The Empty Shelves

As I was queueing in the post office, the line snaked past the few shelves of books for sale, and an all too familiar situation caught my eye. There were three shelves of books for children. Of these one was entirely filled with Disney franchise books, another had colouring books, and books of stickers, the third had books for older children. On this last shelf were nine different titles – all but one were by the same two celebrity authors. All were the same genre.

This upset me, but perhaps not for the reasons you expect. As an author and campaigner for the rights of authors, this does frustrate me because it limits the opportunity for other authors to get their work into the hands of readers, but it’s more than that.  As a children’s librarian my frustration is doubled.

Let me explain.

I have worked with children’s books and reading for over thirty years, and I have worked with many national groups supporting children’s literacy. I’ve sat on working groups looking at the development of readers, taught hundreds of teachers how to tackle reader development in their schools, and have personally taught almost a thousand children how to read or improve their reading. So you might say I know a thing or two about reading!

People often ask me what the key to success in reader development is, and the single best piece of advice I can give anyone – be it parent, bookseller, librarian or teacher – is that the first important thing is choice. A wide, free, voluntary choice.

I live in a small rural town and, like many other towns, we are a fifty mile round trip to a large bookshop. We are very lucky in that the community fought to keep the little bookshop open. Most small towns (and indeed many larger ones too) have no bookshop at all, and the only access to purchasable reading material is the supermarket, or the few shelves in the newsagent or post office. The few books available on these shelves do not represent a wide, free, voluntary choice because they represent what the supplier wants the retailer to sell. This limits the choice available and skews the popularity (and sales figures) of the book.

In my experience I would say that roughly 30% of children coming into the primary school library choose a funny book. That’s fantastic! As a genre, funny books certainly command a decent chunk of the market share, and feature highly in the national lending figures for libraries. The most popular funny books in my library were always the ones that were a bit smarter than basic fart gags. I love a funny book and am in awe of writers who can make a reader howl with laughter. However, farts are not the only fruit.

I was chatting to bookseller, Tamsin Rosewell from Kenilworth Books, and she says that the figures for children purchasing this genre of books is far lower, and says that around 5- 10 % ask for a funny book.

“Within that, they are very selective”, Rosewell says. “When a child comes into the bookshop, or someone asks for help choosing a book for a child, the first question is “what sort of person are they?” A great many want to see situations and characters they understand to be real.”

We talked about this difference between what is borrowed, and what is bought, and theorised that the reason for this may be that when it comes to ownership, and children have the choice, they lean towards a much wider variety of genres and therefore the money is more evenly spread across the board.

We also talked about the mass-market approach to publishing.

“I’m fascinated by the way today’s book market is polarising,” said Rosewell, “and which parts of it are the focus of deep discounting. The combination of celebrity books being heavily discounted on release, and the fact almost all children’s celeb books are humour, means we are in effect creating an environment in which one genre is having its perceived value reduced.”

Most primary school age children couldn’t care less about the celebrity of the author, and were more interested in the content than the author. This situation was changed when the only books available were from celeb authors. In some of the schools where I have worked, the only authors the children knew were the ones they saw on the telly, or in the supermarket. Their free, voluntary choice had been altered by their lack of choice. They had only the illusion of choice thanks to deprivation or lack of access to other reading materials.

“If we can accept that these celeb books are a brand,” Rosewell says, “then what we have is a high-cost brand marketing campaign targeted directly at children. If it is extremely costly marketing that drives high sales, then please let’s call it marketing and acknowledge that these books are often marketed well beyond their quality.

How many adult readers realise how the big retailers and publishers are manipulating them towards the books they want to sell? Are customers of those big bookshop chains aware that publishers have paid a lot of money to have that book on a display table, and even more to be displayed in the window? Do people realise that to get on those celeb book lists the publisher has paid a vast sum?

The big publishers offer huge discounts to retailers who stock their big names. I do some work in our small community bookshop, and I am stunned at how large the discounts are for some of the big celeb names. I’ve seen new children’s titles offered to us at up to 60% discount. This is very tempting for retailers because we can sell them at full price and make a tidy profit. Of course this does mean that many retailers feel they have no choice but to give up valuable shelf space to… you guessed it… the same limited pool of authors.

