – non-fiction – children’s books – story time – maps – antiquarian books – medicine – marine biology the list goes on. It all needs curating and organising. Someone needs to know where everything is.

But in five years time, you will get a free kindle with every twenty litres of petrol. Already you get to borrow books for free with Amazon when you have Amazon Prime. In five years time Kindles will be waterproof and yes, you will be able to read them in the bath. Amazon will offer irresistible deals to libraries. Every rate payer will get a free Kindle, there will be no need for dusty books on Public Library shelves any more. This is not fantasy… this is the near reality.

And can people be bothered to tear themselves away from their 3d, HD, fibre, internet-connected walls and devices. What can the Library offer them?

To me now, at my stage of life, as a user, I feel ashamed to say that have no need to go to the library at all. My kids are grown up and there’s no sign of grandchildren for a while.

Actually we have a wonderful new library in town now. It moved to a more inconvenient place for me, but great for young families who are using it more than ever.There’s a hall upstairs, you can get a coffee and there’s a neat computer suite where I gave some YouTube classes last year. It’s a great place. But I think I’m the only person who has ever hired out the very well-appointed comuter suite.

I thought of maybe doing some open YouTube classes or drawing classes, but gave up thinking about it. The bureaucracy is awful, what with insurance and CRB checks. It’s much better to do it on Youtube, I reach a worldwide audience there. Who can be bothered to do anything for the community anymore? There will be some busy-body wanting you to have measurable outcomes for any course you are prepared teach. We are not allowed to learn for the sake of it any more – there must be module points at the end. I’d rather go and learn from a world expert on Youtube than walk through the snow to hear some one locally talk about the little they know.

Maybe Margaret Thatcher was right when she said there is no such thing as society any more.

I love libraries and all they stand for, but it is WE that have changed. We joined together as communities and used those public libraries to better ourselves. We’ve done incredibly well, and in the process we have built a new community, the Internet. That is our new public library.

I know Google doesn’t have a heart, but it works hand in had with all those bloggers that do, who sort and sift and recommend, doing exactly what librarians used to do.

I feel the pain my fellow authors and publishers are feeling. I feel the pain of librarians, being tossed about in the early warning waves of the Tsunami that is on its way.

Amazon and the Kindle and the Internet will do to Libraries what the iPod and iTunes did to the music business. Change is coming. It’s not a question of what to save but how to prepare and what will still be needed afterwards.

I’m sure the monks of old were desperate to keep on illuminating Vellum manuscripts, but one the punters realised they could buy a book cheaper and more easily…

We live in extraordinary times – human drama and civilisation are in the making. Tectonic forces are underway.

I love those old Carnegie Libraries, but I fear they will soon be part of the National Trust, with tearooms and shop in the local history department.

I think maybe public libraries will merge with community centres. Maybe their job is to rebuild the communities they have so successfully dispersed.

People · places · Reading and Literacy · School & Library Visits

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.