Crime fiction writer Judith Cutler wrote to tell us why libraries were so important to her when she was younger and how the “educational spirit” still remains in her childhood library, even though other things may have changed there.
When I was a child (some 60 years ago!) I was so sickly I didn’t go to school till I was ten. My mother educated me at home, but even she had limitations. So the local library – Bleakhouse Library, still alive and kicking in Sandwell – became my school. In those days the building was guarded by dragons lurking behind a very high counter. Children had to reach up to put their hands on it so the librarian could inspect them for cleanliness. Then you were admitted to the children’s room -serried ranks for books, just like the adult library. If you borrowed a volume of fiction, you were required to borrow a non-fiction book too.
The following week, the librarian would question you to make sure you’d read them. Eventually I had literally read everything in the junior section, so I was allowed to read certain books from the adult library – carefully checked to ensure there was neither sex nor violence. Hence I ended up reading all the books from the Golden Age of crime writing.
Recently I was asked back to do a talk. The intimidating front desk had disappeared (sold to the USA, apparently!), and much of the library interior had changed. But the educational spirit of the previous librarians had a new incarnation. Their wonderful successors had introduced all sorts of clubs, from art and IT for pensioners, to Saturday morning games sessions for ASBO kids they’d had to exclude from normal after school clubs. The place buzzed. It should have won prizes. The staff should have been given bonuses and promotions. Instead, the librarian who had made all these wonderful additions to what people like Jeremy Hunt might construe to be the daily business of stamping books had been made… redundant.
When I was doing an external course at Kings College, University of London in 2000, the only way to receive a confidential preview of the 1st yr exam was by fax from Kings to Cambridge Central library, and this was sent to my local library. They then emailed me to say I could collect it and read it. The real exam would be in London the following week.
This was a public service for me. I also had the chance to order COPAC items online, borrowed for free, in my local library.
This is an essential service for rural adult students.
Birmingham Libraries recently appointed ambassadors for their new library. They are a group of local people with interesting stories about how libraries have inflenced and in some cases shaped their lives. Here are their stories.
Andrew Keen’s lifelong passion for libraries and learning began as a child in 1957 whilst watching the Oscar Wilde inspired movie, ‘The Canterville Ghost’. Upon seeing the wood-panelled library featured in the film, Andrew remarked that he wished he had a library – to which his father replied ‘You’ve got one!’ Shortly afterwards, father and son visited Ward End Library for the first time and Andrew, now 60, has been a regular library user ever since.
A keen reader, getting through at least two books a week, Andrew rarely buys books and instead obtains all of his reading materials from lending libraries. As well as reading for pleasure, Andrew has also used the library throughout his life to study various subjects, including his two degrees in Psychology and Exercise Physiology – and even to become a master of Karate!
With The Library of Birmingham and the Birmingham Repertory theatre set to be physically connected in 2013, it’s fitting that one of the most remarkable stories of Andrew’s library journey.
Andrew has been with his wife Linda since 1967, when, as a sixteen year old, he spent two weeks’ wages on their first date at the original Repertory Theatre on Station Street, during which Andrew proposed. Unfortunately, after spending so much on the date, Andrew had no money remaining with which to buy a copy of the programme for the production of Hans, The Witch and The Gobbin, leaving the couple without a cherished memento of their first date.
That was until many years later when the couple, both avid theatregoers, learned of The REP’s archived materials housed in Central Library’s archive and heritage collections – and finally obtained their copy of the elusive programme.
The REP, of course, has long since moved to Centenary Square, and will be joined by the Library of Birmingham, the new home of the archive collections in 2013. On the forthcoming union of the two organisations, Andrew said: “We’ve seen the plans, so to see the building when it’s completed will be exciting. We’re regular visitors to The REP, so it will be great to see it linked to the new Library.”
Iain McColl was homeless when, upon seeing a poster advertising the Business Action on Homelessness scheme whilst staying in a hostel, he began to turn his life around. Iain has now secured a job on the Library of Birmingham construction site and, significantly, a home of his own.
Continuing its commitment to people even during the construction stage, the Library of Birmingham, via construction partners Carillion, has teamed up with BAOH, a scheme run by Business in the Community, to provide new job creation opportunities in the run-up to the project’s completion in 2013.
Having come through the programme, which included a two day induction and two week voluntary placement, Iain, who was homeless for two years, impressed enough to receive a job offer to remain on site, an opportunity which has allowed him to start rebuilding his life.