All of this means the entire system is skewed towards a very limited pool of authors, and this ends up with that shelf in the post office with only celeb authors, and only one genre of books. These books obviously appear at the top of the bestseller lists, and this is hardly surprising given they dominate available retail space and command marketing budgets that would make most authors weep with envy. Every year the pool of authors who are heavily pushed in this way seems to get smaller and smaller. This means in turn we have nothing here that is diverse, inclusive or challenging. Go into any retailer who stocks books as a sideline – be it post office, supermarket, train station or airport – and no matter where you are in the UK you will see exactly the same authors, and exactly the same books.

img_0089

What a well curated choice looks like in a small bookshop.

What this aggressive marketing means is that the majority of children looking at the shelves in any large supermarket or newsagent would only see a limited choice, and would probably not see anything that they can identify with. This does not mean they won’t end up owning these celeb or funny books, because well-meaning family will see these books occupying 90% of the available bookshelves in retailers and they buy them because they believe they are doing the right thing. If it’s there, it must be popular and what every child wants, right?

Wrong. It’s not what the child who favours fantasy, or real-life stories, or non-fiction, or poetry, or thrillers wants. For these children the shelves may as well be empty.

Reading for Pleasure has a whole range of wider benefits (as detailed in the Reading Agency’s report Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, a report for which I was honoured to sit on the steering group). However, to gain the wider benefits of reading for pleasure it must be two things – a free voluntary choice, and a pleasure. This means that to support national literacy and to wider spread the benefits of reading for pleasure, people must have more available choice.

My field is, obviously, children’s books, but I know that you will see the same limited pool of authors and genres for adult books. The books the publisher wants you to buy. The authors representing the biggest investment the publisher has made so they desperately need to claw back that huge advance. Publishing is, after all, a business and the book is not a sacred object, it is a product they need to shift in large quantities in order to help their business survive. We can’t blame a retailer for stocking what serves them the largest margin of profit either.

What can be done about this? I would suggest that the only person who can actually change this situation is the shopper. Tell the retailer that you want more choice, or shop elsewhere. Seek out a retailer who is not in the sway of the super-massive publisher. It’s not easy to find an independent bookshop, but you can always use Hive and order online. Independent bookstores are more able to make independent decisions about what they stock, and they can strike deals with indie publishers and often have a far more diverse and interesting selection of books. If you’re buying books for a child as a gift, don’t be influenced by the small number of same-olds in display, ask the child who their favourite writers are and then seek professional guidance on who else writes like that. A real bookseller or librarian will be able to help you. If you don’t have one nearby, you can find them all over social media or online. If you regularly buy books, I’d suggest using the excellent services of Who Else Writes Like….? This is often also available free via the digital offerings of your public library.

Which brings me neatly to the library.

If you really want your child to grow up to become a lifelong reader, they will need choice. Lots of it. The library is a key factor in turning your child into an accomplished reader – precisely because of that treasure trove of choice. Where else can your child stand in the midst of hundreds of different titles and grab whatever catches their eye for free? Where else can your child try loads of different things until they work out which genre suits them? The school and public library should be like a groaning buffet table where children can try loads of different tastes and flavours to work out what they want to feast on for the rest of their lives. When they’ve decided what they like, then it’s time for ownership. Then it’s time to make sure that every penny spent on books is heading in the direction of something they ACTUALLY want, and not just something marketing departments have told them they SHOULD want.

Avid and developing readers deserve to have choice, and in denying them choice we are also ignoring the fact that this should be a golden age of children’s literature. In my three decades working with children’s books, I can honestly say I have never seen books of such variety, and such a high standard, as those being published today. Books are published all the time in every genre that are dazzling, challenging, diverse, inclusive, magical and addictive. I read hundreds of books for young readers every year, and the standard in the last decade has been consistently rising. Once upon a time excellent books for children were as rare as hen’s teeth, today a dozen are published every month that I would consider future classics. So why are so many being published only to never find their way onto the shelves of bookshops or retailers?

I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for that one, all I know is that I read these books and I want to recommend them but they are not in any shops so people won’t find them. Given that over 95% of the coverage of new books in the media is for adult books and hardly any attention is given to books for younger readers, it’s not really surprising people have no idea how many outstanding books miss their moment – despite many being every bit as good as books from our own childhood that are considered classics.

