Monday, 25 January 2016

Can SuperMatt Save The Library?

After we returned home from a protest at our local library in reaction to proposed council cuts Matt announced to his Dad 'I have done something important today. I have saved Newport library.' If only it were that simple. If only it were true. As it stands we are currently living in a Choose Your Own Adventure story here. (My sister loved her CYOA books. I felt under too much pressure to make the decisions.) In reality the council will be deciding the ending for this story. So, the fight is just beginning for Super Matt and his short, pin-headed sidekick Iron(ing) Mam.

This post was always going to happen. I had been thinking about writing a celebration of all things library for quite some time. Now it is more of a necessity rather than an indulgence. Unfortunately our regular library visits had dwindled with the festive season upon us. So this new year I planned to get us back into the saddle. And then visit the library more. Where better to spend an hour on a cold winter's day? Hmmm good question. One we may need to ask ourselves more and more in the near future because the reading journey we take for granted is about to take a turn for the worse. When I read about the Council proposals to cut six of the local libraries, the mobile library service, and many other crucial services, I felt like someone had ripped out the back page of my book. This is not how I thought it would all turn out. Yes, the good folk of the Shire will still have some libraries left including the all singing all dancing flagship library at Southwater but many of us still use, and rely on the regional libraries.  I feel obliged as one of these citizens to present the case as to why our libraries should be saved. And it is my duty as Matt's side kick to come up with some sort of cunning plan for how we might defend them.

SuperMatt and IronMam first leapt into action by completing the Council's online survey. We gave our two penneth on the importance of the libraries as much as we could within the structure of survey. The consultation process wants feedback on how the changes to the library, parks and other services may affect you and your household. Well, dear survey, thanks for asking but this is is not really the point. I will indeed tell you what the library and such mean to me but I would also like to make clear that the real issue is that these services affect us all. The potential loss of such services do not need to directly affect me for me to be able to recognise their value and to leap to their defence. Some of the proposed changes will have an affect on my household, some cuts will have a profound impact on other households. Either way the cuts will be felt within our community and society as we know it will be doomed. Doomed I tells ya.

The second phase of our battle plan was to borrow as many books from Newport library as would my card would allow. We went one better when we found ourselves at the right place at the right time. We had chosen coats and woollies instead of tights and capes but as we stood outside Newport library with an angry mob we felt pretty powerful all the same. We stood united on a cold and dreary day all holding a library book to show our support. The boy never complained despite the cold and lack of snacks. The Lego book he chose to use to promote his librarylove probably would not win the CILIP but it did keep him entertained. Isn't that the point? 
This is why
Matt took it all in his stride. I, however, felt at a loss as to how we have come to this. How could I explain why the institution we cherish is undervalued to the point of potential closure and how do I convince Matt of the need to stop this machine in its tracks?

Neil Gaiman eloquently puts it: We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.

I went with 'Matt, we need to fight to keep the libraries open so we can keep coming and borrowing books'. At the word 'fight' Matt went into 'put 'em up' mode and was ready to do battle. Whilst my four year old son may not need much persuasion to fight, other people may need convincing. So, here are some of my reasons for using the local libraries and why we all need to fight for them.

A Sense of Belonging
My earliest library memories are of the mobile library van that used to visit my estate. I loved how it creaked and rocked and smelled. The children's books were all at one end in low down shelves so that I could browse for myself. I also loved it when the chip van visited at the same time. I was pretty excited when the new town library opened in the late 80s and it did not disappoint. This was something else. The children's section was more than a tub in the corner. It was an actual dedicated area of a multitude of books for me to wade through. Oh the possibilities. I spent a great deal of time in that library over the years. This was not because it was the biggest, which it was. It was not because it was the best, which it seemed. It was because I could walk there from my house. It was local. Had it been a bus journey away things could have turned out rather differently. I used it for GCSE revision, A Level revision, and degree research. Because it was there. It was familiar and it felt like mine. Until I left home and found other libraries. I also discovered that chips taste different up north.

