Saturday, 1 April 2017


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.

I witnessed another of “my” Libraries being built. Hoddesdon Public Library had long been squashed, along with the local museum, into an old house in Broxbourne. However, with the small market town expanding, the County Council built a brand new library on the High Street, just wher the markets stalls appeared weekly. The entrance was hardly impressive but oh, the hidden size and the wonderful stock of the library within! This was a time of plenty!

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.

Penny Dolan


Sue Purkiss said...

I share your concerns about running libraries with volunteers...

Susan Price said...

Both of you are right. The kind of interlinked library system we used to enjoy can't be run with impermanent volunteer, half-trained staff. I respect their efforts and good will but it can't be done.
Cameron knew this very well - or maybe he didn't. My opinion of Cameron has sunk even lower than even I believed possible since the day he guffed about 'the Big Society.' His Tory advisors, anyway, knew perfectly well that this was a sop to the one or two Tory flickerings of guilt, to shut them up while they got on with destroying everything worthwhile in our society. They want their precious Victorian Values back: they're welcoming back this girl, Want and this boy, Ignorance.

Lynne Benton said...

Excellent post, Penny. If only a few people in government would read it, especially those whose single bright idea consists of using volunteers to run everything, most notably libraries! (I entirely agree with Sue, too, about the creeping return to Want and Ignorance!) Of course using volunteers saves money, but that ignores the main point: surely if a job needs doing, someone should be trained and paid to do it properly? No matter how good and well-meaning the volunteers are, this cannot be allowed to become a permanent solution. I suspect your link to the interview with a volunteer is spot on, and much nearer the truth than the flannel we've all been fed about what a clever scheme it is. Long live libraries!

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for writing this - such a sad sign of the times.

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks, everyone. This a post I've been wanting to write for quite a long time.

I know lots of people enjoy the thought of running a library - or a bookshop - for that matter, but that doesn't mean they will have all the skills and knowledge, not even after seven training sessions, four of which are, I think, online. And think how tough it must be for all the librarians who are losing their roles, if not their actual jobs, to spend time training those who will replace them.

The WI (yes, WI itself!) put out a report "On Permanent Loan" about the use of volunteers in Community Libraries and it wasn't full of praise for the idea or the consequences, either.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

What a brilliant post Penny... thank you! not just the marvellous history of your growing up with books but the discussion of library cuts and the concept of volunteers. I agree with you. They are not the answer even though the volunteers themselves might be civic minded and well meaning.
I believe there was a debate in the House of Lords this week but couldn't find it online a moment ago when I searched... only an older debate from last year which said that the saving on libraries and librarians being axed, would in the long run have to be spent on prisons and security as more and more people fell into poverty because of the fall in education, the lack of access to books and the lack of reading skills.
Fools we are!

Andrew Preston said...

I just wonder how many people, here and elsewhere, make all the right noises about libraries, but really, they're wedded to their Kindles.

A few years ago, my local library was under threat of closure. I used it for borrowing books, and internet access, almost every day of the three and a half days a week that it opened.

The library staff made orchestrated noises about the local community supporting a petition
to save the library. I responded, as did numerous others, and a committee was formed.

About a dozen people, as I recall. I recognised 1 person I'd ever seen in the library.
Most of the rest were there because they had their own agenda. One, an author,
wanted to set up their stall in the library to sell her book on an open day. A local arts group wanted to take over most of the window space as a billboard. Etc, etc.

I voiced my concerns to the library supervisor, and received a very snarky response..
"We're doing this whether you like it or not...". The library was being 'communitised'.

About a week later, someone approached me in a local shop, and said they didn't like
the attitude of staff in the library. That person too had commented on what was going on.

The next time I was in the library, I tackled the supervisor in a terse tone... "Quite a big change in your attitude since you were begging members to save the library..".
This got me banned. I informed the rest of the committee by email. No response, or
interest in why.

In the 4 years since then, I've borrowed one book from that library. If it closed tomorrow
I could hardly care less.

Penny Dolan said...

People don't always behave well when their jobs are under threat and they are obliged to do something they have no wish to do, Andrewe, and volunteers do bring their own agendas. Sorry your library is such an unhappy place. Another sad story - and no I don't think all libraries or librarians are perfect either.

Andrew Preston said...

Well, yes, I do have some understanding of the human character.

Here's a quiet day in Cheddar Library, some while before the events mentioned above.

I was quietly working away at my sundry activities on one of the internet PC's.

A woman came into the library, walked over, and sat down at the PC beside me. I also heard some exchange of words at the assistants counter behind me.

The woman had a shopping bag with her. As she busied herself with logon, I noticed in the edge pf my vision, a small movement. I looked at it properly, and saw something black and wet emerge from the other contents. It was the the nose of a tiny dog.

At that moment, an assistant appeared at our shoulders, and announced.. "You have a dog. You can't bring a dog in here.".

And there then ensued a back and forth discussion, with the woman becoming more and more upset, and the assistant demanding that she leave. Without going into all the descriptives, I don't think the woman was part of the Harrods-shopper set. Indeed she looked like her tiny dog was just about her only companion in life.

Anyway, she ended up over at the assistants counter, in tears, where the assistant threatened to call the police to eject her. This didn't work, and the assistant called the police.

The police arrived. They weren't interested in anything the woman had to say. Directive, uncompromising. "You're leaving this building now..."

At this point, I walked over, and said .. " This is an utter disgrace..." I turned to the woman, and said... "If you need a witness to the behaviour of this bunch, I'll do that..".

There was an immediate change of attitude by the police. They clearly smelled trouble.
The woman did agree to leave.

Just another day in the life of a small rural library.