Now working as an Assistant Engineer for sub-contractors Morrisroe, Iain is benefiting from the opportunity to study for NVQs, and the possibility of becoming an engineer in his own right, improving his future career prospects.
It’s somewhat appropriate that Iain is working on the building of the Library of Birmingham, as he is in fact an avid library user himself.
Iain said: “So far the library has helped me to get online, find employment find accommodation and update my CV.”
The native of Falkirk, Scotland is also now using the library to help further his own creative endeavours. A keen reader of philosophy and poetry, Iain is looking to publish his own collection of poetry, and is using the library’s Business Insight department to get help in doing so. Who knows, maybe Iain’s books could one day adorn the shelves of the Library he helped to build!
Carol Pemberton started her library journey as a child to develop her lifelong love of reading. As one of ten children, Carol’s books often came from jumble sales meaning there would often be pages missing, affecting her enjoyment of the stories. Therefore, Carol’s library usage as a child gave her a chance to not only read books in their entirety, but to enjoy some peace and quiet!
Later in life Carol diversified her usage of the library to indulge in her passion for music, and often used the music library to listen to rare LPs of key singers she was influenced by.
23 years ago, Carol founded Black Voices, a vocal harmony group which draws on the oral tradition of Africa, exploring themes of black history. This has frequently led Carol into Birmingham Libraries’ archive and heritage department, with the comprehensive collections related to black history, including local information to help chart her parents’ generation, helping Carol to shape and inspire Black Voices’ programmes.
Carol’s work with Black Voices takes her to various venues across the country, and she said of the Library of Birmingham: “I’ve performed at many libraries around the country doing workshops with Black Voices. What I’m looking forward to most about the Library of Birmingham is the performance space, which I think will be a great attraction. It’s an exciting design.”
A passionate reader, Ellise is a member of five libraries, and is keen to visit the local library wherever she goes. Ellise visits a library at least twice a week and, at the age of 11, is starting to explore beyond the realms of children’s literature with classic literature such as Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre.
Ellise will be a teenager when the Library opens its doors in 2013, and therefore is particularly excited about the new areas in the library for Young People which will provide an ideal location for teenagers to study, meet and socialise.
She said: “I’m excited about the new library as it will be bigger, and it will have all sorts of different stages from childrens, to teenagers and adults, and I’ll be going through all of them.”
On why young people should explore what their libraries have to offer, she continued: “You can get loads more out of books than you can from TVs and Playstations. But there’s more things to the library than books, there’s interactive activities, computers, DVDs, CDs, and loads more too.”
Jayn first used Central Library in Birmingham whilst studying in 6th form as a venue to meet friends for study. At the age of 18, Jayn left the city to pursue a career as a dancer, before embarking on a career in performance and teaching.
However, throughout her life, Jayn has maintained an interest in history which manifested itself when she visited the village of Abbots Bromley and discovered the Abbots Bromley horn dance, a yearly ritual in which residents take to the streets to perform dances whilst brandishing antlers kept in the village church.
Intrigued by the origins of the peculiar tradition, Jayn set out to research the dance and found herself back in Birmingham Central Library once again where she was amazed at the information she was able to find.
Upon unravelling the stories behind the ritual, Jayn was inspired to write her first novel, ‘Emily & Jen Dance for Deeron’ – with the story even featuring ‘The History of the Antiquities of Staffordshire’, the book used by Jayn to research the novel.
Jayn has now moved to the Midlands, and drawing on her joint passions for Dance, History and Literature, has already delivered exciting interactive workshops to visitors of the children’s library.
On her experience of researching her first novel in the Library, Jayn said: “Heritage can be used as a stimulus. It’s not just something in history books, it’s something we can use creatively to make something modern.” With much improved access to the archive and heritage collections in the Library of Birmingham, doing just that will be easier than ever in 2013.
A passionate advocate of everything artistic, Andre Hesson is involved in various creative forms from performance poetry and spoken word expression through his own ‘Artistic Souls’ open mic night, to painting, photography and even performing in productions by Birmingham Opera Company.
Through his various creative endeavours, Andre, 22, is no stranger to libraries and is a keen advocate of their ability to enhance lives and encourage learning. It’s a philosophy his is keen to impose on his one-year-old daughter Imarni, whom he has already introduced to the library.
He says: “I believe it’s important to bring children into the library at an early age because they learn so much. I want to teach Imarni as much as I can before she goes into education so she will have a head start, and so that I can help her more when she’s at home.”
