What is a library? by Dawn Finch

We all know the answer to this question, right? Sadly, it seems not. Even the briefest scan through recent articles in mainstream media shows that there is definitely a skewed understanding of what a PUBLIC library actually is.

At its most basic level, a library is a curated collection of books and other materials. Of course this does not fit when we add the word “public” to “library.” This is where things need a bit more explanation.

Wikipedia does quite a neat job of explaining the basics of what a public library is. It says this

“A public library is a library that is accessible by the general public and is generally funded from public sources, such as taxes. It is operated by librarians and library paraprofessionals, who are also civil servants.”

I think that rather neatly sums it up, although I hate the term “paraprofessionals” as it sort of implies that library workers are only acting sort-of-alongside professionalism. It’s rare for me to meet an unprofessional library worker. Journalists take note – if you want to talk about libraries, talk about library workers. 

I would also add to that Wikipedia description -“forming part of the statutory public library provision for the local authority as per the regulations relating to the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964.”

Many people still don’t grasp that their local authority has a statutory obligation to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” public library service. To fail to do so is to fail in compliance with the regulations. Frankly it is also robbing you! You have paid for these libraries in your council tax – it is literally your right to have that library. It’s not a nice extra, it is a statutory requirement.

I find that many articles about public libraries fail to mention or understand the key elements that make public libraries great, and so here is an article to help anyone writing about them, and a few suggestions of what NOT to say.

Libraries are expensive?

From DCMS Libraries Deliver report – link to full document below

Wrong. In fact evidence supported by the Government shows that libraries actually return roughly five times whatever is invested in them. ACE carried out some research that showed the public library service even saves the NHS money. A lot of money. In fact roughly 27.5 million pounds a year.

A public library does things that nothing else in a community does the same way, from parent groups to adult mental health support. It does this in an informal and casual setting that most people find more welcoming than formalised support groups. No need for appointments or awkward and uncomfortable meetings with “officials”, just drop in. This means that countless vulnerable people are able to cope and carry on living alone because they know that they have somewhere they can trust and turn to.

That word “trust” is very important. Library workers are trusted, and that trust should never be undervalued. It takes a decade to build loyalty and trust in any organisation, and five uncomfortable minutes to lose it forever. 

Councils have no money, so it’s either libraries or children’s services.

Wrong, but let me explain why. There is no doubt that decades of mismanagement and poor spending decisions have left local authorities with debt and significant funding gaps. Swingeing austerity cuts have also left deep wounds in many aspects of local govt services, but this has meant that local authorities are using emotional blackmail to excuse closing libraries. People need to understand that cutting libraries IS cutting children’s services. It is also cutting mental health services, services to the elderly, services to the vulnerable, the unemployed, the lonely, the disenfranchised, and refugees. The only place in our communities that serves all of these people, all people, without bias or judgement is the local library. When you cut libraries, you cut services to the most vulnerable people in society.

What really makes a library great?

This one is easy. What makes a library great is not the building, or the books, but it is always the library workers. The people who daily make a commitment to support the needs of their users and their whole community. It is essential that these people are paid a fair wage, and that they are well trained and that their role is appreciated and understood. Library workers should all be following a set of clearly defined ethical principles, and they should be paid, insured, and protected by their local authorities. Without library workers, it’s not a library, it’s just a room with books in.

Stop focusing only on the “rosy glow”.

So many articles wallow in nostalgia that it allows others to perceive libraries as some kind of bubble that is trapped in the past. This could not be further from the truth. Please don’t write about libraries solely from your memories of childhood. Sure, share those (because they are so charming and we all need a bit of library love from time to time) but please take the time to find out what libraries are doing today, and check out how much they have moved on.

Stop peddling the myths

“No one uses libraries”, “no one needs libraries”, “it’s all on the internet”, “libraries are old-fashioned”…

We’ve all read these things, and they are simply not true. The UK had over 282 MILLION library visits in 2016, and it averages around 250 million a year. That’s enough to fill the London O2 Arena over 14,000 times. That’s a pretty big number. Just think about that for a moment. That’s the same as filling the O2 every night for roughly the next thirty eight years, and public libraries are doing that every year. Okay, so we know that all of these “no ones” are using public libraries, and that also shows that it’s a myth that “no one” needs them.

It’s not “all on the internet” and that’s just a silly and privileged thing to say. The digital divide in the UK means that around 10% of people have no internet access and are not regular computer users. Another big number here because at current population figures that means that around 6.5 MILLION people have no computer access or skills. That’s roughly the same figure as twice the population of Wales. So even if it was “all on the internet”, many people would not be able to access it.

Let’s take a look at one thing that is on the internet, but perhaps shouldn’t be – government paperwork. It is a sad fact that only 54% of applicants were able to fill out the Universal Credit forms without extra help. When people struggle with this paperwork they are usually sent to the library to do it. In fact official advice is to “go to your public library” to seek help filling out the forms. Of course, this is only possible if the library has staff and that it is actually open.

“Old fashioned”? Well, this is usually only said by people who have not visited a library since they were five. Libraries and library workers have been running ahead of rapid technological advances far better than most organisations. We were offering computer training when others were still trying to work out what a mouse was. We’re not playing at this stuff – information is our business and that means in all formats. On the surface things might have appear to have remained unchanged, but underneath that swan is not only paddling fast, but on feet that you’d barely recognise. The main problem with library workers is that they make this stuff look elegantly easy – and it really isn’t.

Libraries are too quiet for the modern world.

Oh my word, ask any library worker what drives them mad and they’ll tell you that every time they tell someone what they do for a living, people say “I bet you say ssshh a lot”. Frankly I only say “ssshh” to people who say that to me.

