Author Archives: Tom

Come and see us at Umbrella

If you’re attending CILIP’s Umbrella conference on Tuesday and Wednesday 12 and 13 July, do make contact. We have a poster in the poster section in the Badminton Hall, and ribbons and other covetable items on the Credo Reference  stand in the exhibition, stand number 2 in the Cricket Hall. We’re very grateful to Credo Reference for their support.

Shush no more


Last week, I began a writing residency at Huddersfield Library, which ends this Saturday (9th July). But the title of ‘writer-in-residence’ is misleading; I’m not running writing workshops in schools or community centres. Instead, I’m listening to people’s stories about why they use the various library services, watching their routines and, in a sense, writing about what happens in a library. I confess that when I approached the library about doing a residency, I had very few expectations. I just wanted to sit there, listen to people and write about their lives, which is why I have approached the research as a personal project. Now, after only four days of moving between the various sections – lending, local history, knowledge transcription service, reference, sound and vision, childrens, art gallery – my head is spinning somewhat.

When Voices for the Library asked me to write a short piece about my research, I became paralysed with indecision. How can I possibly convey the value of the library as sharply as the librarians, bloggers and researchers who are encouraging the groundswell of public support against library closures? Do I write about how, on my first day, I waited outside the library steps at 9.20am for the doors to open, and watched a small crowd form, eager to get to the computers, get that job application sent, pay their bills online, or return that book. Or maybe I could write about how, last week when I sat in the reference library, 32 people entered in an hour to either locate someone using the professional directories and the internet, apply for jobs online, use the computers or fax, or the free scanner, ask for reference material, and read the newspapers and specialist magazines for free. Or maybe should write about what happens in the Light Reading Room and the success of the coffee mornings and the PALS (Practice Activity and Leisure Scheme) Art Group for stroke survivors.

‘Where else could you hold these sessions?’ I asked one of the organisers today.

‘We couldn’t,’ was his answer.

Maybe I could mention the children’s library, where pre-nursery sessions last week brought in new members, and where a registered child-minder with 16 years experience brings the children she cares for every single day. She plans their reading according to what is happening in their lives, such as having a new baby brother, or going to school for the first time.

‘I sell this place to everyone,’ she explains, ‘the parents see a difference in their children after they’ve been coming here a while.’

Then there’s the transcription service, and the team of four women who should be given medals for the work they do for the visually impaired. You name it, they Braille it, then record it as a podcast. Their volume of work is staggering. I should add my own example of how, as a researcher and writer with just an idea in my head and no money to support it, got a unanimous ‘you are welcome here,’ when I approached them. ‘We want you to succeed in your project,’ one staff member said, ‘we like to help writers.’

So, as a researcher, I already have a lot of rich data, and as a writer, I can make something of this data. Researchers often aim the findings of their work at policy makers, hoping to change policy. But who will listen to these voices? Will it be the mid-level policy adviser, fast-tracked through the civil service graduate scheme, who now finds himself in the midst of the library storm with his hands clapped firmly over his ears? I hope someone’s listening. I also hope there is a rich patron out there – I make no apologies for this shameless ‘wanted’ ad – who can help me extend this research throughout Yorkshire for a while longer.

In the meantime, some stories will appear on my blog this week, and the manuscript for a non-fiction book will be written over the coming months. If you would like me to visit your library, then please get in touch.

Nilam Ashra-McGrath is a writer and researcher for the non-profit sector. She is blogging about her residency at


The Library Tribe


My name is Tony Smith and I have recently started to document my local library in a photographic project I call ‘Library Tribe’. It started as a reaction to the closure of my local branch library, which was only a couple of streets walk away. I had taken an image in there just over a year ago. The building also doubled up as my local polling station and that is where I last cast my vote in the May 2010 parliamentary elections. I don’t recall being asked to vote on losing my library at the time.






 Above, Grappenhall library as it was March 2010

The library was a single room, but a very friendly meeting place for the locality. The librarian there was also an old neighbour of mine, with children who had grown up at local schools. So she knew what books would match the adjacent school projects etc.

Researching the closure on the web it’s clear that some savings were at the root of the decision avoiding too much local consultation with parish council etc. Very sad.

I have always been an enthusiastic user of local libraries in Glossop in Derbyshire UK, where I grew up, Liverpool, where I worked for a number of years and in Cheshire, where I have spent the last twenty or so years. I have also encouraged my son, who is nearly eight, to get to know them too. As a consequence his reading has come on leaps and bounds and he has a real thirst for knowledge. This ‘Worlds biggest machine’ type books, have really brought his experience to life.