Fatherhood is obviously a subject close to Andre’s heart, and he’s keen to encourage other fathers to play a full role in the development of their children. He said: “Sometimes fathers don’t engage, but at a younger age you can do more stuff like art, painting and reading. I don’t want to be one of those dads who’s working all the time and missing school plays and things like that.”
Passionate about all things creative, Andre lives by the slogan “We’re artistic, life’s poetic, we all have souls so don’t neglect it”, and it’s that philosophy that he aims to instil in Imarni as she begins her Library of Birmingham journey.
By closing libraries you are helping to keep the rich richer and the poor poorer! Sounds extreme but hear me out.
When I was at school my mother as hard as she worked could not always afford all the books I needed so I used to get them out of my local library so did a lot of other people I know. From the age of 11 to 22 the library was fundamental to me getting the information needed to get through my education. An the same for a lot of poorer families.
I currently use the library for dvd rental the internet and the toddler sing-along groups for my 20 month old daughter. I can not afford the internet and quite frankly do not want to be forced to having it in my house so the library is where my daughter will be going to do her homework so all the resources she needs will be at her fingertips giving her a better chance of better grades and a better future! And they want to take that away?
As a primary school teacher who works in a smaller than average village school
nestled within the Wye Valley, I am concerned about the current state and potential
future of libraries. I am particularly worried about the services offered to all young
people, who are expected to make continued progress, academically, year after year
in order to meet educational demands placed upon teachers. I worry that if library
cuts cause the closure of services that are currently offered to schools, the children we
teach will suffer both socially and academically.
The whole experience of a library and actually going into one is something very
special in itself. The notion that you can find something that interests you as an
individual gives you responsibility and allows you to make your own decisions. This
skill is something that is essential to all success – the ability to chose something
and follows your own intuition. I still remember, some 20 years ago now, my first
school visit to the local library. I loved it, the possibilities and potential to learn about
anything. This definitely motivated me to read and want to learn because I was able to
read what I wanted. The visit to the library essentially took me away from the regular
books within my class and gave me a thirst for reading. This is something that I see
now within the children I teach.
I teach an infant class of mixed ages who always get excited and look forward with
great energy to the day that the school library van makes its visit to our tiny village. It
is particularly important to our school, and many other small schools, because we do
not have a school library. Thus making it impossible for children to appreciate what
a library is actually like. My children really enjoy going onto the library van and read
new books that are not stale because they have been in our school for a while due to
spending restrictions that have already been forced upon us. I think their motivation to
read stems from the complete ownership they have for what they chose to take from
the library van. This is so important to education and can help those reluctant first
readers discover a love for reading.
If we lose services such as these, we may well dwindle the potential excitement that
can be instilled in children just by choosing a book from a library van. In addition,
due to the locality of my school we are logistically unable to visit a library. In fact the
nearest library is some 10 miles away, which makes the mobile library services our
only viable option.
I have however been discussing with colleagues from another local small school
about the possibility of visiting our nearest county library. I am worried that if people
sit back and do not use the services they will be reduced, which makes me quite sad
because everyone would be missing out on so much. If there were no local libraries to
visit within our Forest locality or no library vans to visit our remote location it would
significantly affect the learning that I can create.
In sum, the library services offer an invaluable selection of resources, which if used
correctly allow children to prosper in school and enjoy the subjects they are taught
and the books they read. This is especially true for the blue topic boxes, which I
continually order from the schools library service in order to add more excitement to
a given topic. If these materials were unavailable it would make me and the children
I teach very sad. How can we as teachers be expected to raise standards in children if
the standard of resources that we can offer them is significantly reduced?
Award-winning author Hari Kunzru shares what libraries mean to him:
I remember my first library card. I remember the excitement of the trips to the library, of choosing the four books I’d take back home. The habit of exploration has stayed with me. It was founded on the confidence that all those books on all those shelves belonged to me, were mine for the taking. If I was interested enough in any object in this large room, the librarian would stamp it and I would carry it out. That sense of entitlement was the foundation of everything I’ve done since in my life. I felt knowledge belonged to me (at least potentially), and have carried on exploring libraries ever since. I’m now a professional writer, and have access to great research libraries and archives, as well as the money to buy books. It’s a long time since I’ve borrowed a book from a local library. But I know that a public library is not the same as a book shop. It’s also not the same as the internet. The child choosing a book that, for a short time, will belong to him, is learning that knowledge is his, if he wants it. He’s learning that it’s a right. Libraries set people free. They’re not a luxury. They’re not a relic. We must fight to save them.
