My current midnight reading is Alan Bennett’s KEEPING ON KEEPING ON. Once the sturdy hardback copy weighs me down, and Bennett’s gently opinionated voice is speaking, I feel calmer and less inclined to fret.
The volume – and that is the right word - starts with a decade from his Diaries, from 2005 to 2015, while the remaining half includes - or “is padded out” if one took on a Bennett frame of mind – with various essays and notes about his plays or productions. The first is a talk, BAFFLED AT A BOOKCASE, that Bennett gave at a Save the Library rally on behalf of his local Chalk Farm library, now Primrose Hill Library.
Bennett writes about many libraries he has known, about childhood visits to the substantial public libraries of Armley, Headingley and on to homework in the Reference Library in Leeds, before moving on to study within the grandeur of the Oxford college libraries.
His account started me thinking about my own rather different list of libraries. My childhood Library was the copper-green dome of Wood Green Public Library, then opposite the Tube Station in North London. (This photo, taken well before my time, I promise, comes from the collection held by the Big Green Bookshop, a very active and excellent bookshop now in the area.)
Each week, while I trotted down the stairs to the Junior Library, my mother disappeared among the tall, dark shelves of the Adult Library. My strongest memory of being there is that, despite the gloom and dull library-bound books, I felt safe and calm and happy, protected by the stories and the promise of reading.
Once, aged nine, being a good reader with clean hands and tidy eating habits, I was allowed to borrow a big book from the Adult Library: A PILGRIMS PROGRESS by JOHN BUNYAN. Why? I suspect I had read LITTLE WOMEN and was in love with the thought of being the bookish, wilful Jo or with the hope of Being Good, as so often instructed.
Years after, Wood Green Public Library was moved into the enormous modern Shopping City mall and that venerable green-domed edifice was demolished. I haven’t had the heart or occasion to visit the “new” library though, times being what they are, maybe I had better do so, before it is too late.
By now, a wide selection of books for adults existed alongside a colourful children’s library area where brightly illustrated picture books sat stacked in easy-to-investigate boxes.
This Library was the haunt of my children and I, after-school or in the holidays. It was like wealth to us and as I had a small car by then, it was easy to take home quantities of titles, especially big books on art and photography.
These books were often far less easy to find and return on time, which was when – eventually- I discovered that my hefty library fines would not be going into the library coffers (hooray, and easing my busy-working-mother guilt!) but into the general County Council pot instead, and who knew where then? Thank heaven, I often think now, for the online renewal system
I’ve spent time in many other libraries too, often within slightly-grim adult education colleges, both as student and tutor; a far cry from Bennett’s architectural gems. Yet, even when thinly stocked, those college shelves offered a range of subjects I didn’t see in public libraries. Back then, when inter-regional borrowing was allowed and funded, such titles could be requested and read wherever you were. Now – or until recently – I could borrow a book from any library premises within my own authority, not just my local Library.
For some years, I also welcomed the well-resourced professional libraries in Teacher’s Centres, which often sat neatly alongside School Library Service stock-rooms. From the SLS – at one time – one could select and collect more glorious new titles to add to the collection in one’s classroom or school.
But then the National Curriculum in its many incarnations came striding through the corridors, armed with thick files and official downloads.
All that academic thought and reflection was boxed up, put away and lost somewhere because schools, reading and teacher development were told to change.
Almost as a contrast, I’ve been blessed by being an author, invited in to libraries all across England and Wales to talk to some brilliant children and witness some impressive library reading initiatives. Those times and places have been great, even though I have learned that the rooms of librarians are in no way the quiet scholarly havens I’d imagined, although quite often there is cake.
However, today, I need to end with the story of my current local Public Library. A few years ago, as part of a National Lottery-funded renovation, the gloomy interior space was opened out so that light flooded in from a glass lantern roof to the two floors below. Several study tables and reference collections disappeared but the library certainly felt a brighter space inside and the new Library proved popular and was well-used by a whole range of “customers”.
Then the second “big renovation” came: not just to this one building but to the whole County Library Service structure. Fortunately, because the Library is in a busy town, it was designated a regional “hub”, which means the Library will keep some staff of its own.
