Libraries gave us power…

The children’s laureate Chris Riddell – aided and abetted by eight other children’s authors including the former laureates Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson and Quentin Blake – has called upon the education secretary, Justine Greening, to help preserve school libraries.

Riddell argues – in an open letter to Greening – that many school libraries lack sufficient investment and need funding by a central government grant in order to protect them from cuts.

In response, Greening has insisted that it is for headteachers not the government to decide how schools spend their budgets.

Riddell, however, is not satisfied with this.  He knows that school budgets are squeezed and funding libraries is not a priority for some.  He says, ” I have seen personally, in my school visits up and down the country, how [libraries] promote reading for pleasure and in doing so, turn pupils into avid readers. I am deeply concerned that this role is not fully appreciated and, worse, is being undermined through lack of economic and intellectual investment.”

He goes on to say that “in recent months two major school library services [have] closed in Dorset and Berkshire, and year after year the School Library Association loses members as school library provision shrinks through lack of funding.”

Riddell and his co-signatories are calling on the Department for Education to take action in response to an all-party group’s request to set out clear standards of library provision and put in place the necessary funding.

This way, Riddell says, every school will have a library service it can be proud of, with books to borrow and, wherever possible, a school librarian to help children choose.


The house of knowledge…

I delivered training at a Muslim girls’ school recently which referred to its library as ‘the place of knowledge’.  Many Islamic countries call their libraries  ‘dar al-’ilm’ which translates as ‘the house of knowledge’.

Public libraries – or ‘houses of knowledge’ – started to appear in major Islamic cities around the world in circa the ninth century.  They were intended to promote the dissemination of secular knowledge.

Islamic libraries are thought to have been the first to have implemented a catalogue of owned materials. In other words, the content of a bookshelf was recorded on paper and attached to the end of each shelf, and books were organised by name or nature.

Arab-Islamic people were strong advocates of public knowledge, and information was offered freely to every member of society not reserved for clerics and academics.

Some ‘houses of knowledge’ were said to have permitted lenders to check out up to two hundred items at any one time and the buildings were designed for readers’ comfort.

The destruction of many libraries by Mongol invasions – and later through a succession of wars – signalled a decline of learning and, one might argue, a less liberal, less secular, less inclusive way of life.

I was rather taken with the fact the school I visited called its library a ‘place of knowlege’ (but then I’m also rather taken when schools call their libraries simply ‘libraries’ rather than the dry, prosaic alternative ‘learning resource centre’). I was also impressed that they had made their ‘place of knowledge’ a central feature of the school building; it acted as the school’s beating heart, pumping knowledge through its artery of corridors and into classrooms.  The library’s language and location signalled its importance as a hub in which to study, and in which to learn.


Austerity literacy…

School libraries are not the only libraries to be under serious threat, of course…

Central and local library services have come under increased pressure due to repeated cuts in council funding since May 2010 when David Cameron took office.

As a result, in the past six years, around one in eight council-run libraries has closed or been transferred out of the public sector, according to research jointly conducted by the House of Commons library service and the BBC.

Total spending by councils on library services fell by a fifth between 2010 and 2015, according to the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).

Michael Rosen, the former children’s laureate, has said that it is “hypocritical of a government that claims to be on the side of the disadvantaged [to kick] away the means by which people can get access to knowledge, wisdom, fun and communal life.  What the government is saying is that the poor don’t have the right to have knowledge and wisdom.”

Sci-fi author Neil Gaiman, meanwhile, in a 2013 lecture, said the local authorities which were closing libraries to save money were “quite literally stealing from the future to pay for today… They [were] closing gates that should be open.”

Research by the BBC earlier this year found that a quarter of all jobs in public libraries had been lost since May 2010.  This equates to 8,000 in total.  Meanwhile, 15,500 volunteers have been recruited in what the Unite union argues is a “deprofessionalisation” of library services.

Alan Gibbons, who organised a protest march in London earlier this month, said: “Libraries are places of learning and opportunity. They are community hubs in areas where there is no other collective meeting place. They provide advice, books, computers, storytelling, information and education. Any government that allows them to close can’t claim to want a literate society. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”

Writing in The Guardian, the peer John Bird (who founded The Big Issue and learnt to read aged seventeen whilst in prison), said “Make no mistake; if we lose our libraries, if we sit by and watch as our communities are philistinised not only will we have paved the way for the privatisation of leisure centres, parks and social centres but we will have stoked the fires of that false economy – austerity – and passed on yet more “efficiency savings” to our prisons, A&E departments and rough sleepers’ services.


A civilisation is built on its books…

Quite literally in the case of Edinburgh…

Edinburgh’s Central Library was opened in 1890 and was the first public library in the city.  It was gifted to the people by the Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.  At the opening ceremony, a telegram from Carnegie was read aloud.  It declared: “We trust that this Library is to grow in usefulness year after year, and prove one of the most potent agencies for the good of the people for all time to come.”