NewImage Ramblers Best walks In Britain

I am somewhat baffled about how a big chunk of the population know little about libraries, what they offer and why they are an important institution that should be preserved. By ‘preserved’ I don’t mean in amber, like prehistoric spiders. Libraries have a different role than twenty or even ten years ago.

A school friend who was a librarian was instrumental in getting me more hooked on what the library, something I paid for out of my council tax, could do for me. She let me know that for 25p I could request the library to purchase any new or obscure music album. These were the days of the 12” vinyl long player and much of my extensive love or music was formed at this time.

Libraries also furnished me with Linguaphone and language tapes to learn the basics to backpack around Japan, South America and Europe. Also some of the guide books and maps to plan it came from various libraries too.








 The Dilbert Principle

For work too while I have lived in Warrington, north west England, libraries have been an invaluable source of textbooks on everything from database design to better use of Adobe Photoshop. I have never needed to use the local archives, but I know plenty of friends and family who have. Always they have told me of great service they had and the genuine interest of local library archivists.

NewImage The Lost Life Of Eva Braun

During my Library Tribe project I have met many people coming out of the library. Some are reading for pleasure, fun, work or self-help. Many borrowers are taking out books for advice to help others. This is becoming more relevant as UK CAB (Citizens Advice Bureau) finding is also being cut. Rather than having places to go for help, everyone will have to increasingly help themselves or each other.

Many people I have met too have been in there using the internet, showing that again libraries are adapting. Not everyone can afford to have the internet, or sometimes a land-line at home these days. Providing it stays open I know that my remaining local libraries have a lot to offer. It’s important we spread the word before these valuable resources are lost forever. For Warrington there is also the irony that this was its Central Library was the first rate-supported library in the UK, revolutionary in Victorian times. One more reason for no more cuts here please!

Patrick Ness, Carnegie 2011 winner, ‘We need to shout even louder for the young readers’

Every year CILIP presents the Carnegie Medal to the writer of an outstanding children’s book. Earlier this month it was awarded to Patrick Ness for “Monsters of Men”, the final book in his Chaos Walking trilogy.

In his acceptance speech he talked about how libraries impacted on his life as he grew up; how they continue to have a positive impact on children today; and he voiced his concerns about the Government’s attitude towards libraries, particularly in relation to the current round of cuts and closures.

Here are some of the highlights from his speech.

I was a hugely unchaperoned reader, and I would wander into my local public library and there sat the world, waiting for me to look at it, to find out about it, to discover who I might be inside it.”

“I owe most of the breadth of my reading to libraries, and particularly to librarians who seemed to know exactly when to recommend and when to look the other way when an eager young reader possibly over-reached.”

“There’s so much proscription in the life of young people, and it’s so vital to have a place that says, look, here are the doors onto the world and amazingly, you’re free to choose any one you like.”

“Knowledge and information – and by which I do very much include the internet – is a forest.  And true, sometimes it’s fun getting lost, sometimes that’s how you learn some surprising things.  But how much more can you discover when someone can point you in the right direction, when someone can maybe give you a map.  When someone can maybe even give you a treasure map, to places you may not have even thought you were allowed to go.  This is what librarians do.”

“We need to shout even louder for the young readers that are threatened by a government which tries to pretend that cutting libraries means they’re not actually cutting libraries, which tries to win votes by claiming that the fact that children should read more books is somehow going to be solved by giving them drastically fewer places to do so.” 

“Now, I do know that ultimately this is only a book award, but for me it’s more than that.  It’s a celebration of all those brilliant young people who – in the face of everything – still find joy in a book.  Still find the world waiting for them in a book.  Still see possible futures and lives and loves and opportunities and hopes and dreams in a book.”

If you’d like to find out more about Patrick Ness and his books his website can be found here.

Common Knowledge

Sibyl Ruth is a freelance writer based in Birmingham.  She recently wrote ‘Bodies in the Library,’ an audio drama about John Madin’s Central Library.

My local library currently displays signs saying, ‘Knowledge is King’. But last winter there were different placards on display. They hung from metal barriers and read, ‘Danger! Keep Out!’  The hundred year old skylights in the roof were at risk of falling in.

Kings Heath Library is a listed building.  English Heritage describes it as having ‘an accomplished Baroque facade’ and giving ‘a powerful impression of classical learning.’  It also contains ‘a series of internal spaces which are well handled.’

Unfortunately Birmingham, a city whose motto is ‘Forward’, has a mixed record when it comes to historic buildings. Some places remain shut for years, deteriorating further. Happily, £75,000 was found to pay for the installation of permanent internal scaffolding at Kings Heath.  After a mere three months the library reopened.