The Library will also act as a base for the (few) library staff now supporting all the community libraries in the district by phone and email. Halfway between are the three “hybrid” local libraries, which will get a few hours of real-person library staff contact on site each week too, at least for the moment.
Now, have no fear, folks. There will definitely be people within all these library buildings. Our Public Library Service will be held together by Volunteers and, so I have heard, “hundreds” have put their names forward for local training in this town alone. So this is where I must point out that my town is a prosperous place; the general level of education high; there is interest in - and loyalty to - the Library and there are people with spare time happy to help, at least during this first enthusiasm. Is this so everywhere? Or will only those who have, have libraries in the future? The rundown estates in poorer cities? The wide-spread rural communities? Will everywhere have such resilience?
No matter: ever since Cameron’s Big Society, the word is out. There will be Volunteers. However, for some years, I have been involved with the Committee of my local Library Friends Group. We organise various social events and minor fund-raising. We are all volunteers, and some are even Library Volunteers and Volunteers-To-Be.
Yet my time has made me see that Volunteers, though very wonderful and generous as individual people, do have other commitments, demands and priorities on their time and minds. I know that I do. They may have current skill gaps. They may – if older - have erratic health. For example, over six years on our small Committee, has coped with two long illnesses (and absences), two deaths, a couple of sudden personal” disappearances and one person who returned to Amsterdam. At the moment, the Committee is fairly calm and all is set fair because those with tasks do do what was agreed but even so, because of everyone’s commitments, just deciding the date of the next Committee Meeting can be a struggle. If this is a random example of volunteering, does it suggest the best model for good library support? That is what I keep wondering, even though all the people are good and lovely and generous individuals.
Volunteers must also be time-consuming for the remaining library staff to deal with. Managing fifty part-timers doing a few hours a week must be a more complicated act than three full-time employed staff. Besides, at the start of any new enterprise there can be great enthusiasm, even if people feel “blackmailed” by the prospect of losing their library once the matter is being buzzed about by the local media. Certainly, among my many bookish friends “Have you signed up?” has become a daily greeting.
My fear is that, over time, the initial energy may fade - maybe not here in our pleasant town and while funding is at the current levels - but elsewhere, when problems arise. While reading around this topic, I came across a set of poignant interviews with museum volunteers that seemed relevant to the national community library situation.
Also – hush! – it is possible that volunteers may not be the most biddable of people. By self-selection, they may tend to be individualistic rather than team-players. Some may have firm or biased ideas about people and subjects or little knowledge about books and IT. Who will manage that? Additionally, some may not be keen on the more uncomfortable aspects of library work, from litter collecting to cleaning up after certain visitors. Occasionally, amiable drinkers come in from outside and hang around our Friends Cake Stall, a situation easily and gently managed especially with library staff about in the building, but elsewhere, I have read of community library volunteers facing troublesome teenagers and more alone. Different areas will throw up different problems - and as I have said, my Library is a lucky library.
Moreover, as all the experienced librarians leave, what will happen when that level of expertise has gone? Even with rounds of “cascade training”, I fear that the library service will diminish further. Additionally, when the whole structure is only loosely held together, who can tell who what to do in a Volunteer world? How will it work out, other than by trusting in each other’s goodwill and understanding?
I am not yet convinced that the whole volunteer idea is as credible as some people would have us believe, despite the good intentions of those stepping forward to help. It may work well in some places, but overall, I fear that library provision - if it even exists - will be very patchy. There have already been so many closures, and even Alan Bennett’s newly-named Primrose Hill Library has to raise substantial sums to stay open. Is this how things will be?
This post is appearing on Saturday 1st April, the start of the new financial year. This is the day when we move into the new regime, when the cuts in services County Councils are implementing because of central Government austerity cutbacks come into force. Libraries – as well as museums, galleries and parks - come well down on the list of essential services: all so easy to attack as a “luxury” and easy to cut or destroy our cultural store by slow attrition.
The first of April! Pinch and punch and who knows what surprises lie ahead? No jokes or joking, you can be sure of that, though there are certainly fools who believe that libraries are not needed any more.