Libraries are quiet when they need to be, and that’s very important. The last place in our towns where you might be able to find some peace and respite from the chaos of the 21st century. A library is such an important study space and is often the only place you can quietly gather your thoughts. That said, most of our libraries are also buzzy and noisy and full of activity. I can see one from my window and there has been a steady stream of people all day. When I worked there we were rushed off our feet almost all the time, and the quiet of the evenings was essential for those who needed to study. Noisy is good, and quiet is good too. Now take a look at how hard library workers strive to offer both things to their users.

A suffocating silence is, however, falling in public libraries but this is for quite another reason – gagging. Many library workers at all levels are now gagged by their local authorities and unable to talk about what is really going on in their areas. Go and talk to library workers, and ask them. Ask them if they are gagged and give them the opportunity to talk with anonymity. It is well worth doing this with volunteer workers too. They are being expected to post a rosy picture, but all is often not what it seems.

Something is better than nothing

This one really grates on me because no one says it about any other statutory service or Govt provision. No one ever says that a group of volunteers with a med-kit is better than a real doctor, or that a bunch of well-meaning locals with a hose will do instead of the fire brigade. If your library does not do all of the things I’ve mentioned above (and more), and does not have paid library workers, then to my mind it’s not fulfilling the statutory requirements. Handing a library over to a small charity or group who have no sustainable plan, and no plans to take on paid and experienced staff, is not saving it but rather staving off the closure. It is a band-aid on an open wound and it will not stop the haemorrhage.

I have been looking at volunteer library business plans for almost a decade now, and I have yet to find even one that would not be laughed at by a real bank manager. Good people are being lied to, and are being expected to carry the burden of delivering a statutory provision without any clear framework, or a long-term sustainable plan. They are being fobbed off, and when their library does close it is the groups who will carry the blame.

There is also the element that this sort of library is entirely dependent on the community. Where the community is unable to support this process, they will not have a library. This is also being pedalled as their fault, and that is morally and ethically wrong. In fact, I feel that expecting people to work all the time for free is also morally and ethically wrong.

Many local authorities state that their volunteer led libraries are a “success”. I would ask all journalists to ask for proof of this. Falling issues and visitor numbers, unstaffed access, reduced services and diminished open hours have all recently been passed off as “successful”. Few authorities have actually bothered to perform solid analysis of their volunteer libraries, possibly because those who have see a rather bleak picture. If you are a journalist visiting a volunteer led library, check a few things, and ask a few questions. Does it still form part of the statutory requirement? Ask to see their comparative issue figures. Ask if anyone in the building adheres to a set of clear ethical principles? Ask if they have all been trained in things like privacy and the new GDPRs, and if they know what they are doing in terms of data capture and handling. Ask if they have a sustainable plan for future funding. 

One last thing – words are important. They are, after all, our business and so we want to protect definitions because they matter.

A bookshelf in a phone box is not a library – it’s a book swap

A box on legs at the end of someone’s garden is not a library – it’s a book swap

A shelf at the train station full of discarded books is not a library…..

You get the idea. When you use the word “library” please be sure that you are actually talking about a real public library and not a community book-swap point.

Cute it may be, but it’s #notalibrary

Remember, a public library is a library that is accessible by the general public and is generally funded from public sources, such as taxes. It is operated by librarians and library workers, who are also civil servants and it forms part of the statutory public library provision for the local authority as per the regulations relating to the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964.

You’ve paid for these places, time to assert your right to them and to talk about them in clear and unapologetic terms.

Oh, and you don’t have to be a library user to understand and appreciate that a great library improves your community and has societal value. In the same way you don’t have to have a house in flames to appreciate a well funded fire service. Some things simply make the places we live better, safer, and more bonded as communities. I don’t have a small child who likes slides, and it’s been a very long time since I tried to get over the bar on the swings, but I know that parks and green spaces make for a better place to live. Libraries do that too. I get that, and I hope we all do. 

I’d like to now invite library workers to describe in the comments all the things that you do that are NOT stamping or shelving books. I couldn’t possibly list in this article all of the things that you do, so I shall leave it up to you.

Journalists – here are some facts and research that you will find useful. Thank you for supporting our public libraries, and please keep doing so. If you ever need any quotes or other details, or if you want to contact someone to talk about libraries in any of our many sectors, please drop CILIP a line, or seek out some of the wonderful library campaigners who give their lives over to protecting our public libraries.

That DCMS report in full, with loads of handy graphics you can use – https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/libraries-deliver-ambition-for-public-libraries-in-england-2016-to-2021 

The Health and Wellbeing facts can be found in this report – https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/The%20health%20and%20wellbeing%20benefits%20of%20public%20libraries.pdf

Here area whole bunch of stats and a link to CILIP’s website – https://archive.cilip.org.uk/research/sectors/public-libraries/public-libraries-statistics

A superb source of information about public libraries in the UK is Public Library News – I’d bookmark them and refer back to this “myth busting” page regularly. http://www.publiclibrariesnews.com/reasons-for/myth-busting

One last thing you might need – take a look at the extraordinary work done by library workers to change and save lives. These are not all from public libraries, but it gives you a taste of what library workers mean to the world. 

https://www.cilip.org.uk/page/LibrariesChangeLiv 

Dawn Finch is a CILIP Trustee and chair of CILIP’s Ethics Committee. She is a librarian and children’s author.

@dawnafinch

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Silence still falls in the library, by Dawn Finch

As a long-term library campaigner and public speaker, and thanks to this social media thing, I have a lot of contact with library workers. For some reason people feel comfortable talking to me, and this may be because I have been very outspoken about library cuts and the many unsustainable schemes that local authorities are using to cast off their responsibilities.