Today’s guest blog comes from Rónán O’Beirne, Director of Libraries, Learning and Research at Bradford College. His book From Lending to Learning- the development and extension of public libraries (November 2010) makes the case for public libraries to extend their remit beyond lending books to embrace informal learning, information literacy and digital citizenship.
My local library, Keighley in West Yorkshire, was, in 1904, the first Carnegie library to be built in England; imagine the excitement! A local champion of adult education, Swire Smith, received the offer from Carnegie and immediately put pen to paper to urge his Mayor to accept the offer. This is what he wrote, on 8th August 1899:
I cannot express to you the delight which I feel in handing you the enclosed letter from my friend Mr Andrew Carnegie, which he has authorised me to submit to you.
No nobler gift has ever been offered to Keighley; for a Free Library is the one great thing needed, and so long desired, to complete the educational equipment of our growing town. And when we consider that this magnificent offer has come unsolicited, and that we have no claims on Mr Carnegie’s generosity, I am sure that you and the Town Council, as representing the people of Keighley, will accept it with unbounded enthusiasm, and with gratitude only equalled by the kindness of heart that has prompted Mr Carnegie to confer such a blessing upon our town.
Believe me, Dear Mr Mayor,
When a country’s public libraries are threatened with closure in order to pay for the excesses of the moneylenders a fundamental shift in the values of that society are exposed for all to see. The motives of greed and profit have eclipsed the principles of education, access to information and social justice upon which the public library was founded.
The urgent debate about public libraries should not just concern itself with the cost-effectiveness of lending books or of keeping dilapidated buildings open. No, it is of far greater importance. It cuts to the core choice for the people of this democracy; whether they want a society based on individuals as consumers or whether the social glue of community and culture, supported by a network of libraries, offers a brighter future.
Much of this debate so far has centred on book lending. I believe that public libraries have a more fundamental role to play, and that is to support informal learning. The twenty years I spent working in public libraries, in different departments and at all levels, provided me with valuable insight. As a library assistant I shared young people’s thirst for knowledge, and witnessed new families joining their local library, full of excitement. I saw children sitting still, enthralled by a storyteller. I saw at first hand the light in the eyes of the old or lonely whose trip to the library was a social lifeline; the unemployed embarking on learning new skills and finding direction; redundant workers rebuilding their lives; the retired making new beginnings, embarking on a new hobby, and of course all of those learners, so many, chasing their goals, immersing themselves in the vast body of knowledge represented by the public library.
At a senior leadership level I witnessed the pettiness of local politics, of bureaucrats unable to take decisions, the utter lack of direction given locally by elected members and the frustrating paucity of ideas in national policy.
On reflection, I have come to the conclusion that public libraries fulfil the role of learning support agencies by providing space, materials and dedicated staff for the individual to explore and to learn. In particular, libraries’ support and advocacy for informal learning, which can be deeply personal, goes far beyond what is acknowledged by funding regimes.
One of my favourite quotations, and one I have used many times in presentations to library staff, illustrates the essence of informal learning that takes place in libraries up and down the country on a daily basis:
“I can sit there and it’s like a wonderful bag of goodies. I’m trying to read all the old Derbyshire newspapers from 1785, and it’s superb – I know things the experts don’t! When you’re studying for qualifications you go in straight lines – now I wander.”
(Chesterfield library user) 2
This ‘learning’ dimension of the public library is too often understated by campaigners, and yet when the case against closures of libraries on the Wirral was made successfully, just over a year ago, the main thrust of the argument did not rest on book lending statistics but rather on the support those eleven threatened libraries provided for learners; schoolchildren, workers and the unemployed.
Part of the tragedy for the public library lies in the almost obsessive ‘managerialism’ which has in recent decades sought to reduce the complexities of a highly-valued community service to the miserly economics of a market stall. Despite the sheen of marketing, or the apparently highly innovative introduction of coffee shops, the point about libraries is that they are the focus within their communities. For those who have ‘measured out their libraries in coffee spoons’, all of their so called ‘knowledge has just brought us closer to ignorance’.
Recently I wrote that libraries should not be in decline but should in fact be the learning engines of our society; fuelled by the information explosion, tended by the information professional and stoked by an aggressive agenda of social inclusion and citizenship to bridge the digital divide.
To this agenda I would also add information literacy. Speaking in 2009, President Barak Obama said:
“In addition to the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic, it is equally important that our students are given the tools required to take advantage of the information available to them. The ability to seek, find, and decipher information can be applied to countless life decisions, whether financial, medical, educational, or technical.”3
The abilities to which President Obama refers form the basis of information literacy. There is a job here for public libraries, to embrace the challenge of empowering all citizens to become information literate and to provide them with the tools and skills through which we can ensure a more equitable society.
