Last year when I began my latest book I realised it would require research. It has historical elements that, in Bristol at least, are controversial. Actually, 'controversial' doesn't in any way cover it. The novel has, at its heart, a painting of a boy who was brought to England from the West Indies. He may, or may not be a slave. And I don't mean that in a 'the-author-knows-but-wants-to-leave-the-readers-guessing' way. I mean literally, there was a period in the late 18th, early 19th century when the status of slaves brought into England was a legal unknown. Judges made half-hearted rulings that got ignored anyway, each of them hoping some other case would set the precedent. As you can imagine, with such heart-wrenching material, I want to get as near to accurate as is possible with this story.
So, I went to the library.
At the time, I lived in Knowle. For those who don't know Bristol, Knowle is, well, rough as a badger's brillos. The library is in a shopping centre that is mostly pound shops, cheque-cashing shops and empty shops. The empty shops are particularly brilliant, they are boarded up with hoardings showing pictures of thin, vaguely Italian-looking women shopping with their NorthSouth bags. The nearest we get to that is thin, vaguely Italian-looking pizzas two-for-a-pound in Iceland bags.
I wasn't holding out much hope as I went to research the finer points of the international slave trade. I was an idiot. The library played a blinder.
As soon as I explained what I wanted the librarian went to their small non-fiction section and gave me the auto-biography of an 18th century slave who visited England,: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. She also produced a biography of a slave who lived much of his life in Bristol, Pero, The Life of a Slave in 18th century Bristol. There was also a general history of British ports and their role in the slave trade. These books were exactly what I needed.
At that time, I thought, wow, isn't it amazing that my tiny, local library should have three books on their shelves that are perfect for starting my research. Of course, the references and bibliographies of these books suggested more books for wider reading. I was able to order most of them from the Libraries West database for delivery within a week. To my local library.
Then, it occured to me that no, it wasn't that amazing; it's what libraries are for, to serve the interests of their local community. Bristol's relationship with the triangular trade is a huge and difficult part of the city's psyche. It is only to be expected that Bristol's inhabitants will want to learn about it. The library service buys accordingly and makes sure the people of Bristol have good access.
So, when half the libraries in the country are gone, and the ones that are left have a freeze on book-buying, and the librarians have all been replaced by work experience kids, how exactly will they serve their communities then? Just wondering.
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