One of the things that library workers contact me about is something that I find very worrying indeed – gagging. With the rise of so-called “community libraries” and the decimation of the workforce we are now left with an uneasy silence from the thousands of remaining library workers. Many campaigners are occasionally frustrated by the apparent lack of support from frontline library workers, but there is a deeply worrying reason for this. A year ago I had three or four library workers contact me to tell me that they were not allowed to speak about their situation at work, this year that has risen to three or four people a week saying the same thing. Last week I had twelve different library workers contact me about gagging restrictions. Many have taken to creating anonymised accounts on social media so that they can let off steam. I personally know of people who have lost their jobs due to “speaking out of turn” and many more who are too afraid to say anything at all. They feel that their grip on their job is so fragile that if they “get a reputation as a moaner” they will not have their contracts renewed, or they will be first in line for redundancies.

Here is a tiny little snapshot of some of the messages I’ve received –

“I’ve had two warnings about my public support for library campaigns. I can’t risk a third.”

“We’ve all been told that if we moan about the council in public we’ll be sacked.”

“My library users know that there’s something wrong, but we can’t tell them that half of us are being made redundant. We don’t know which of us will go yet so we are all petrified that anything we say wrong will be held against us.”

“They keep bringing in new changes, and more work, and longer hours for no more money but we’re expected to feel grateful we have a job and have been told we are banned from speaking in public about anything to do with the library.’

“I’m overseeing a group of volunteers, but I was a library assistant not a manager. Now I’m expected to be a manager and I’m paid no more and it’s awful. They all treat me like crap but I can’t say a thing about it.”

“We’ve been told that we’re not allowed to communicate with any of the people protesting about cuts to our library.”

“I had a formal warning when my line-manager saw my name on a petition about library cuts.”

“I’d have more protection if I was a whistleblower than just a person grumbling about how poorly people are treated in my local library.”

“I’m less than half the age of the people I”m expected to manage, and they all hate me and ignore everything I say. I had a moan about it on twitter and had a formal warning about it. I’m working alone and feel as if I’ve been cast adrift alone.”

“We have a meeting every week where we’re all reminded not to moan about anything to anyone outside the library. It’s bullying, but we’re too afraid to say anything. I need my job.”

All of this worries me greatly, and in my opinion this is deeply unethical. It also masks the depth of the pressure that library workers are under. Library workers who are too afraid to be honest about their situation hinders campaigns, but I completely understand why they would not want to say anything, or sign anything. I was a union rep for a long time and, frankly, nothing that staff are doing should constitute formal whistleblowing and talking about the realities of your job should be allowed. Local authorities are literally using fear to silence the libraries.

So, the next time you wonder why the staff from your local library are not speaking out, it’s probably because they are not allowed to. If you can, speak for them and be noisy on their behalf. When you talk about how amazing your public libraries are, and the huge difference they have made to your life, talk about the workers. These are the people who follow a set of ethical principles. These are the professionals with the skills and experience to give you exactly what you need from your library, and they make it look easy when it is far from that.

It’s never just been about bricks, or books, it’s always been about people. Without the library workers your libraries would be nothing more than a badly organised room with books in.

Take the time to speak out for, and thank, a library worker.

Dawn Finch is a trustee of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) and chair of the CILIP Ethics Committee. She is also a member of the Society of Author’s Childrens and Writers Illustrators Group committee (CWIG)

@dawnafinch

Footnote – if you are a gagged library worker and would like an anonymous platform to speak out against what is happening to you, drop me a line. I am happy to host your comments here and will promise to protect your identity.

Why I bother with libraries.

I am a library campaigner. I have that in my profile descriptions on social media, and I am known for this role. I campaign and write about libraries, and am a familiar face at rallies and events connected to libraries and reading. I was President of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), and now I am standing for election as a CILIP Trustee and so it is evident that I care a great deal about our libraries. Recently someone asked me that crucial question – why bother? It seems like a lot of work, and you don’t get paid for it, so why bother?

After I had calmed down, I explained that the answer was so huge that I couldn’t do it justice in a few sentences, and so I thought I would share some of my past writings to explain why it matters, and why I bother.

Why do I need libraries in the first place? Well, I want a society where people have intelligence and are informed and creative. That matters to me and that’s what libraries (and in particular school libraries) do. I wrote about that here….

Like many people, I live with an invisible disability. I manage just fine, but one day I won’t and now and again I need more help with information. I need a safe space in my community that will offer me support on an ad hoc basis. It will save my local authority a huge amount of money if I can be supported in this way. I need someone I can trust in my community – I need my librarian. I wrote about that here…

I want our children to grow up as readers and to have the skills to access education with greater ease. I want them to be prepared for life and for the onslaught of fake news and biased reporting. I want children to have empathy for others and greater understanding of the world around them. I want them to have a school librarian. I wrote about that here…. 

I want people to read more. Reading for pleasure makes people happier, more rounded as human beings, and they even earn more. I sit on the Reading Agency’s national steering group looking at the wider impact of reading for pleasure, and the evidence is clear – people who read more benefit hugely. Books are expensive. For everyone to read more, and for society to benefit from it, we need more libraries. I wrote about that here….

The provision of a “comprehensive and efficient” library service is a statutory requirement. I need my librarian, and I need skilled library workers who have signed a commitment to providing an ethical and equitable service. Personally, I want to know that when I am handing over my data in a library it is to someone who has a set of agreed ethical principles. As chair of CILIP’s Ethics Committee, I have written about that here…

But here is the big one – I passionately believe that it is vital to protect library workers. We have just had Libraries Week, and I must confess that I was dismayed to discover that many people were sharing things as if the library was some kind of sentient building that was doing all of these amazing things without any human involvement. Masses of people all talking about how astonishing libraries are… but I could count on one hand the number of high-profile media pieces that actually mentioned the library workers who make all these things happen.

