Thank heavens for people like Alan Gibbons. Someone who not only thinks that things are wrong, but who does something about it. I have barely had time to take in all his emails and newsletters this winter, let alone act on them. Just imagine how busy Alan has been; writing, digging, travelling. Possibly even doing some writing for himself once in a while. Must find out.
So, after the lighter introductions, we settled down to more serious things. Question Time with the politicians, except we ‘only’ had Ed Vaizey and Richard Younger Ross, because Lyn Brown had been promoted to the Whips office during the week, and in this mad world that means she can no longer say in public what she thinks about a subject she is very interested in. A lot was said by those present, but whether any of that will ever happen is anybody’s guess. The panellists had reasonable ideas, but they would, considering the circumstances. The audience had lots of questions and ideas, and we could have gone on forever.
After lunch it was time for two wonderful talks by the librarians who have been in the centre of the storm, so to speak. Clare Broadbelt, who was made redundant when her school library was closed, spoke eloquently on what it had been like both before – when things were normal – and during the period leading up to the closure. It was a good thing to hear how many of her pupils had spoken up. They had started petitions, only to find them torn up and told they were rubbish. And the reading room that had been promised in place of the library has not materialised.
The second talk was by Cath McNally, librarian from the Wirral, where they have an awful lot of millionaires, but also a great deal of child poverty. If all librarians can speak as well and as touchingly as Cath did, then we have much to be proud of. She cried at the end, describing how ‘her’ children had recommended books back to her, which just goes to show how much influence the library has had. I wonder if the suggested small stock of books in the GP’s surgery will have quite the same effect?
Gillian Cross spoke about her use of the mobile library, both forty years ago, and now, noting the changes in needs. The difference is the internet and as she said, the old ways won’t be coming back. Miranda McKearney from the Reading Agency and Marilyn Mottram from the UK Literacy Association spoke about their findings from experience and research. According to Marilyn there is plenty of money out there; we just need to look for it in different places. Martyn Coles, head teacher at the City of London Academy, is unusual in his love for libraries in schools, and he reckons that architects need to be pushed in the right direction by caring head teachers, if new schools are to be built with sensible libraries.
After a number of smaller workshops, the day finished with Beverley Naidoo and Frank Cottrell Boyce. Beverley spoke movingly about her own early experiences from South Africa. Post-Sharpeville Beverley learnt to look at things in new ways, and she was introduced to other types of books than those she’d been reading. She mentioned a number of books that have helped her and inspired her. She was saying how wonderful it would be if our taxes were spent on books instead of on bullets and bombs, and her vision of planes dropping books instead is a powerful one. She told a Nigerian friend about coming to this Campaign for the Book conference, and her friend was shocked that we in the UK would need a conference like this. Beverley quoted Susan Sontag, ‘libraries are a precious treasure chest.’
Frank Cottrell Boyce told a long and funny tale about his daughter’s tin whistle ‘lessons’, which was a random way of describing how anything that is good should be taught. You share, rather than teach. He had had a recent bad school visit, which convinced him of how books should not be treated in schools. As Frank pointed out, his own father had taught him a love of football by playing it with him, not by turning it into lessons. One of Frank’s daughters who is not into reading, had been given Northanger Abbey on her iPod. Apparently Austen doesn’t work so well on shuffle, however; you just don’t know who is married to whom or for how long.
Alan Gibbons finished by saying that he is in this for the long haul. He wants more names on his petition, and he wants us all to organise many smaller local meetings like Saturday’s conference. He’d like authors to adopt an area as their own. ‘A library without a librarian is no library, but a room.’