A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Edinburgh’s protest was lead by well-known writers, Theresa Breslin and Julia Donaldson, as a group gathered to hand in a protest statement to the Scottish Parliament. (To read the text of the protest and add your name go here.)
Theresa has kindly taken time out of her hectic campaigning schedule to talk to Vulpes Libris about the day and why libraries are so important both for literacy and as centres of the community, and how people who think that people don’t need access to free books are dangerously out of touch.
RosyB: So, Theresa, how did it go on the day?
Theresa: It all only kicked off on the previous Tuesday and showed what tremendous grass roots support there is for Libraries. Julia Donaldson was an absolute Star! Despite having a commitment at lunchtime she made time to do this. I could not believe it as the crowd numbers began to build up, but I had no prepared speech because that wasn’t the plan for the day- not that there really ever was a proper plan. I was intending to go to my local library on Sat 5th Feb (National Library Day) but I’ve been sending emails and letters over the last year to various authorities re library cuts with little effect. I’d been in touch with Alan Gibbons who is a great inspiration and at the end of January I was at the opening of the new Burns Centre in Ayrshire and heard Liz Lochead make an impassioned plea to preserve our libraries.
Then I received an email saying something along the lines of
“I can live with myself if I try and don’t succeed, but I can’t live with myself if I don’t even try.”
I feel that politicians regard local protests as expressions of self interest and are vastly underestimating the wholesale anger at what is happening to something people value enormously. When another email came in asking me to put my name to yet another letter speaking out against the attack on the professionalism of school librarians I suddenly thought “why not write out a protest and go with it to the Scottish Parliament on Sat.” – it might get national media coverage where local protests wouldn’t and also might make the politicians take notice.
I suggested this to a group of Scottish writers and a few other people and got enough feedback to encourage me to write out a Protest Statement which I then emailed to a number of contacts and said to pass it on. Being a Techno-Idiot I hadn’t though it through – the email went viral. Very quickly emails began to arrive and within a day I had several hundred in my Inbox and then over 700 by Friday morning!
I had asked that anyone who was coming to bring along their favourite book and perhaps read from it. Many people who had emailed me to say that they couldn’t manage had added a sentence about what libraries meant to them. I hadn’t asked for this but obviously folk feel deeply on the issue. I emailed them back and asked permission to quote which they readily gave so I printed these out as “Let’s Hear it for the Libraries” tributes.*
It should be noted that I have received a significant amount of responses from library staff too afraid to speak out as they worry that it would be held against them in any future restructuring of posts. I thought we might get a dozen or so folk on the day (on Friday night I had only 19 definitely saying they would be there) and we’d gather round and do a few readings and a few tributes, and then Julia would ceremoniously hand in the Protest Statement. I was ecstatic with delight when more and more people arrived and then the media in force with TV news cameras. Julia was enormously patient and gave a tremendous amount. The police arrived – very friendly- I’ve never had my name taken by the police before! I realised then that I had to manage the crowd so I climbed up on the wall of the wee loch and, as I had my own tribute among all the other quotes, I just kicked off with that and went with the flow.
The folks who read….. honestly! they were fantastic! and those who stood up and spoke out- tremendous! All totally spontaneous. If it had been planned for months by a qualified drama producer / director it could not have worked out better.
Julia read the Protest Statement beautifully and among other testimonies and readings, Duncan Wright, school librarian of the year, read out his six week old son’s favourite book to great cheers from the crowd. I’ve gathered what media coverage I know about on the Facebook page.
Please everyone do check it out and see if you can spot yourself if you were there. You don’t have to be a member of Facebook to do this. If you have any more links then let me know. I honestly thought it was brilliant – so organic and good natured and just a wonderful happening and totally points up what books and libraries are all about.
RosyB: Why are libraries so important?
Theresa: In this digital age and in the present economic climate libraries and librarians, both public and school, are absolutely crucial. The Internet is in itself a vast library, but it is an unregulated one. One of the fundamental roles of libraries is to provide access for everyone to any information they may require and ensure that professional staff are available to share their skills in finding and evaluating that information. The provision of literature for self-advancement or for pleasure promotes literacy, cultural awareness, and social and emotional competence. In addition to this libraries are social spaces hosting a many and varied range of activities. The library is the beating heart of a community.
RosyB: You are an award-winning children’s writer – what is the effect on libraries on children and young people in your view?
Theresa: The benefit to children of libraries is staggeringly enormous. I have worked in a huge variety of libraries both as writer and an author. Removing library access from a child’s life will do incalculable damage. Children and their carers need large numbers of books of a wide variety made readily available, and trained staff to guide their choices and promote reading initiatives.
RosyB: As a society we weep and wail about poor literacy standards, yet libraries are being cut – are we complacent in assuming that people have access to books in all areas of society and what difference to you think it makes to have books freely available for people in terms of literacy and communication skills?