Every time we talk about the work that libraries do, what we are really talking about is the work that the library workers do. None of this would happen without them. A library is, after all, just a building – bricks and mortar, cement and glass. It can’t read stories, comfort the lonely, teach digital literacy, support the sick, calm the distressed or find jobs for the jobless – that takes a library worker. Yes, we should protect libraries, but only if they house library workers. It is not right that, as a society, we pay for libraries in our taxes and are then expected to do the work ourselves. I don’t pay for a building, I pay for the people who do the work. Call me old fashioned, but I also want human beings to be fairly paid for the work they do. A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work seems like the most basic of rights to me. Why should essential services become a postcode lottery that means that libraries only exist in wealthy areas where people have the time and money to work for free? This is a rot at the heart of our society – that we are blamed for not doing all the work for free, and if we can’t work for free we somehow are less deserving of the service. People should be paid, and they should be trained, protected and they should be accountable. I have written a great deal about this issue, and these have been some of my most read and shared posts. You can read three of them here… and here… and here

This is why I bother, and this is why I can’t stop campaigning for libraries – because the societal value is huge. Libraries save society money, and improve quality of life and opportunities for millions of people. It is sheer idiocy to put them in danger. To even suggest that libraries offer anything less than extraordinary value for money is a lie. Simple as that. A lie. I don’t mind shouting that from the rooftops. Look at the stats if you don’t believe me. Nobody uses libraries? Who are all these nobodies then? 


I am standing for election as a CILIP trustee because I’ve always believed that if you are going to say a thing you should say it where people are best placed to hear it. If I don’t like a thing, then I’m prepared to step up and try to get something done about it. I can grumble and moan and shout all I like in the vacuum of social media, but it is in the corridors of power that the silence falls and the selectively deaf walk. Representing an organisation like CILIP allows us as a collective to speak louder and to shake the ivory towers. I do believe that there is strength in the collective. I’m up against some stiff competition in this election, and all of the people standing share my thoughts. Libraries will win no matter who is elected, but I can’t not stand. Making a stand is kind of my thing. I’m in excellent company. If you are a CILIP member I strongly advise you to take part in this democratic process. It’s your vote, your voice, use it! If you’re not a CILIP member, join us! Everyone with an interest in the library and information profession is welcome. 

All in all, I want to look back on my life and know that I did everything I possibly could to make a difference. This is why I bother, because it matters.

Dawn Finch, librarian and children’s author, was president of CILIP in 2016 and is the current chair of CILIP’s Ethics Committee. She is a member of a number of national committees concerned with literacy and libraries, and a member of the Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators committee focusing on children’s reading for pleasure, and the rights of authors.

You can read all nomination papers for the all of the people standing in the forthcoming CILIP Trustee elections here… and if you are a CILIP member voting papers will be sent to you on or around 20th October 2017. The election and manifesto site can be found here

Help, I want to read to my child, but…

…but why should I bother?

…but my reading isn’t so good.

….but I’m not confident about it.

….but I feel like a fool.

…but they can already read on their own.

…but I don’t have the time.

Okay, so these are some of the things that I’m most often asked about. So let’s see if we can tackle them.

Let’s start off by looking at why you should bother. Firstly, your child will do better in school. There’s loads of proof of this, and I’ve put some links in at the end if you need them. Trust me, if your child is a better reader who knows lots of words, then they’ll do better in all their other subjects at school. They’ll even earn more money when they’re older. They’ll learn quicker, and be better at explaining things, so they are less likely to get into trouble. Let’s face it, we all know that happy children do better in school, and when they read more they do better, so they’re happier. That’s just common sense!

There are loads of other good reasons too, but I’m sure you don’t want to wade through all the paperwork. You know it’s worth doing, that’s why you are taking the time to read this. Thank you! You can ask me any questions you like in the comments or by email. Get started by taking a look at the great stuff they have on the BookTrust’s website. They know all the reasons why you should make time to read. The site will give you all the facts, and lots of reading ideas and help. 

Right – next one. “My reading isn’t so good.” Let’s ditch some baggage here –  you’re not alone. Tens of thousands of people have trouble reading for one reason or another. That’s not going to stop you being an excellent parent (or grandparent, or auntie, or uncle, or carer, or foster parent… You get the idea!) Remind yourself how hard it was learning how to read when you were little. Now it’s hard for this child too. That’s not because you found it difficult, it’s because it is hard! Learning to read is like trying to solve a really hard jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box. You can be that picture. You can help them fill in the gaps. Learn with your child. Pretend they are teaching you. Most of all, if you really do find it hard (or you know someone who does) there is help out there. Go to your library, ask a friendly teacher, look on the BookTrust website. Most of all, don’t hide it. You have nothing to be ashamed of, and nothing to hide. You can make a difference to your own life, and your child’s at the same time. It’s a win-win situation.

Next up – confidence. I’d love to wave a magic wand and give you reading confidence, but the only thing that will give you that is practice. Like everything you’ve ever done in life, you were probably not brilliant from day one. I’m guessing you made a right mess of things like driving, but I’m pretty sure you didn’t let that stop you. Stick at it. That child in your life really doesn’t care. They love you and will understand that you’re really trying to do something good for both of you. 

Feeling like a fool? Excellent. Me too. Nothing wrong with that, and who cares? Your child doesn’t care. Do you seriously think a small child would stop you from making silly voices, or doing animal noises? If your child is feeling embarrassed or awkward about their reading, then by playing the fool you take the pressure off. Reading then stops being a boring lesson, and starts being fun. Honestly, the bigger the fool you are, the better you’re getting at it. If you’re embarrassed in front of the one small person who will love you with all of their heart no matter what you do, then it’s time to think about that. Be fun, be silly, be memorable. Show them that all that really matters in the world is making them laugh and making them happy. Everything else can fit in after that, and a relationship built on laughter will last their whole lives. Your child will never forget you being silly, so go ahead and enjoy it. If a person can’t be silly in front of their own child, then there is something seriously wrong with the world!