It’s absolutely fine to have celeb books (and fart-funny books!) in the market. Many are great, and definitely deserve space on the shelves, but they don’t deserve all the space on the shelves. Choice. This is what every reading expert knows can turn a non-reader into a reader. It’s what every reader deserves.

This is why I rail against the same-old-same-old stuff on the ever diminishing bookshelves in our communities – because it matters to us all.

At least, it should.

Dawn Finch is a children’s author, librarian and community bookseller. She works extensively in the field of children’s books and writes both fiction and non-fiction for children. She is former president of CILIP (the UK library and information association) and a member of the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Committee for the Society of Authors.

Her most recent publications include an educational book about Hadrian’s Wall, and a book for the School Library Association about historical fiction.

@dawnafinch

www.dawnfinch.com

Advertisements

A Sandwich on the Knee

I have had many bosses in my time, and have been bullied by a few of them. I’ve been made to do things that were not in my job description, and I’ve been treated like dirt and even driven to resign more than once. None of these bullies even come close to the worst boss of all – me.

Since I went freelance and self-employed a few years ago I have fallen foul of the worst kind of employer treatment. I am a hideous employer. The worst. I almost never give myself a day off and even insist that I work on public holidays like Christmas.  I forced myself to work through weekends, birthdays, family occasions etc. On the rare occasions I do take a holiday, I still work through. I get no sick pay, or holiday pay, and even if I am sick… I still work. If I ever take a break I spend most of it feeling guilty for not working, and know that when I return to my desk everything will have stacked up so I’ll have even more to do.

Working from home means that I don’t have a staffroom, or colleagues around me. Facebook is my staffroom and I love nipping in to have a chat and a cuppa. I look at people’s photos and “meet” up with old friends and make new ones. Twitter is one of my workspaces, and over there I campaign for libraries and literacy. There I support library workers and writers, and stay in touch with everyone else working towards similar goals. I love a bit of social media and, if you work it well, it can be a wonderful tool.

But it eats up time, and the more you do it, the more it requires of you. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – it is always there, and people need replies quickly.

I had to be quick.

Quicker…

Quickest…

But this wasn’t about the real world, it was about me and most of this was in my head. This was actually me putting pressure on myself to be perfect. To work harder. I wasn’t getting either emotionally or financially rich doing this. The harder I worked, the poorer I seemed to get. I was not only getting sick, but I was doing most of my work for free, and was not being as useful to anyone as I should be. I was overloaded with things I’d agreed to, and I wasn’t finishing things. I was late with deadlines, and was forgetting important things. I was getting sicker, and depressed, and angry.  I had to find a way to change this.

My mental health was being torn apart by my need to keep going and to reply to every message, and every email. I was gradually breaking down. Without realising it I was becoming sicker physically too. I hadn’t paid attention to my own physical health and had failed to deal with a medical problem that might have killed me.

(Spoiler – it didn’t.)

Lots of things made me reassess the kind of employer I am. I was a union rep for a long time in my workplace and if any of my colleagues had come to me with the kind of grievances I have, I would have recommended a formal complaint followed by a tribunal. Why was I doing it to myself? Everyone knows that a happy employee performs better, so why was I trying to drive myself into the ground?

I knew I had to do something about it, and in January 2018 I decided I had to force myself to take back control of my life. I decided to look at my life just as I would a real job, and to try to treat myself with more dignity and respect. I wanted to reassess my life and give myself some more quality time.

This was not easy. Library campaigns and writing deadlines don’t go away at the weekends. Things happen that need replies, government documents sneak out late at night or just before bank holiday weekends, tearful library workers email late at night and they deserve replies, huge stacks of board and committee papers won’t read themselves, journalists ask questions that require immediate answers or they say something else. Things happened that I felt I had personal responsibility for.

But something had to change

I went offline for a day. I had to hide first of all because I knew my mean-assed employer would nag me until I weakened and went back to work. That meant that I had to go somewhere I knew I had no signal. My first escapes were windswept and rainy places where I was absolutely sure that even if I totally guilt-tripped myself it wouldn’t make any difference.

That little “no signal” thing is surprisingly liberating.

That thing worked, and it started me on a bigger thing.