Theresa: I think certain sections of the population are complacent and appear to be appallingly ignorant of the social conditions in which many, many people live. If you can afford to buy books from the Internet, at a bookshop, at an airport or a railway station then you have, in effect, a private library. Increasing areas of Britain cannot and do not. There are numerous reports on the links between books and literacy and communication, but one statistic that stuck in my mind was the assessment that a child in the third world whose parent / carer could read was seven times more likely to survive to adulthood.
RosyB: As a bookblog, we tend to focus on the books side of things – but it seems to me that libraries – like post offices, sports and swimming pools – have an important roles as a valuable hub of a community – it is a place to pick up leaflets, find out about local classes and groups and campaigns, it is a place where people can look at the internet and catch up with newspapers…It’s a place where bookgroups can gather and where people can go to talks or readings. I am always amazed when I go into libraries how very used they are. Can you discuss this side a little and how vibrant the future of libraries COULD be if we had the imagination to see it?
Theresa: Actually I think you have said it all here. The future of libraries is limitless. One of the spokespeople, Rhona Arthur, from the Scottish branch of CILIP, said that libraries provide a “blended service”. It astonishes me when I hear some councillors and others make comments along the lines of “if libraries didn’t exist just now, you wouldn’t invent them.” In the current climate, any intelligent observer would conclude that the exact type of one-stop-shop needed is a modern fully equipped, generously resourced, properly staffed library.
RosyB: I have done a couple of events in local libraries and been to many more and have been amazed at the quality of events and the engaged interest of the audiences. We are in an age of burgeoning literary festivals but these can be expensive and the preserve of those who can afford them, live close by or who can travel there. It seems to me that it is so important that people have access to good low-cost events and talks local to them and the growing literary festival scene suggests a hunger in general in this area. How do you think the cuts might affect this side of things? What is important about this and what are your experiences of engaging with children and readers in local libraries?
Theresa: I have made many author presentations both in and outwith Britain and often these are organised by a librarian. One of the less high profile aspect of these current library cuts is the stripping out of professional posts – sometimes unnecessarily. The impact of this will become evident within a few years when book clubs / groups, poetry slams, storytimes, etc. cease to happen and levels of social disfunction and illiteracy rise.
RosyB: I have seen on Facebook that you have had a number of high profile writers join the protest – like Neil Gaiman, although he’s outside Scotland. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
Theresa: Neil Gaiman, the wonderful Julia Donaldson obviously, James Kelman, Scottish Book Trust, Joan Lingard, Anne Fine, Ian Brown President, ASLS: Cathy MacPhail, Bernard MacLaverty, Ali Bowden (Director, Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust),The Saltire Society, Margery Palmer McCulloch, James Robertson, Professor Peter Reid, Prof Alan Riach,Stewart Conn, Cathy Cassidy to name just a few.
I think people have a great affinity for libraries world-wide and I also think that Scotland, in addition to being the birthplace of the great library benefactor, Andrew Carnegie, enjoys a reputation for valuing education. Many writers and illustrators have worked in Scotland, their sessions arranged by the fantastic team at Scottish Book Trust, and by school and public librarians and teachers, and have appeared at libraries and at festivals such as Aye Write and the Edinburgh Book Festival – the largest book festival in Europe. What’s happening here is being picked up abroad. As Scottish literature and learning is widely valued and respected we really must ensure that it is protected. I think universally writers and illustrators acknowledge the role libraries have played in nurturing their talent and don’t want to see a future generation starved of this and their aspirations not fulfilled.
RosyB: What can our readers and other bloggers do to help libraries and the save our libraries campaign?
Theresa: Print the Protest Statement and ask for signatures. It is the law that local authorities have a duty to provide a library service to all their residents. Leadership is needed from the Scottish Government to ensure that this is carried out. Email your MSP re this. There is an election due…..
RosyB: What do you say to those who argue libraries are the preserve of the “privileged mainly white middle class” as alluded to by a recent statement by Roy Clare, chief executive of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council?
I would refer them to answer no. 3 above and say they need to get out more.
*You can add your own library tributes to the list on Theresa’s Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/Theresabreslinauthor
For the protest statement and email to add your name go here.
THERESA BRESLIN is the critically acclaimed multi-award winner author of over 30 books for young people whose work has appeared on television and radio and is read world-wide in many languages. A former mobile librarian, community librarian, and Head of Young People’s Services for a local authority, she managed the BAFTA nominated Scottish Writers Project. Awarded Lifelong Honorary Membership of the Scottish Library Association for services to librarianship and literature she is also an Honorary Fellow of the Association of Scottish Literary Studies. She won the Carnegie Medal for Whispers in the Graveyard, her compelling novel about a dyslexic boy. Her latest book Prisoner of the Inquisition has been shortlisted for the Northern Ireland Book Award, longlisted for UKLA and the Guardian Award and nominated for the Carnegie Medal.
The wonderful image at the top of this post is one of Phil Bradley’s set of library posters based on WW2 posters, reproduced under the Creative Commons License. To view the whole set on Flickr go here.
(For another personal take on why libraries are so important see Jackie’s post My Passion for Libraries.)