They already know how to read? Really? I’m heading towards 50 and I’m not finished learning to read yet. I come across new words all the time and I often need the whole rest of the page to help me understand the new word. Sure, your child has learnt the basics. They can sound out the words, and probably know a number of tricks that they’ve been taught to help them to say the word, but that’s only the start of reading. I can convincingly “sound out” the whole of a German newspaper – but I haven’t a clue what 90% of it is saying. I haven’t had the help to learn what the words actually mean. Most of the words we know we have learnt by accident. I mean, I doubt anyone gave you a lesson about what a table was. I’m sure you didn’t go to infant school and have a day when tables and chairs were explained to you. No, you just heard your parents call them that lots of times, and that’s how you learnt those words. Reading aloud lets your child do that with words that they might not find by accident. New and exciting words like unicorn and castle and fire breathing dragon. Words that aren’t normally dropped into their lives. Hearing words is almost as important to reading as seeing them. Hearing you say them out loud will let your child picture the word in their head, and this helps them to understand it. Later on it will help them to use it themselves. Learning how to understand letter shapes and make them into words is just the start of the lifelong adventure that is reading. Oh, and no one is ever too old for a bedtime story! Ever. 

Here’s a big one – I don’t have the time? Really? I don’t want to be mean here but… Really? What happens at bedtime? Is that game or dvd going to give them a better life? How about that that soap opera, or reality show? I’m not pretending to be the perfect mother here, my daughter fell asleep to the Home and Away theme tune every afternoon, and I’ve thanked any god that will listen for daytime cartoons, but I still read to her. She’s 23 now and I still read to her at times. We’re not embarrassed by it, that’s our normal. I missed our bedtime stories when she was about 12 and didn’t want them anymore and she instead listened to story CDs. Bedtime story time was the most wonderful thing. All of the stresses of the day were left at the bedroom door and it was just us and the story. Just us two against a world filled with magical creatures, talking animals, pirates, rescues and escapes. The memories of those stories fills me with joy, and I know her dad feels the same. For him it was a very special time because the stories and the telling of them gave both of them a bond that can’t be broken. They chose the story together and there are some that he can still recall because they were favourites that were read many times. Those moments, those cosy hours, can never be taken from them. 

So what are you really waiting for? Not enough books? The library is a treasure trove of free books. They can borrow almost as much as they can carry. We can all make excuses for why we don’t do things. I’ve done it. We all do it. The excuses will always be there, but their childhood won’t. They are grown up in the blink of an eye and your relationship with them as adults is deeply affected by what you do in these younger years. 

It doesn’t matter where you are, read a story. If you don’t read aloud for just a bit of time each day, you’re not only denying your child something that can make their life better, but you’re denying yourself something wonderful. In a world where we are all rushing around, running too fast towards the next thing on the list, take time out for you. Take time out for all of you. Not just because it will improve a child’s education or their vocabulary, but because it will make them happy. It will make them happier people who cope better in life. Oh, and it will make you happier too. 

So, when all around you is rush and chaos – stop, get quiet, get comfy, breathe deep, and open a book. 

Dawn Finch is a children’s writer and librarian who specialises in reader development. She is President of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, and a member of the Society of Authors, Children’s Writers and Illustrators Committee. 

www.dawnfinch.com

@dawnafinch

BookTrust is a charity that works hard to bring books and reading to the lives of all, and to improve the quality of life for all our children. You can find out more about them on their website

Share your ideas, stories and thoughts about the importance of making time to read by using social media and the hashtag #timetoread and following @booktrust 

You can find some research and guidance about reading for pleasure and sharing reading here and here and here.



Images copyright BookTrust. 

V for Volunteer – a dystopian reality.

Four months ago I conducted an interview with the chair of a trustee group who are responsible for the museum in their small city. I was visiting the city to do some research for a book I was working on and, in the process, I got talking to the volunteers in the museum about their situation. That talk, and many emails after that visit, now make up the body of this interview. All names and locations have been anonymised as the people I spoke to did not want to cause any bad feelings, and feared that their grant applications would be refused yet again if they were found to be speaking out. I have nicknamed them V for Volunteer.

A little background first.

The museum is in a city with a population of around 43,000 people. These 43,000 people are spread out over a large rural area with a concentration in the city. The area is right in the middle terms of deprivation with the rural areas being very poor, and the towns being better off. The museum was part funded by a trust fund established by a Victorian benefactor, but with the bulk of funding coming from the local authority. It is in an area of great archaeological and historical importance, and conserves and displays items relating to that history, as well as many items of social importance.

In 2013 all local authority funding was cut from the museum, as were all council funded grants. Since then the museum has had to rely entirely on volunteers and donations from the community. Applications for grants have so far been refused, and the trust fund is only sufficient to cover heating and lighting. The volunteers have been left to try to keep the museum going.

This is their story.

Me – First off, I have to say that you do an amazing job. The museum is wonderful and I can see from the comments in the visitor book, and the joy on the children’s faces, that this place is loved. You are the Chair of the volunteer group, how many volunteers do you have?

V – (sighs) That’s a good question. When we first started this whole thing we had tons. I mean at our first meeting in the Town Hall, when they were talking about taking away the funding, we had over 600 people sign up for more information and 480 of those said that they’d volunteer regularly to help. That was back in early 2013. When we started doing this in January 2014 we had, I think, 75 volunteers. That number went down and down every week and now (April 2016) there are 13 of us left.

Me – Wow! That’s a huge drop in numbers. It looks like a pretty nice place to volunteer, and everyone I’ve met is incredibly friendly. Why do you think the numbers fell off so badly?