As I mentioned before, I’m not rich. In fact, I’m far from it. I looked on social media at all Photo 25-05-2018, 14 31 48the things that other people were doing to relax: fancy holidays, shopping, spa days, makeovers, meals in expensive restaurants…. I couldn’t afford those. I don’t drive, so my escapes were limited to where I could walk, or what I could afford on the train. I can’t afford lavish meals out, but I can afford a sandwich, and I can afford to fill my little flask with tea. I don’t have the money to travel in the lap of luxury, but my old walking boots have new laces, and they’ll do for me.

Now, every weekend I go offline and shift from the virtual world, to the actual one. I don’t switch on my laptop, and I don’t open emails. I’m not saying I threw out social media altogether. I’m still a solo worker so I still want to chat to people. I spent a few months sorting out my Facebook and made an announcement stating that I was shifting most of my campaign work to Twitter and that people should follow me there if they want only that. I warned people that my Facebook might now become a thread of “books, reading, hedgehogs in baskets and sarcastic jokes”. People seemed fine with that. At the weekends I now avoid emails and Twitter, but I still hang around Facebook a little bit.

A very little bit, because mostly I’m up a hill, or a cliff, or slightly lost in a forest.

Photo 07-04-2018, 14 27 55This brings me to #SandwichOnTheKnee

I started taking pictures of where I was eating my little sandwich because I wanted to encourage other people to stop being crappy employers and to treat themselves with a little more respect. I wanted other people to take time for themselves in any way possible. I’m pretty sure we would all make a stand against people treated poorly by their employers, why do we treat ourselves worse?

Join me in my #SandwichOnTheKnee campaign. You don’tPhoto 03-06-2018, 14 25 31 (1) have to sign anything, or pay anything, or make a banner – all you have to do is make time for yourself in a simple way. Doesn’t have to be a sandwich; it might be a bit of fruit, or a bar of chocolate, or just a bottle of water. #SandwichOnTheKnee is more of a symbol than an actual sandwich (although I will still be making my sandwich). It’s about climbing your own hill and taking time back for yourself. All you have to do is remember that you matter, and that it’s time you took back time! Drag your eyes from the screen to the horizon, and feed your brain with a blast of fresh air.

Photo 27-05-2018, 13 32 23

Tweet me your photos using the hashtag, and let’s get out there!

 

Dawn Finch is a children’s author and library campaigner. She is a trustee of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) and a member of the Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators committee.

You can find her on Twitter as @dawnafinch

Current campaigns include: CILIP’s Great School Libraries which works towards every child’s right to have a quality school library, the many ongoing campaigns to support your right to a comprehensive statutory public library service with paid library staff, and the Society of Authors campaign for fair dealing for writers and illustrators. Superb author and illustrator, James Mayhew has written about the campaign here.

 

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

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.

Children’s fiction set in Ancient History

Another blog post collecting titles written for children set in a specific historical period. 

Thanks for all you help with the last collection of titles. I’m asking for your suggestions again, but we’ve moved forward in time. Now I’m looking for fiction and poetry for children based in any of these historical settings; Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Celt, Pictish, Saxon, Viking…. etc.  Anything up to around 1000AD please. 

Thanks in advance! 

Dawn Finch is a children’s writer and librarian, and is currently compiling a book about historical fiction for children. 

http://www.dawnfinch.com

Prehistory in fiction 

This is not a normal blog post. In fact it’s not a blog post at all but is instead a request. I am working on a large project gathering fiction and poetry titles for young people set in specific historical periods. As you can imagine I already have a long list, but I can’t do it all without the wonderful input of the hive mind – that’s where you come in. 

This is the first of ten posts designed to gather your input in the comments field. This thread is for children’s and YA fiction and poetry set in prehistory. Please add your favourite titles below (and feel free to chat with each other) I won’t be able to reply to everyone, but massive thanks in advance for all your help.

Remember – children’s and YA fiction and poetry set in prehistory (from any country) but as historical as it can possibly be. 

Thanks! 