Libraries still provide me with this sense of belonging. I got hit by a ball and my glasses fell off on the terraces of a football match; my specs used to steam up in the pub; I never know all the songs at a gig; but in the library I feel at home. In the library I am the queen of the jungle. Hear me roar (though very quietly obvs.) I am not sure if my young cub feels the same way as me yet but he certainly knows his way around the book jungles that we visit. It can't just be me who feels this way. Help me out, Roald:
So Matilda's strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world likes ships into the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopefully and comforting message: You are not alone.

A Way of Life
We read therefore we library. It is that simple. Also the books are free. Need I go on? OK then. Libraries have fed my reading addiction for many years but these days it is not just about me. My library trips have changed somewhat since the boy came along. 
We have made our home in the childrens' sections of the various libraries in our town although I do try and grab something for me from the quick picks shelf as I am hauled past. (It is a risky reading strategy.)   Visiting the different libraries is just part of the routine for us. Which library depends on our schedule but it still features in our week. We sometimes visit Newport library when shopping. We used to visit Wellington when we had Tumble Tots or had been swimming. We visit Southwater when we visit the town park or Town Centre. We used to use HLC library a lot when Matt had football class. Dawley library is a nice option after the park. And sometimes we go because it is just something that we do. J K Rowling gets it: “...why’s she got to go to the library?” “Because that’s what Hermione does”.
Despite the notion that the library is becoming outdated I have found we are using it more than ever. As a mother I rely on the library to offer an endless supply of books. We need this free and constant supply of books to continue in order to preserve our way of life - please don't cut us off, gov.

Educational Experience
Having researched three degrees, the library, for me, has always been an important educational institution. As a mother, the library has taken on a further educational role. The responsibility to nurture  Matt's social, emotional, and intellectual development rests on these here shoulders. Any activities and experiences that help us to learn, bond, and understand the world a little more, are most valuable. Visiting the library ticks all of these boxes. It is my duty to put in place the building blocks of learning, literacy and a general love of books but we also learn much more at the library. The library is a different environment and Matt has learned how to adapt. He understands that libraries are places we read, we bond, we borrow, and we respect other people and we respect the shared property and space. He understands that these are places where we follow the rules. It is not somewhere we climb, run, eat, or shout. That is soft play or the park. Some parents may do well to learn that. The library also teaches responsibility. Responsibility for the books, for borrowing books, for our behaviour, and also for his own reading preferences and experiences. The act of choosing, sitting, and reading together makes a visit to the library a positive nurturing experience which will hopefully mean that Matt will find reading and literacy a natural and familiar activity in future. 

The need to preserve the act of reading in a library is about creating a positive educational experience. It is also crucial for developmental purposes that children to have access to a variety of books.  Children need real tangible books to explore and discover for themselves. They like flaps, pop ups, things to touch, and pages to turn. The print market is superior to the ebook market for children's literature. When TV, YouTube, and e-readers are competing to tell stories to your children it is important to hold onto these active story telling experiences and prioritise them above the more passive narratives of the former.

Visiting the library is an enriching experience in so many ways. We always leave the library knowing more than when we went in.

Libraries Fire the Imagination 
When you go to the library you never know where it will take you. I often imagine the two of us sitting cuddled up on a sofa reading a wonderfully uplifting and amusing tale. Sometimes this happens- we find books such as The Midnight Library (lovely book and most relevant). Sometimes our trips involve Matt wanting me to read a Tween book because it has a pony on the cover or begging me to read a story in Hindi because there is a lion on the front. We read a far wider range of books because of the library than we would if we were restricted to our home collection built on gifts and my whims. 

The library inspires the imagination beyond the reading material too. Matt's imaginative play can take me to wondrous worlds and usually ends with a battle of some sort. Some is from TV, some is from books, and some is from real life. When he asks to play libraries I feel my heart could burst with pride. He was two when this first happened:
Matt: Mummy can we play libraries? Me: Sure. Matt: Shhhh I am reading!
More recently Matt has incorporated my glasses and his till into the game. It looks pretty serious but also way more fun than how I used to improvise with a date stamp and an After Eight Mints box.


Children play at real life. This is what he knows. These are the moments when I know I have got some of this parenting schizzle right. 