V – The trouble is that it’s not just us that needs volunteers. There are so many local things that now rely on volunteers and there’s only so much people can do. People gave all sorts of reasons for not sticking at it. Many of our volunteers found that the commitment was too great. As the numbers went down we had to ask people to do more to fill the gaps, but they couldn’t commit. Some got jobs and couldn’t spare the time. Some had other volunteering that they felt had to take priority. Many couldn’t afford to drive into town, and a good few left when they cut many of the bus routes into town. We did ask people why they quit, and the most common answer was that it was “just too much”. Most of our volunteers were over 65 and I think they just found it too tiring. It’s pretty exhausting working in a service capacity, and they no longer felt up to it. Lots of them said it “wasn’t what they expected” too. I think they all thought it was going to be a nice easy bit of a thing to do in their spare time and they were shocked at how much was expected of them.

Me – How do you raise money to keep the museum going?

V – We have applied for many grants, but so far have not been successful. The process of making grant applications is hugely complicated and none of us have any experience of that process and I think that has slowed everything down. We’ve had to beg friends for favours to get some help to put in these applications but each time the application has been turned down. One of the things we keep being told is that we need to be able to “prove a sustainable plan” – but how can we do that when we have no sustainable income? We are being asked to create business plans and detailed accounts, but we’ve been given no help to do that.

We do raise money from the community, but they are at the limit of what we can ask for. You can’t keep going to a community for money. There are literally hundreds of groups asking the community for money and we are experiencing a good amount of obvious weariness from the community over local charitable fundraising. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s just that we’ve already asked them for so much.

Me – What have been the main problems in running a service like this entirely with volunteers?

V – The main problem is that we really don’t have the skills for the job. I mean, we all do our best and try to learn as much as we can, but we really don’t know what we are doing. Six of us have a background in archaeology so we know the exhibits, and can do the talks for schools, but we don’t know how to write business plans, or handle competitive tendering, or keep a boiler working. This year I’ve had to learn bricklaying because the back wall collapsed and we couldn’t afford to pay someone to fix it. If I’m honest we are keeping going with a whole bunch of guesswork and patching over the cracks.

The other problem is that not all volunteers are really cut out for it. Many are unreliable and simply don’t show up, some are rude and aggressive, some hate children and think that they should be quiet at all time, or shouldn’t be in the museum at all. Most lack any kind of customer service experience. Public feedback is now saying that the museum is not the friendly place it once was, but we are completely dependent on volunteers and so we even have to keep the ones who would not make it if they were paid staff.

My personal main problem is that I’m exhausted. I don’t know how much longer I can keep going like this. The museum is open 35 hours a week, and I’m working around 40 hours a week for nothing. I love this museum, and walking away would be devastating, but for my own sanity and health I can’t keep going like this. I’m afraid to stop because I know that if I do the place will start to fail. I’m already living on my savings, and my husband feels it’s all threatening our marriage and our children’s future. This isn’t fair. We shouldn’t have to do any of this.

Me – That rather brings us to the future. What do you see in the future for the museum?

V – (another very big sigh) Awful question. When I’m asked that in public I have this smiling version of the story and I keep the positive outlook but, as you’re going to make this anonymous, I’ll tell you the truth. I don’t think that there is a future for the museum. Without public funding of some form we can’t keep going like this. We have been allowed to sell some items from our archive and that gave us a little slush fund. I reckon we are six months away from having to charge admission, and charge a lot more schools for visits. The risk around doing that is huge because we know how tight money is in schools and so the move towards charging may well be the final coffin nail. Sad fact is that we can’t afford to not charge. We are between a rock and a hard place. Behind the scenes we are getting really desperate now, and if I’m honest we don’t know how we are going to open this winter because fuel prices have shot up and the dwindling trust fund can’t take much more. Our heating bill alone could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

The thing that really makes me want to spit blood is that we all know that if the museum fails, the council will make out like it’s our fault. They’ve lied to us all the way down the line by telling us we’d have support and guidance through this process. Now I can’t even get a reply when I call for help and I no longer even know who is supposed to be responsible for being our support contact. Last year our treasurer had a heart attack and we didn’t have anyone to take her place in time for the accounts to be processed. I contacted the council asking for help and I was passed from pillar to post trying to get someone to help. No one ever did. In the end we had to beg a friend of a friend to do them. We’ve just been cut adrift.

Me – What would you say to other groups taking on tasks like this?

V – Honestly? Don’t do it. We all started with such high hopes and we all wanted to save the museum and make a difference, but it’s been a huge mistake. Don’t get me wrong, I love working in and for the museum and I look at the faces of the people who come in here and for a bit it all seems worth it. Then I’m up at 3am because the decrepit alarm has gone off again, or I’m up to my elbows in the toilet because the old cistern can’t handle tissue, or I’m rallying people to mop up a flood from another frozen pipe. It’s hard to remember how much you love museums and the difference they make when you’re on your knees scrubbing up a spilt drink or consoling another unpaid colleague who has been shouted at by a member of the public. We know that the roof needs fixing, but we all pretend not to think about it.

All of this and we all daily work with the heavy knowledge that we haven’t really saved the museum at all, we’ve just put off the inevitable for a few years. Unless some miraculous benefactor steps in and gives us a few million, we won’t make it to the end of the decade. If the museum goes, it will be one more thing gone in our community. If I had to give people advice I’d say that time is better spent fighting to keep funding and paid staff. Do whatever you can, fight and fight and fight to keep that funding in place.

Me – It’s not an easy question, but I have to ask it. Why do you do it? Why do you think the museum should be saved?

V – We’ve already lost so much, the library is under threat and the buses have gone so that threatens the market. The youth club lost funding last year and so did five other youth projects. Pretty soon there will be nothing left to call this a community, it will just be a place with nothing left in it to give anyone culture or pleasure. The only people who will have any kind of pleasure or culture left will be the ones who can afford to pay for it. We all know the council should be funding community resources, and we all know the huge benefit to any community that a museum represents, but no one seems to listen. A lively and thriving community benefits everyone. It makes for a better place to live and so people want to live there. Those people pay council tax and national taxes and they work hard and deserve to see some kind of return in their towns.