Trolls, Grim Truths and Parapet Posts

I am a children’s writer, blogger and library and human rights campaigner, and this means that I have an online profile that is fairly recognisable (alarm 1). In the last few years my presence in the virtual world has become more established, and people know me as someone who regularly writes about literacy and is outspoken about human rights issues. People also know me as someone who writes bestselling non-fiction (alarm 2) and my novels do okay too. I support many environmental campaigns and am proud to say that I am an outspoken feminist (alarm 3). Physically, I’m not exactly model material, and am a long way from being the prescribed size 8 that seems to be the socially accepted size for anyone who steps out in public (alarm 4)

I am a great lover of fairy tales. Not the sparkly singing-bunny variety, but the original folk tales that crept out of forests and nightmares. These stories fascinate and inspire me, but they don’t represent a place I want to live. The language of fantasy and fairy tales seems to be currently misused and applied to people who are, in fact, bullies (alarm 5). We call them trolls, but in fact they are simply bullies and to call them anything else is to suggest that they live only in a world of fairy tales and stories that don’t really have any impact on the real world. This is not true, and this is not a fairy tale. We are real people with real feelings and we can’t keep pretending that the virtual world is not the real world.

Many people are aware that I have been the victim of online bullying as I have been open about this before, and have written about it, and so I won’t rehash it here. I got past that bout of online bullying and it seemed to go quiet again. Now my profile is a little higher and this (apparently) has given the bullies an excuse to attack me again. I now seem to have attracted a group of men who have taken it upon themselves to hurl abuse at me (alarm 6). I’ve had death threats, hate mail and more general online confrontation and abuse. I’d rather not detail the worst of the things that I’ve been called, but the general tone seems to be that I am an “uppity bitch”, “fat ugly bitch”, “pathetic slut”, “ugly whore” and (my personal favourite) “feminazi”. So far 100% of the people who have abused me have been men. I don’t know why these men all hate me, but it seems that they really do. I also know that by saying all of this I will, somewhat ironically, be the recipient of even more abuse.

Recently (April 2016) the Guardian newspaper conducted a survey of 70 million comments left on their articles since 2006 and found evidence for something many of us suspected all along – that the people online who receive the most abusive comments are women. The report found that of the ten most abused journalists online, eight were women. The ten least abused writers were all men. The most aggressive blocked comments were those directed at women and connected to articles about female issues or feminism. (alarm 7). These findings are supported by many other studies on online bullying. It seems that online bullying is predominantly a female problem.

I have taken the standard advice about online bullying – ignore, block, delete. This bothers me. This means that I am actively discouraged from standing up to bullying.  That goes against everything I know about bullying. “Don’t poke the trolls,” we are told. Well, this kind of online bullying has been going on for a very long time now and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better with that tactic, so maybe we are going about this all wrong? If this was in any of the schools that I have worked with I would not be advising teachers to just ignore it, I’d be telling them to confront it, talk about it, challenge the bullies and deal with it. I would not expect a parent of a bullied child to be told “that’s life, just ignore it, get a thicker skin, move on, it’s just a joke, don’t let it bother you,” and yet this is what we are told to do every day in the virtual environment. What if we challenge them? If we challenge the bullies, we are afraid that things will get worse. We are afraid that they will expand their attacks and damage our work and our private lives. In the virtual world the bullies have all the power, and we are letting them have it.

All of this has left me wondering what makes someone do this. What makes a perfectly normal person go online and hurl abuse at strangers? Is it because it’s easy? After all, we’re not real people are we? If we set ourselves up to do something more public, are we not asking for abuse? If we offer our opinions in public, should we not expect to be confronted? If we choose to do something more public, should be not just take it? (alarm 8)

I decided to take a longer look at one of the people who recently abused me. Recently, quite out of the blue, I was sent a direct Facebook message from a total stranger that said (and I apologise for the language)  “I hope you die a horrible death you f**king c**t”.

This message went to a filtered mail box and so I did not notice it for a couple of weeks. My instinct was to hit delete and block and leave it at that, but something made me look further. First of all I reported it to Facebook as I assumed this sort of harassment was against their terms and conditions. Then I wondered what I might have done to deserve this. I scoured my Facebook posts to see if there could possibly be anything that might have made this man send me hate mail. But all of my public posts were mundane, or silly, or about saving public libraries, or about book awards – nothing that would make someone wish I would die.