The library is an imposing Edwardian building with a grand entrance on George IV Bridge.  But its external elegance belies a dark underbelly… the building’s foundations lie two-hundred feet deep in the ancient rock of the Cowgate.

Most of Edinburgh’s Old Town is built on top of ‘vaults’  – a series of chambers formed in the arches of the South Bridge – and also overlays an amazing maze of medieval streets called ‘wynds’ and ‘closes’.

The Edinburgh Vaults were originally used to house taverns and tradesmen of various ilk, as well as to store illicit materials including – or so legend has it – the bodies of the people killed by the notorious serial killers Burke and Hare.

However, as the conditions in the vaults deteriorated due to damp and poor air quality, the tradesmen moved out and Edinburgh’s poor and homeless moved in, turning the Cowgate area into a slum around the time of the Industrial Revolution.

As well as the vaults, there is a warren of underground streets and houses deep beneath the library.  Back in the 1600s, these ‘closes’ were Edinburgh’s busiest and most vibrant streets, open to the sky and bustling with business.  But eventually they were built over and forgotten about.

When the growing library – which, as Carnegie had hoped, grew in usefulness year after year and also in the size of its stock – found it had more books than it could reasonably display to the public, it began to store older, less popular editions in the vaults and along the maze of underground streets deep below its public galleries.

As a result, we can say in truth but also with a little literary flair – that the modern city of Edinburgh is literally built on its books, with hundreds of thousands of tomes stretching out under the streets around the library like the roots of a tree.


Reading matters…

I had a meeting with the charity Reading Matters recently to discuss speaking at their annual conference (I am doing so – it’s in June 2017 and you’ll be able to book your place on the Reading Matters website soon).

My association with Reading Matters began more than a decade ago when, as the Assistant Headteacher of an inner-city school in West Yorkshire, I enlisted their help recruiting and training reading mentors – volunteers from the local community to work one-on-one with some Year 7 pupils who were struggling with literacy.  Later, I asked Reading Matters to train a group of enthusiastic sixth form students to be mentors for some Year 8 reluctant readers.

In the intervening 10 years or so, the charity has grown exponentially and now works directly with parents and families as well as schools, and offers training on reading intervention to teachers and teaching assistants.

I was particularly keen to work with Reading Matters because I love books and strongly believe in the power of reading and literacy. In fact, I believe that reading is the single most powerful thing a child can do to improve their life chances and increase their academic achievement right across the curriculum.

And the school library – staffed by skilled librarians – is central to the success of school literacy initiatives like this.


Books were the best teachers I ever had…

When I’m asked to describe my background, I usually start with the point at which I left university (the first time around) and carve a path through my subsequent academic and employment history, trying to make sense of a rather illogical career trajectory.

However, in my meeting with Reading Matters I found myself – perhaps as a form of therapy – digging somewhat deeper and I was particularly surprised to find myself talking about my somewhat inauspicious start to schooling.

My primary school – in the days before Ofsted had been formed and vocabulary such as ‘inadequate’ and ‘special measures’ had permeated the educational landscape – was what we used to call ‘bloody rubbish’.

I have happy memories of my time at primary school – I made lots of friends and had fun.  But I learnt very little in an institution which didn’t exactly have high academic expectations of its pupils.  We spent a lot of time sat cross-legged on the carpet whilst our teacher played his guitar and sang to us.  I think, in retrospect, he was a frustrated hippy musician who entered the teaching profession in order bag a captive audience.

As a result, I left primary and started middle school aged nine unable to construct a written sentence.

It was only thanks to my burgeoning love of books – plus the dedicated, determined – if not scary – teacher who pushed and pushed me hard – that I first caught up and then overtook most of my peers.

Books were my saviour and my escape.  Books provided me with a ladder of social mobility.  Books educated me in life and love.  Books were my passport to world travel.  Books were the haute cuisine on which I dined, the elixir from which I sought succour.

The Rijksmuseum library has the largest art history collection in the Netherlands

Library in my pocket…

I never leave the house without my Kindle.  It’s the first thing I pop into my pocket, ahead of my mobile phone and house keys.

I love the idea of having thousands of books closeted in my coat.  I have a low boredom threshold and it gives me great comfort to know I have a world of entertainment and a lifetime of knowledge upon my person with which to fill the yawning chasm that opens up in the long gaps between the short spells wherein my interest and engagement with life is being sustained.

I get my daily newspaper delivered wirelessly to my Kindle.  It travels through the ether and is deposited on my ebook each morning.  When I wake, it is awaiting me on my bedside table.  This fact still gives me a strange thrill.  It’s like living in a hotel.  Although I have to make my own bed and no one seems willing to take my towels away to wash them, no matter how many I deposit in the bath.