What’s the point in working our whole lives if we have nothing left in our communities to give life more purpose and meaning? How can we hold a community together if there is nothing left to bring people together?

I will leave this interview with that extremely important point – how can we hold any of our communities together without our community resources? How can we possibly expect people to feel valued if an “everything must go” price is put on their community resources? How can we expect our communities, and the individuals in them, to have a sense of cohesion if all we do is drive them further apart?

Museums, libraries, art galleries, youth centres, parks, playground, paddling pools, drop-in centres, housebound services, day centres, community centres… these are the glue that binds our communities. These are the things that bring people together and create that sense of community that makes for safer and better lives for all. The current austerity cuts that are specifically directed at services like this represent an attack on the links in the chains that unite our communities. These cuts are eroding our culture and society and we, as citizens, are expected to do all the work to keep them going. Those of us who volunteer all the time are expected to carry this entire burden on our weakening shoulders. Good people are being lied to, and then they are expected to take all the responsibility for trying to keep their essential community resources going.

It is up to us all to unite to stop that erosion. This should not be a battleground of individual skirmishes, this is a war on social cohesion and on our culture, and we need to join together to raise our voices to stop it before we have lost everything that made our country great.

Write to your MP, sign as many petitions as you can find, speak out against the destruction of our communities, make your voices heard for all of those who don’t have a voice, rally your communities so that they can see what they are losing, make it clear that losing these services is not an option.

Above all, don’t let the desperate struggle to protect our community services and resources drive us further apart. Join your community with others, link to other groups and present a united and public front.

Divided our voices are hard to hear, united we are impossible to ignore.

Dawn Finch is a national library and literacy campaigner, and a children’s writer. She is the Past President of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), and a member of the Society of Author’s Children’s Writers and Illustrators committee (CWIG)

CILIP have a national campaign to protect our libraries and support the essential work they do to raise national literacy levels and develop our communities. Please support the campaign for your legal right to a library provision here.

http://mylibrarybyright.org.uk/

 

 

 

 

Columbus Metropolitan Library – treasure and tranquillity. 

One of the joys of attending international conferences, and being CILIP President, is that I’m lucky enough to visit some superb libraries. This year (2016) the location for the World Library and Information Congress is Columbus, Ohio. In June 2016 the Columbus Metropolitan Library reopened after a sixteen month closure for a refurb, and so I stopped by for a look around. Actually refurb is too small a word for the extraordinary work that has gone on at Columbus Metropolitan. The library has benefitted from an investment of 35 million dollars, and on visiting it is immediately apparent where this money has been spent. 

You enter the library through the grand and monumental entrance of the 1907 Carnegie building. The original features of this building have been preserved, and now contain art displays within the Carnegie Gallery space. On the front steps of this building, carved in stone, is the legend “My treasures are within” – what better statement could welcome us to a library? Walking through this classical space, under some dazzling art, you enter the main atrium of the library. 

 

  The new atrium has been opened up with high windows to let natural light flood in making this one of the most dramatically impressive library spaces that I have ever been in. Immediately to your right is the new children’s library, and this is no tucked away apologetic space – this is a large and bright space beautifully fitted out for children. I love the fact that there is space for reading, space for storytelling and space for looking things up…in fact there is a space for whatever a child’s imagination reaches  out for. You can see the planning process here, and it really has children at the heart of it.

The central atrium

Stairs to the upper levels

 The atrium leads through to a coffee shop and then out to the newly purchased and landscaped garden area, which in turn leads in to the wonderful Topiary Garden. If you head up the stairs (or the elevators) the first thing you’ll find is the huge reading room. This is another cathedral of natural light with towering walls of glass that overlook the park. 

The rest of the library fans out around and above this space flanked by rows of neat study rooms. The flow of the lending and reference sections feels very organic and each section leads seamlessly into another. It really is a remarkable space, and staffed by enthusiastic and helpful librarians. (Yes, every person I spoke to was a qualified librarian) 

The reading room

 As I was wandering around I bumped into Pat Losinski, the CEO of the library. I must say that I was most impressed to find the CEO walking around and chatting to library users. He is justifiably proud of what they have achieved here, and what they are working on with the other Columbus libraries. They have already fully refurbished four libraries, and within the next two years the remaining six in the project will be opened. Pat told me how much value the people of Columbus place on their libraries, and how important literacy is to a successful city, and a successful country.  

Art in the Carnegie space

 One thing really struck me about the Columbus Met Library – the overwhelming feeling of calm that the space exudes. The Columbus Met is not an echoing modern edifice, but is in fact a blissfully quiet space. This does not feel forced and stifling, it actually feels genuinely refreshing and spiritually uplifting to enter. The place was very busy as I walked around, but the design seems to deaden the noise and allows people to keep that peaceful sense of calm without feeling restricted. No one is telling people to shush, and it is clear that library users are quiet because that’s how they want to be, and that’s how they want the library to be. 

Child-sized doorway of the children’s library

I know that there is a tendency these days to voice the opinion that silence is an old-fashioned concept for libraries, but I feel that we give up our quiet public spaces at our peril. There are plenty of places in our communities in which to be noisy, but remarkably few places that are quiet havens. The world is a noisy and demanding place, and libraries can offer a peaceful balance to this. Where else can we go for quiet study, reading or just to sit and ease our mental clutter? A free and open space where we can sit and gather our thoughts is hugely beneficial to our mental health and wellbeing, and I do think that it is important that we don’t forget that. 