A Place of Inspiration
A library does not need to have a stunning vista or a high arched ceiling or classic columns to be able to inspire. Any library can guide, encourage, motivate, or surprise a visitor. Whatever the question the library has the answer. 

Since starting this blog I have relied upon the library to offer an endless supply of books. I found books that I would not have necessarily found through online bookshops. It is also a good place to identify trends. It is here that we discover new books, new authors, new characters, new worlds, new words. It is essential for broadening our book collection and for keeping the reading momentum up.

The library also inspires and serves some of Matt's obsessions: dinosaurs, dragons, machines, guinea pigs, and our bones. Fact or fiction I am always interested to see which books Matt will select and those he discards. The libraries have served up a good range of horse books which has kept him informed and entertained. 

Another way the library inspires me is with ideas for cooking. Cook books are really pricey and often I get them home to discover I only like one or two recipes from the entire book. So when I decided to return to a meat free diet last year the library was my first port of call. My problem with a lot of vegetarian cookbooks is that I am not interested in dessert section. I am capable of making a meat free pud without a cookbook. Anyhoo, this is a much more cost effective way of trying out new recipes. 

The library broadens our horizons. There is a world of opportunity and possibility within a library. The things I could learn, the places I could go, the things I could do although, to be honest, I am usually too busy reading. And learning Hindi.

As Sanctuary
Another vital reason that I need the library is that it is essentially a place of peace and quiet. Surely this is something we all value? Maybe not all of us. In typical Matt style this happened:
Matt: Why are we going to the library- it is just books?
Me: Exactly

This is precisely why I need the library and why I teach him that we act differently in the library. That it is good to have peace and quiet. Life is not all about swings and roundabouts (particularly if the proposed cuts to our parks go ahead.) You know my need to slow down and pause...The library, for me, is a place of refuge. From the weather. From Cbeebies. From putting Lego Evel Kneivel on his motorbike every other minute. Seeking a soundbite for this here blog post I asked Matt what he thought people would do without the library. He answered succinctly with a wisdom beyond his years and with a
tinge of general apathy worthy of his exact age: 'I just don't know. Do you want to see me do a cartwheel?' See what I mean? I need a place where wrestling and roly-polies are just not tennis; a place to give our minds a work out (or a rest) rather than our bodies.

The library is also a safe haven for other people, some in much more serious need than us. The library is for people needing somewhere to go, somewhere to be. We used to visit HLC library after football class each Saturday and there would often be some school children doing their homework on the computers. For what ever reason (internet access, safety, peace) they were there. The library was safe and accessible and presumably was chosen rather than being at home. Where would they go if it closes? The local library keeps people safe and keeps me sane.

A Community Lifeline
Tucked away in a quiet corner of the Shire a visit to the nearest library is one way that we feel connected to the larger community. For some it is the only way. The proposed cuts will go deeper for these people. We need to stand up for those people whose voices may well get lost in this debate. For these very people, the library needs to be safeguarded.

As aforementioned (I really am in essay mode now) the library is crucial for children. According to one article the community aspect of libraries, including storytimes/rhymetimes and free picture books is especially important for parents and children alike. This article claims that children can easily read five books per week and all but the most wealthy parents could not easily afford this. 

The library is also an essential bastion of independence and socialisation for older readers. Not everyone has a kindle, internet access, or transportation. So the threatened mobile library provides a crucial service. This library bus serves parts of the community who may not be able to access the town libraries. It provides regular social contact for people If this service was to be cut people would suffer. If it is cut in conjunction with the other libraries we are at risk of isolating some of the most vulnerable members of our communities.  

Visiting the library is not just a middle class past-time. It is important to keep the libraries available in the more deprived areas of the town too. The local libraries serve the young, the old, and everyone in between. Job seekers, new members of the community, etc. all rely upon access to the information freely available at the library. In many ways the library keeps disadvantaged people on an even footing. So even if the scores on the doors are lower for some libraries it does not mean that they are failing. You cannot measure their service or quality in footfall. How can we quantify something that is invaluable? We need to protect the library for the people who may not use it as a regular hobby but use it when necessary. We certainly need to bear in mind that those who may not be able to complete the consultation survey could be those who need the library most of all.