But those ‘well-handled internal spaces’ now look decidedly unattractive. Effectively the ceiling’s been lowered, making the library appear dark.  Boxed-in pillars of metalwork diminish the available floor space.

Potential users could be put it off.  Regulars are less likely to linger.  However it would cost £300,000 to replace skylights fully with exact replicas.  And the Council does not have the funding ‘at this stage.’

The library continues to be well used by community groups.  But the building doesn’t open on Wednesdays any more.  And the range of books is not what it used to be. (£200,000 has been cut from the city’s £1.3 million books fund.)

Though a citywide Library Services Review was announced back in September, nobody knows when the findings will get shared.  Meanwhile the Council’s Cabinet Member for Leisure suggests there doesn’t need ‘to be a librarian to open and close libraries each day.’

If you depend on the national press, you might think Birmingham was a great place for libraries.  Won’t we get our new £193 million Library of Birmingham soon?  Some of us though, would prefer to keep the existing Central Library.  Back in the 1960s its architect, John Madin, was aware that new technology would alter how we access information.  His design took into account that library services would evolve.    Madin gave Birmingham an iconic Modernist building that was the finest provincial library in Europe.

During an economic boom, perhaps there was some excuse for bulldozing a masterpiece.  Like the belief that the concrete of Madin’s library was starting to crumble.  A prime site at the heart of the city could be sold, a new library put up elsewhere, and (almost) everyone would profit.

But as the recession started to bite, enthusiasm waned.  The words ‘vanity project’ were muttered.  Other suspicions took hold.  Whenever the new Library of Birmingham got discussed, it was in terms of providing leisure activities. Shouldn’t there be a few mentions of reading? And study?

When people are not ‘on message’, publicity can be brought in.  Rather than relying on its in-house marketing team, Birmingham City Council has hired external consultants to sell its pet project. There are promotional events, glossy videos, Community Engagement Officers. All labouring to convince us the new Library is a Good Thing.

The PR posse aren’t quite so helpful if we persist in asking the ‘wrong’ questions. Awkward journalists and campaigners have been forced to use Freedom of Information legislation to get at facts.  (Yes, that launch for the London media cost £135,000.  No, Central Library doesn’t have ‘concrete cancer’. It’s perfectly sound.)

Another method of persuasion is to let Central Library run down. Then we’ll be sure to welcome change.  This could explain why, in the Lending library so many self-service machines are now out of order.  Shelves are half-empty, though the area’s cluttered with stands.  Lots of the books are tatty.  And it’s a red letter day if all of the escalators function.

Central Library also has four Reference floors.  They have what – in the 60s and 70s – was an innovative open plan, which allows for the fact that study is often an interdisciplinary affair.   Some of the most frequent users of the Reference library are historians.  They base themselves in the sixth floor Archives section, but changes to the service anywhere else impact on them.  Buildings historian Andy Foster was dismayed when individual subject desks (Science and Technology, Arts etc.) were removed. The librarians who staffed them gave him significant help when he wrote the Pevsner guide to Birmingham. ‘Now,’ he says. ‘All that expertise has gone.’

There’s been a further body blow to Reference users – not that you’d know that from glancing at the Council’s website. This boasts, ‘We’ve found a way to keep the Central Library OPEN.’  Only when you reach the small print does it mention, ‘The top three floors of the library will close to the public so that we can prepare the stock for the move.’

Some might think two years is a generous time allocation.  Last time Birmingham moved main libraries, the job got done in a few months. Yet though the closures don’t officially start till July, some holdings are already being put into store.

You might assume such a long period of ‘stock preparing’ would guarantee the careful transportation of each item. Sadly there are echoes of a different kind of transport.  One user confides, ‘Books are being sold. We don’t know what and how many: we just know it’s happening.’

People wanting the Archives have been warned of ‘a limited service’.  Again detailed information is scarce.  But researchers fear their work will become impossible.  Andy Foster explains, ‘The latest rumour is that you will have to make an appointment to visit and pre-order everything you want. This is disastrous for me… I’m trying to attribute buildings and often need many building plans for a short period of time each.’

It’s not just the specialists who will suffer.  Central Library is one of the busiest libraries in England.  Sometimes every seat in the Reference floors is taken.  But the tower blocks of nearby Ladywood are more crowded still. Few young people there have a quiet place at home in which to prepare for exams. The Reference library has offered them a lifeline. How will their futures be affected, when four floors of study space are reduced to one?