Columbus Metropolitan Library is a remarkable space, and I think that Pat Losinski said it best of all when I complimented him on his beautiful library. 

“Thank you,” he said, “but it’s not my library, it belongs to everyone.”

Dawn Finch

President, Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP)

Children’s writer and librarian. 

@dawnafinch 

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE LIBRARIES OF COLUMBUS, OHIO – CLICK HERE.

Living with an invisible disability

Note – this post is being re-shared to explain why I campaign for libraries, and to celebrate National Libraries Week. 

About 15 years ago I was on holiday in Cornwall with my family and I was sitting on a grassy slope enjoying the sunshine and the view, when I noticed a very small black spot in my vision. I was tired and the sun was bright and so I dismissed it as eye strain. Two days later the spot was still there, but had now been joined by another one. I called my doctor and got an appointment as I thought it might be an eye infection, or maybe a scratch caused by sand blown around on windy Cornish beaches. I wasn’t worried.

My doctor was. He sent me immediately to the eye emergency clinic for an examination. They were worried too. They could see holes in my retinas and they sent me for emergency treatment. The edges of the tears were burnt with a laser to stop them from spreading any further. They can’t be fixed. After this I was sent to Moorfields so that they could explain my condition to me. All of this happened in a two week period and so I was swept along without much time to take it all in. I learnt the name of my condition (lattice degeneration) and how rare my type is. I was told that there are many types, and mine isn’t one of the good ones. I was told that my retinas were like “wet tissue”, or “over stretched balloons”, or “stockings with ladders” – my eyes were compared to a few other odd things too. I was told that it’s untreatable, and that one day it will leave me blind, or maybe blind in just one eye if I’m “lucky”. I was told that could be in ten years, or maybe twenty, or it could be tomorrow. I was told that my vision would get worse, but might plateau, or might stabilise and then get worse again. I was told that it probably wouldn’t make much difference unless I “read a lot” (it’s my job, I read around 100 books a year). I was told I had the eyes of an 80 year old. I was told I’d “probably get used to it”.

Of course even though I was told all of this, I didn’t really hear it. In fact I left various doctor’s rooms hearing only one word – blind. That was all I knew – that I was going blind.

It wasn’t the doctor who gave me the information I needed to carry on, it was the library. Thanks to the library I was able to find everything from medical text books, to advice books, to leaflets, to helplines. I found support and information and I was able to set not only my fears to rest, but the fears of my family.

It’s been years now, and my vision has at times deteriorated, and then stabilised again. My library and my librarian have both been there for me. Finding new information and keeping me supported. There really isn’t anything else in my community that can do this for me. Last year my vision took a bit of a downturn and I had new symptoms to deal with. I now find that my peripheral vision is almost nonexistent, and focussing takes so long that moving or scrolling displays are almost impossible to read. Where stairs do not have clearly marked edges I have to take great care as they can blur into one, this means that many escalators resemble a silver-grey river which can be quite alarming. Artificial light can cause eye strain that often blurs out the vision in one or both of my eyes, and can sometimes cause a visual migraine that makes me almost blind for a few hours. Those two holes left me with blind spots, and my general vision is rather like looking through a dirty net curtain.

I have adjusted (although I get very angry at organisations such as train companies who seem to refuse to understand disability awareness guidelines which would make travel much easier) There is no label to show the public my kind of disability. Thanks to many recent changes in legislation I’m not entitled to any help. I’m not visually impaired enough to qualify for registration yet. I don’t get a badge, or a stick, and no one can tell I have it. People get angry behind me on public transport when I have to stop and stare at steps, or doors. They don’t give me their seats even when I’m holding on with both hands because my peripheral vision is so poor that I can’t tell what’s next to me, or because my balance is affected by my inability to focus. I am very patient with other people who tut when I can’t see that my ticket is the wrong one, or that it’s the wrong way up, or when I have to stop for a few seconds longer than they need. It’s not their fault that they can’t see my disability, as beyond an odd tilting of my head to get objects into the clearer bits of my field of vision, they can’t know what’s wrong. Being angry with them doesn’t help me.

To give you an idea of what my vision is like, I have prepared this image. I have always taken photographs, and discovering that I have a visual impairment might confuse some people as to how I do this. I do it by learning the camera’s capabilities and then trusting it. Mostly when I’m taking photos I actually can’t see what I’m taking until I look at it on the computer screen.

This is a photograph I took recently.   

And this is a a fair approximation of what I actually see. 

I take photos of everything because it’s really the only way I can see what the view actually looks like.

One day I won’t even be able to do that. This scares me because the way the UK is going I am afraid that there will not be a care network in place to support me. I am afraid that the burden of care will fall entirely on my family, and that’s not fair. I’m a hugely independent person and it’s not the thought of being blind that scares me, it’s the thought of being a burden – of being entirely dependent on the people I love. I need something else in my community that will support my needs and keep me going. I need something to keep me sane and to allow me to hang on to my independence. I need a library, and I need a librarian. I need to know that I will have a librarian who knows me and understands me. Someone who can hold onto audio books for me, and read the back of the boxes. Someone I can trust with my private information who can look things up for me. I need a safe and reliable place that I can get to in my community where I can turn to someone for help. I need somewhere local where I can have access to materials, and information in different formats. The thought of not having that really scares me.

When we talk about all of the things that libraries do for people, we often forget all of the things that they might one day do for us. You possibly feel that you don’t need your library now, but one day you might. I hope for all of our sakes that it’s still there when you do. I know that librarians are discreetly doing this sort of supportive work in their communities every single day. I know this because for decades I did it myself for other people.

I hope you won’t ever need libraries and librarians for the same reasons I will, but just in case let’s all stand up for our right to keep them right where they belong – in the hearts of our communities.

Dawn Finch

Trustee and Past President Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP)

Children’s author and librarian