But when The Independent ceased publishing a print edition, citing a fall in demand and cost ineffectiveness, and it was feared that the death of printed newspapers was nigh, I started buying my weekend papers in print again in the vain hope of saving a rich tradition.  It gave me an opportunity to walk the dog into the village and made me feel good about helping to protect the physical newspaper as well as the local newsagents.  It was, I know, a futile gesture.

But I now feel similarly energised to help save libraries.

I am lucky enough in middle age to be able to afford a Kindle and to purchase ebooks whenever I want.  Many people, I know, do not share this privilege.  Rather, they rely on libraries to fill the void and enrich their lives.

My local library was – still is – under threat of closure and, in a small-scale attempt to help save it, I re-registered myself and my family to boost their borrower numbers.  I lost several hours browsing amongst the shelves and borrowed more books than I was able to read.

What amazed me about my library was the sheer variety of people who visited it.  All human life was there.  Some people clearly relied on the library for warmth and light; others for company.  Many were researching for school and university projects and taking advantage of the quiet study space, safe from the distractions of their daily internet-enabled lives.  Others, like me, were there simply in search of a good read to fill the corners of evenings and weekends.

My visit reminded me that a public library is the very heart of a community and the foundation on which society is built.


Books are sore labour’s bath…

Last year I wrote about the special place reading a bedtime story to my youngest daughter has in my life.

I described it – somewhat hyperbolically, I know – as an innocent act that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care, as my sore labour’s bath, the balm of my hurt mind, and the chief nourisher in my life’s feast.

Our bedtime story, I said, makes the world seem a better place, it is an oasis of calm and order in an otherwise cold, cruel world. After a stressful day of work, I argued, a bedtime story reminds me what life is really about, and how precious is our time on earth.

A book at bedtime is not just a literacy lesson – or indeed a literary one – it’s a way of learning about the world around us, as well as a way of discovering new worlds and, with them, new hopes and dreams, and endless new possibilities.

To climb inside the pages of a good book is to take a journey to paradise which – rather aptly – Jorge Luis Borges once described as being like “a kind of library.”

Reading allows us to live a thousand different lives in a thousand different times, rather than just the one we’re given. As Dr Seuss puts it, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

Since I wrote that piece, roles have reserved and my daughter now reads to me.  But books continue to give us pleasure and continue to be the red rope of love that binds us together in a warm embrace just before sleep claims us.


The golden thread…

I still remember books from my own childhood and these memories are more than vague recollections of plot and character.

Memories of books take me back, sensorily, to a particular time and place. They evoke strong reminiscences of wonderment and discovery. For example, I once lost a rainy Saturday to Enid Blyton. (I can still feel the thrill of it now.)  I left a wet, grey northern town to inhabit a sun-streaked world of haunted castles, of exciting adventures and derring-do, of school children using all their ingenuity and bravado to combat dastardly villains before returning home for lashings of ginger beer.  It was a world of eternal sunshine.

After Blyton came Roald Dahl who gave me the keys to a magical factory wherein rivers flowed with chocolate, then took me into space in a great glass elevator to meet a cast of weird and wonderful creatures.

Books held a special place for me because they were my escape and my education at a time when social class and poor schooling could easily have held me back.

Books were my escape because, despite my humble circumstances, they afforded me infinite opportunities. I didn’t need money or privilege to see the world or indeed explore the wider universe; books were my means of transport.

Books could take me anywhere I wanted to go.  Books enabled me to slip the chains of poverty, to cut the shackles of birth and make good. As Frederick Douglas said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

Books were my education because my love of reading fed my love of learning. I was schooled at a time when grammar wasn’t explicitly taught and so learnt to spell, punctuate and understand grammar almost by osmosis, solely through reading well-written books.

As I’ve already said, my primary school was a sink school which exuded a soft bigotry of low expectations.  Books, therefore, were the best teachers I had.

Books were, in the words of Kofi Anan, a “bridge from misery to hope [and] a bulwark against poverty”.

Yes, books were my escape and my education, and libraries were my escape tunnel and my access point, my conduit to a better world, my rabbit hole and my looking-glass, my wardrobe to Narnia.

Without libraries and literacy I would not have escaped and I would not have been as well educated.  Without libraries and literacy, I would not have become the person I am.  I owe them my life and we owe them our loyalty and protection.

Kofi Anan once said that “For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right.

“Literacy is…the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realise his or her full potential.”

If literacy is a basic human right, then libraries are too and to close them in the name of austerity is to commit a human rights abuse; to close libraries is to pull up the ladder of social mobility, to blow up the bridge from misery to hope, and to block the road to our potential.

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