Then I thought I would take a look at the profile of the person who had sent it to me. I wanted to know what would make a stranger sit down on a Tuesday early evening and tell a stranger that they they wished they would die. I could not check the Facebook profile of this man because the brave bully had blocked me, probably right after he sent the message. That did not deter me, and I had my family look him up for me. Instead of discovering the profile of a violent moron or confused and ignorant child, I saw the profile of a regular looking family man. He had a nice smile, and so did his wife and children. He had holidays that looked like the holidays I take, and he had even changed his profile picture to the rainbow filter that I had previously used. I saw the profile of an obviously proud father who loved his daughters and his dog, and someone who seemed perfectly normal. I could see nothing about his profile that would show that he is the kind of person who sends death threats to total strangers. I’m sure that his family have no clue that he secretly does things like this. I wanted to ask him why he did it, but I didn’t want to make his family suffer by exposing his actions.

A few days later Facebook got back to me about my complaint, and apparently they too believe that I am wrong to challenge things. This message, I was told, did not violate their “community standards” – so they too give all the power to the bullies. I checked their list detailing “unacceptable content” and found that it precluded “violence and threats” as well as “bullying and harassment” but it seemed that calling me a “f**king c**t” and wishing that I would “die a horrible death” did not fit either of those categories.

What can we do? In a school I would be advising teachers to talk about the issues and to challenge them head-on. Speak to the bullies and their families and try to discover why they are doing this. I would be advising the school that they should work towards creating an environment where bullies feel driven out, where other children feel safe challenging bullying behaviour, and where they are regularly challenged on their behaviour by others around them.

This is what we should be doing online. This is not right and we should stop ignoring it. We should take back the power from the bullies. If we see it happening, we should challenge the behaviour and speak out against it. I’m not for naming and shaming, but I am for creating an environment where positive dialogue drowns out the negative. Don’t get into arguments with people, and it’s fine to disagree with people and share a contrary opinion (alarm 9) but if the comments become personal or disconnected with the original topic, then don’t be afraid to ask someone why they said it. Don’t tell them they are wrong, just ask them why they said what they did. I think that is something we all want to know – why. Why have they done this?

We are told that behind every bullying child lies a story of their own struggle and their own darkness, it is possible that this is the same with online bullies. I do believe that everyone is fighting a battle that we know nothing about, and possibly this is the same with the people who bully me? The man I mentioned above, the one who wants me to “die a horrible death”, maybe he too suffers in his own way. Maybe he suffers from a crippling inferiority complex and acts out macho posturing to strangers because society stifles his ability to express himself? Maybe he’s just a git.

battle meme

I may never know his reasons, but I certainly don’t wish a horrible death for him. I hope that he finds a way to be a nicer person and to enjoy his lovely family. I hope that he feels shame for what he has done, and realises that behind every comment he leaves there sits a real person and not just a screen. I hope that he realises that every woman he sends death threats to is someone’s daughter, someone’s mother, someone’s wife, and that we are just like the other women in his life. Beyond that screen we are all real people with real feelings, and things like this both hurt and scare us. I hope that he is happy in his life and does not continue grind his teeth with internalised anger and hatred for random strangers.

Today I heard that the daughter of a friend of mine has also been targeted by online bullies, she’s only a teenager and shouldn’t have to grow up with this. My own daughter has been targeted too, and so have many of her friends. We would not tolerate this in our schools and working environments, but apparently it’s fine in the virtual world? We all have to find our place in the world, and if you feel that your place in the world is one where you set out to cause sadness and suffering in others, then I feel deeply sorry for you. (alarm 10).

Footnote and alarms –

I was tempted to not open the comments up on this blog, as this post is what I refer to as a Parapet Post. This means that I am sticking my head up and, to the bullies, this is asking to get shot down. I have, however, left the comments open but will be filtering for abuse.

Throughout this piece you will notice that I have flagged certain phrases as “alarms”. These are the points that I know from past experience are likely to be the points most targeted in abusive comments – this is just how fragile this situation has now become. For those of us who have become targets we now feel we have to modify our behaviour, when clearly it should be up to others to modify theirs. These alarms are the phrases that I was most tempted to either remove or reword as an attempt to avoid being further abused but, in the context of this article, I have decided to leave them alone.

 Dawn Finch is a children’s writer and librarian