A Crucial Public Institution
A further reason to protect the library is that it gives so much to individuals, communities, and society but asks very little in return (apart from returning your books.) What other public institutions operate on trust and allow you unlimited access and possession of their collections? We need to protect it for the very reason that it gives us a freedom that other places do not. It serves as a democratic institution that is for everyone. All people are equal within the library. Unless you have fines. Should we mention the query on your card, Mrs Y?

A public institution needs to serve its public's needs. It does not have to stand as a shiny symbol of a town's success. Even the older and more jaded libraries can stand proud on the high street as our well worn servants. They serve the people. They preserve our literary heritage and will guide our future endeavours. Yet we are told that the library is becoming obsolete. The public library is going through tough times in general in this fast developing world. This is why we need to help our libraries to weather the storm. Our councils and working groups should be looking for ways to develop the library to serve our changing needs in this new era. As modern life demands so much of us our need for answers, direction, education, contact, and peace, will need to be met. So far from being defunct the libraries are more important than ever.

As Philip Pullman puts it: I love the public library service for what it did for me as a child and as a student and as an adult. I love it because its presence in a town or a city reminds us that there are things above profit, things that profit knows nothing about, things that have the power to baffle the greedy ghost of market fundamentalism, things that stand for civic decency and public respect for imagination and knowledge and the value of simple delight...Leave the libraries alone. You don’t know the value of what you’re looking after. It is too precious to destroy.

If a library can provide all of the above to this library user then imagine how it is serving the community as a whole. If it can continue to serve the needs of our community then it is doing its job. By fighting for the libraries I feel I am doing mine. 

From this experience I have taught Matt some essential life lessons: reminded him that books are captivating; proven to him that libraries are important to many people; taught him that words are great weapons; acquiesced to him that his feet are powerful (not just for kicking). And finally, schooled him in a crucial rule: you keep playing to the whistle (even when the ball hits you in the face).

So is this as far as it goes for SuperMatt and IronMam? 
Can they really help save the library? 
How can they get a happy ending?  

Well, kind citizen, since you asked, here's the plan:
1.If you are a local you can fill in this online survey or visit a library and ask for a paper copy. You may not even agree with me but your opinion matters. Ish. It really depends on how far you intend to disagree with me. You have until Feb 7th.

2. Support your local library and borrow an armful of books. Check them out correctly though or it will prove counter productive. (She even notches up a library pun. Quiet cheers and soft high fives).

3. See the library as the information hub. My friend makes a real effort to say let's go to the library rather than use a search engine to find stuff out. 
Neil Gaiman claims that Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one. So surely that is effective time management?

4. READ. 
I am most concerned that we are being dragged into a numbers game but libraries are about words.
So my solution is to read books. Particularly, if you are in a position of influence or part of the decision making machine. I cannot think of a more convincing case for the local library than that found in one of my favourite children's books and with one of the most wonderful characters ever created. Read Matilda It won't take long and you can do your sums tomorrow. Read it to yourself. Read it to your children, or your grandchildren. Think about how good that book is. Think about how great the books are that Matilda reads. Think about the role of the library in her life. Consider how the book would have turned out had her library been shut or the librarian untrained. (She may have ended up needing one of the other services the council are considering cutting.) But just read it. You don't even need to buy it- go find it in your library. But be quick we don't have much time.


  1. Thank you so much EJL for your eloquent words and experiences. As a member of the library team for Telford & Wrekin we are struggling to imagine our town once the proposed closures go ahead. We see the value, experiences and services we offer daily...not measured in monetary terms but in real value to our communities. You have brought tears to my eyes in what has proved to be a difficult few weeks and bigger challenges to face. Thank you for sharing all that we mean to you and your son x

    1. Thank you for your kind words and your dedication to your profession. If we can do anything else to show our support please message me.x

  2. beautifully written! I couldn't have put it better. With words like that we wont be needing to chain ourselves up after all.
    Great work xx