Knowledge could be King. Libraries should be places where information is for sharing.  Only I keep thinking about those metal barriers. The ‘Keep Out’ signs. Maybe our civic leaders are in the know.  We are being kept in the dark…



Make a Noise in Libraries Fortnight – 6 to 19 June 2011

Reach out to blind and partially sighted people in your community by
joining RNIB’s Make a Noise in Libraries Fortnight (MANIL). This year
marks the 10th anniversary of the campaign, which runs to 19 June 2011

Hundreds of libraries take part each year to highlight the services they
provide for people with sight loss and to promote the importance of
accessible books and information.

It’s not too late for libraries to get involved by holding an event
or organising a display of audio and large print books.

And readers like it too – “I am so glad that my library organised
their MANIL event”, says Heather Watson from Inverurie, Aberdeenshire.
“I can honestly say it has made a huge difference to me. I had given up
trying to read books with my younger son and missed this time with him
dearly but I can once again enjoy doing this. I also now receive the
local paper in audio format, am a member of the local book club, have a
better idea of the titles available and how to order audio books and
lastly the confidence to ask for help if I need it.”

For free resources, activity ideas and lists of events visit

National Libraries Day

A national day to celebrate libraries has been launched and Voices for the Library are proud to support it. National Libraries Day will take place in early February 2012. It will be the finale to a week of events that will celebrate libraries and librarians, and highlight the importance of reading.

Children’s author and libraries campaigner Alan Gibbons announced the launch:

“We are delighted to launch National Libraries Day, a week of events in early February leading to a day of celebration of reading, libraries and librarians around the United Kingdom. A reading child is a successful child. A child who goes to the library is twice as likely to be a good reader and that child becomes a literate adult, a lifelong reader. There are 320 million visits a year to our libraries but we can make them even more popular.”

“We see National Libraries Day as a positive day of celebration to promote the whole culture of reading for pleasure, information and engagement whether you read your traditional books or on your laptop or e-reader. It is time to make reading a universal culture. We want people to go to their local school or public library and use their School Library Service. Use it. Join it. Love it.”

A group of leading literacy, reading, library and education organisations, including Voices for the Library, met at the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals and agreed to support the day. Planning is at an early stage but National Libraries Day activities will include encouraging people to join and use their library, and providing promotional materials and support so local communities can run events such as read-ins, poetry sessions and parties across the country. It is hoped that all sorts of libraries across the country will get involved including public libraries, in schools, colleges and Universities.

“National Libraries Day follows the tremendously successful Save Our Libraries Day, which took place on the 5th February.” said Annie Mauger, CILIP’s Chief Executive, “Save Our Libraries Day was successful because individuals and communities that deeply care about their libraries got out there and made a noise. People love libraries; National Libraries Day will be an amazing opportunity to show how deeply they care.”

Libraries and the Big Society: round-table discussions revealed

Earlier this year, on 25th January, the DCMS held a round-table discussion on Libraries and the Big Society, chaired by Ed Vaizey.  After a series of Freedom of Information requests, we can now reveal what was discussed. The following is the text as supplied by DCMS in response to our FoI requests:

Note of Libraries Roundtable

Ed Vaizey opened the discussion by setting out his view of the current state of the sector in relation to local authority budget cuts, the requirement for radical innovation in service delivery including through enacting Big Society principles. Lord Wei then set out some background on the Big Society policy, and the support being offered to people to take greater control, and to shift and share resources to create services which better fit the needs of each community. He said that he is keen to promote diversification in the use of community assets (including buildings), and raised the need for intermediaries to help to distribute resources form the Big Society Bank.

Jim Brooks spoke about his experiences of running a community library. He said that until recently the Council had not provided adequate support to the community in taking over the library, and that where an asset is devolved councils need also to make resources available and share knowledge about what is involved. He said that the additional work and process involved in running a “library business” was prohibitive, and noted that their council had charged them a £1k per annum management fee to be able to seek advice from them, [section redacted] . They have invested heavily in the bookstock and use the library for a broad range of events and activities, delivering an increase of 25% in footfall and 20% in issues. He said that they charged for fewer services than the authority libraries, as they found that this increased their revenue through donations, and noted that in his view the model would only work in affluent areas. He noted that he had been contacted by people from a broad range of areas saying that their authority had said that their local library either had to be taken over by the community or would close.

Cath Anley noted SCL work to improvement in the use of volunteers across the country, breaking this down into the involving model (where volunteers add value to the core service) and the devolving model (where groups take over the service). Other attendees spoke about experiences or plans in their local areas, including libraries being retained but becoming local government contact points; proposals around use of volunteers; shared spaces with Post Offices, supermarkets and children’s centres.

