I’m so impressed by libraries and the people who run them. They’re adapting, changing, continually detecting trends and meeting new needs. When children needed homework clubs, they set them up. When they wanted to hire DVDs or access the internet, they set that up as well.
It’s the same, too, now that people want to borrow e-books to read on their kindles and other devices [click HERE to read a Guardian article about downloading digitally from your local library, and HERE for a list of some of the libraries who have made this service available - bearing in mind that this list is not up-to-date, but it's the best I could find].
Doris Lessing once remarked on the democracy of libraries, where nobody could tell you what to read. President Obama talks about them changing children’s lives. The American Pulitzer prize-winning author, Studs Terkel wrote that ‘All you need is truth and beauty, and you can find both in the local library.’ How many rallies march to slogans like that?
The public libraries in our country are amongst the best in the world. [And my local library, pictured above, is amongst the best of the best.] We need to use them. We need to cherish them. And sometimes too, we need to speak out on their behalf.
Last week I went down to London to attend a rally about library closures and lobby my MP. On the way on the train, I read an article about Iain Duncan-Smith’s plans for an Early Intervention Foundation, which he reckons will sort out the causes of social breakdown. It seemed strange to me that the government would go to all that trouble to steer vulnerable people away from drugs/family breakdown and crime, when it had just withdrawn funding from other projects - library service homework clubs, for example - which in my home county at least are to be closed at the end of this month.
That was one of many reasons I was on that train. But behind them all was the memory of an eight year-old girl waiting on her little yellow scooter for the town’s first library to open its doors. That girl was me. I didn’t come from a bookish family and wasn’t there because my parents had encouraged me. I was there because I’d watched the library being built and couldn’t wait to get my hands on books.
Would I be a writer today without that library all those years ago? I’ll never know, but it became my second home. I know my life was changed by it. And I want my children and grandchildren to have what it gave me.
There’s a requirement in law for the government to provide library services that are 'comprehensive' and 'efficient'. As I entered Westminster Central Hall, Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, was live on screen from a parliamentary sub-committee, debating the meaning of those words. Later the children’s author Alan Gibbons raised a laugh by reading out his End of Term report. Maths – ‘weak’; English – ‘this man has a problem with the meaning of words’. You can imagine the rest.
There wasn’t much else to laugh about. Kate Mosse spoke movingly and with clarity about why libraries matter, not just to readers but authors too, and she was speaking for me. I wanted to hug her. Thank you, Kate Mosse. Philip Ardagh said that libraries were communities. Dave Prentis of Unison said that one in three children doesn’t possess a book. John Dolan of CILIP said that so far this year 2,000 staff have been lost and 3,000 hours cut. Dan Jarvis MP, Shadow Culture Minister, likened Beeching’s lack of vision in the 60s, closing down the railways, to what’s happening now.
‘We’ve always needed libraries, now they need us’. That’s what someone else said - I can’t remember who. Another speaker said that the UK Library Service was being systematically hollowed out from the inside. Another wondered, given the government’s objective for every child to read vast numbers of books a year, where they’re going to get them from once the libraries are all closed. We even had a song - a man in cloth cap, shades and beard, with a distinct Castro-in-his-middle-period look, giving us thrashmetal for the library generation.
Finally, extolled by Alan Gibbons [quoting Dylan Thomas, obviously] to ‘not go gently into that good night,’ we gathered our coats and banners, took back our teacups and headed off to Westminster do a bit of lobbying.
A chance encounter with a group of fellow children’s authors, however, meant that my lobbying was briefly put on hold. Fiona Dunbar was amongst them, and Lucy Coates, and Alan Gibbons of course, who was everywhere, and Philip Ardagh. How it happened, I don’t quite know, but somewhere round the back of the main hall, we ended up vox-boxing our opinions live to camera.
Tell a group of authors to do one thing, and they'll do another. The interviewer wanted us to hold up our banners and proclaim in unison an agreed statement in support of libraries. You’d think this would be simple, but oh no. Some of us were ‘authors’ but others were ‘all authors’. Some were here to support ‘libraries’ but others were supporting ‘public libraries’. Some held up our banners, others didn’t. ‘Anarchists,’ said the interviewer. ‘No, authors,’ we replied with pride. [If you want to see this interview in action - and some of the rest of the rally too - click HERE.]
Finally I made it to the Palace of Westminster, queuing down a long ramp out of sunshine into shade, which took me from the world of mortals to the place where laws are made. In the security area, I’d never seen so many police in one tiny place. Here I was stripped of my banners [God alone knows what they thought I was going to do with them] and allowed through into a collection of halls and staircases that precede the central lobby. Here the more organized of our group already had their MP interviews lined up, but others - like me - had to fill in green tickets and hope for the best.
I started filling out my ticket, but hit a problem straight away. My MP’s not only the tallest man in Parliament but of Polish extraction, which means his secondary feature of distinction is that his name’s not easy to spell. I’d checked it on my phone before entering the building, but now I’d forgotten it and my reception had gone. I had a crack at writing it anyway, but knew I’d got it wrong. I put in brackets that he was the MP for Shrewsbury, but my green card was beginning to look a mess and when I scribbled a bracketed apology it looked even worse.
After handing it in to an imposing-looking man behind an imposing desk, I sat and waited for whatever would happen next, imagining my MP taking one look at my card and saying, ‘She calls herself an author? She must joking - she can’t even spell a simple name!’ Tidal surges of people rushed by; urgent-looking men; school kids; gangs of oldies on some sort of jaunt; a tidal swamp of Americans; another of military men in uniform, medals lined up straight, golden sashes and tassels around their waists.
This was the place to be if you were great and glorious. Alabaster statues stood in noble poses on either side of me, and stained-glass windows looked down, depicting all our national saints [except for Patrick, whom I couldn’t see]. Then that young Tory prince, Zac Goldsmith, strode by. You could tell from his jaw-line that he knew he'd been recognized. In the flesh he looked incredibly smooth. I remember him speaking at the anti-Iraq war march, which was the last time I’d tramped London’s streets for a cause. Where was that fiery young campaigner now?
Every now and then the grand man behind the desk called ‘Will the constituents for Mr So-and-So please go the desk,’ or ‘Mrs Susan Blogs for Mr Joe Brown.’ There was never a Daniel Kawcynski sending down for me - but then who could blame him after mashing up his name?
I waited an hour, but finally gave up. Trailing back through those halls, I had an incredible sense of leaving behind the place where things happened. Did I feel crestfallen to have come all this way without managing to ram my opinions down the longest throat in Westminster? Well, a little, yes.
Reluctant to return to ordinary life, I took myself off to the Palace of Westminster’s very own Jubilee Coffee Shop where I drank coffee from a cup decorated with a black-and-white checkered police-style motif and watched the House’s current debate on a silent screen. Jack Straw’s mouth went up and down, and Ming Campbell’s did the same. Weird that their speeches - whatever they were about - were happening such a short distance away.
By twilight, I was homeward bound, having walked from Westminster to Euston Station, which was further than I’d thought. Cyclists waited at the traffic lights, their headlamps twinkling like stars. I crossed in front of them and had a strange sense of a thing well done. Even though I’d missed my MP, it still felt worth having made the trip.