The battles fought in every neighbourhood to save libraries are clearly not simply about saving books or subsidising the reading habits of the middle classes. They represent the heart-felt cries of ordinary people fighting for their right to information, learning and culture. Nor can the closure of public libraries just be seen as a threat to reading, for it represents ultimately a threat to one of the few remaining assets of a neighbourhood, part of the ripping asunder of the fragile fabric of so many communities. Ultimately, and more ominously, it symbolises an attack on the freedom of individuals.
1. Letter from Swire Smith from the Keighley Library archive available from the K100 website http://www.bradlibs.com/k100/about/index.htm accessed 14 Jan 2011
2. Proctor, R. and Bartle, C. (2002) ‘Low achievers: lifelong learners: an investigation into the impact of the public library on educational disadvantage’, Library and Information Commission Research Report 117, CEPLIS, Sheffield.
3. Obama, B. (2009) ‘National Information Literacy Awareness Month – a proclamation’, The White House; available at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/presidential-proclamation-national-information-literacy-awareness-month accessed 14 Jan 2011
Guest bloggers are not affiliated with VftL, and all views and opinions are their own.
When my husband died my children were 6 and 15. I needed books other than “Badger’s parting gift”(!!!) (if you don’t know, this is about an old badger dying and handing on his gifts to other younger animals in the wood and for some reason people think this is a good story for a bereaved child) as my husband was in his mid 40s. The children’s librarian found about a dozen books for me and for my children at the big book store and they were so very very useful…. meant that the children could read about other children who had lost a parent when they were young. It made a huge difference to us. People think libraries are just about going to borrow books, but there’s a great service there.
I wish there was more I could do (regarding the proposed closure of Summertown library) – we are great library users in our house – my son (now 27) is sure my late husband still haunts the Summertown library – especially near the CD racks…..
I can remember being taken to the library by my mother at least once a week when I was small and we took our children to the library every Saturday. Even now my daughter and I go to the library together most Saturdays. It’ll be a huge gap in our lives if the library is closed. I work full time and I just don’t have time to take 2 hours out of my weekend to get to the city library every week (which is what a round trip would mean).
All that talk from Mr Cameron about measuring happiness – happiness IS a book from the library!
I have been a member of a public library continuously since before I started school (in fact the old Kingsbury Library now replaced). When I move house joining the library is the first thing I do once the electricity and gas are connected and the furniture in. As one of a large family with parents unable to give me a lot of attention, the library was in a sense my home educator, and librarians actually quite important in encouraging me to widen my reading tastes. Without a library I think I would have not progressed much educationally. Besides, I like this special atmosphere when you walk along unique antique seating rows and bookshelves. You feel calm and secure having all this amount of knowledge around you.
Currently I see queues of young and older people outside the Town Hall Library, waiting for it to open, not all just to keep warm but somewhere they can advance their education. Library staff could probably tell you that young children use local libraries after school as a place to do their homework, but also an unofficial safe place to be picked up by their parents when they finish work.
A lot of the youngsters on the Chalkhill Estate use the library, encouraged by the school and by class visits, and there is also a high usage of the internet there, for learning but also for job seeking. This is essential if we are to tackle the gap between those who have access and those who do not. They are fortunate in being near a library not down for closure – although it will be less accessible when it is moved to the new Civic Centre.
However youngster who currently use Barham Park, Cricklewood, Neasden, Tokyngton, Kensal Rise and Preston libraries, all down for closure, will be less fortunate. The proposal for the remaining six libraries to be ‘community hubs’ with other council services located there does not replace the local accessibility of these small libraries.
Brent libraries are also the source of much cultural input including Black History Months events and other activities that bring a diverse community together including language and nationalist test classes. The Town Hall library is currently running a reading club for primary school children and others have homework clubs for children without access to
books or computers at home. As the recession bites this will become even more important.
As Greens local libraries are important to because we believe in easily accessible community resources which do not involve car trips. A local library is a place where children of 10 and over can easily walk to on their own rather than rely on lifts from parents – this encourages one area of independence in a period where children are more and more dependent on adults with few opportunities for independent activity.
Libraries even save paper, and therefore trees, through multiple lending of one book rather than individual purchases of many books – and the authors get a steady source of income, albeit it small, from public lending rights.
Brent Green Party spokesperson on Children and Families and school governor