Further concerns were raised about communities in disadvantaged areas losing out through lack of a voice or lack of awareness about the value of the service, and also about councillors’ failure to recognise the value of the reader development work undertaken by library staff. Yinnon Ezra suggested that capacity building resources from parent authorities could enable disadvantaged communities to take forward ownership of an asset, and Miranda flagged TRA’s Lottery grant to support reader development work in 20 disadvantaged communities to improve literacy.

Lord Wei said that there is a push and pull dynamic with communities, outlined some of the legal and policy steps being taken to encourage change, and asked what else could be done to help, particularly before these new powers are enacted. There were suggestions for BIG funding for capacity building among communities; for a public service scheme for the unemployed which could include libraries; and for support in joining up policy between Ministers. On the latter point, Lord Wei suggested taking the topic to a Cabinet Office ministerial group.

Ed Vaizey said that he wanted to provide guidance to Authorities and community groups, using agencies to help people build on others’ experiences and to encourage LAs to have an enabling attitude. AnnemarieNaylor said that the ATU want to facilitate the sharing of material across the library network, and to develop a single portal for processing the growing number of requests they have for information. Roy Clare noted that while more proposals for closures are likely to follow the May elections.

Action points:

  • DCMS to discuss development of guidance with MLA and ATU (Action: Junior Official already progressed and linked up to discussions with Oliver Letwin)
  • DCMS to approach BIG (Action: Junior Official, can you discuss with Junior Official the best way to open discussions with BIG, drawing in EV as appropriate)
  • DCMS to contact Lord Wei’s office to follow up idea for Ministerial discussion (Action: Private Office to follow up)

List of Attendees

Lord Wei, Government’s Big Society Adviser

Annemarie Naylor, Head of Assets at the Development Trusts Association which delivers the CLG funded Asset Transfer Unit

Christine May, Head of Libraries, Archives and Information Services in Cambridgeshire

Jim Brooks,  Chairman – Friends of Little Chalfont Library

Cath Anley.  Head of Libraries & Archives, Kent

Alison Baxter,  Oxfordshire Community and Voluntary Action

Terry Ryall,  Chief Executive, V – the national young volunteers’ service

Yinnon Ezra, Hampshire Director of Culture, Communities and Rural Affairs

Miranda McKearney, Chief Executive, The Reading Agency

Cllr Liam Maxwell,  Windsor & Maidenhead – a Big Society Pilot Authority

Roy Clare,  Chief Executive, MLA

Richard Mollett, CEO, Publishers’ Association

Antonia Byatt, ACE


In the accompanying e-mail, the DCMS observed that, ‘we have redacted part of a sentence in paragraph 2 in accordance with section 35 of the Freedom of Information Act (Formulation of Government Policy), because Mr Brooks felt it to be incorrect, and misrepresenting his views on the matter could impede this policy development’.


Moving and shaking

Lauren Smith

Voices for the Library are thrilled to find out that Lauren Smith, founder member of the Voices team, mainstay of the Save Doncaster Libraries campaign, and much more besides, has been nominated by the US Library Journal as one of their movers and shakers of 2011. LJ’s Movers & Shakers award spotlights librarians and others in the library field who do extraordinary work to serve users and to move libraries of all types and library services forward. Lauren has been named in the category for advocates.

Congratulations, Lauren, from your team mates. It’s richly deserved.

Tuesday: libraries debated at Westminster Hall and at a Big Society round-table

Tomorrow sees public libraries back in the spotlight with two events taking place at Westminster.

At 9.30 Lisa Nandy’s adjournment debate on the future of libraries is taking place in Westminster Hall. This is a public debate so if you’re in the area why not go along? You can also watch it live. For those who can’t make it we are hoping to pick up tweets from inside the hall. Details will be announced via @UKpling.

The other event will not be open to the public and will be taking place in a private room – close by Westminster Hall – with Ed Vaizey in the chair. DCMS are expected to announce the event tomorrow morning. This will be a one and a half hour discussion, starting at 4pm, on “Libraries and the Big Society”.  Areas for discussion include:

·         Models for community libraries

·         Volunteering

·         Asset transfer

·         Philanthropy

·         Libraries role in empowering communities

·         Alternative suppliers for delivery including Mutuals and Outsourcing

·         Future Libraries Programme

Sadly there will be no tweets from this event although we are hopeful of obtaining some feedback from the discussions. From the above list one might reasonably surmise that the subject of volunteer-managed libraries is uppermost in Mr Vaizey’s mind.

It’s good to see that Mr Vaizey still maintains some interest in the future of a service that up to now he has insisted is the sole responsibility of local authorities to maintain. Sadly there seems very little on this agenda to suggest that he recognises the intrinsic value of libraries to their communities, only in reducing their cost to the exchequer.