All things considered, 2020 is definitely the year to start thinking about the food you eat, and where it comes from. Ever since I was small I have enjoyed cooking and have found it calming and relaxing. Baking gives me a sense of control over things, and I’m guessing this is particularly important for a lot of us right now.
This brings me to the magic that is the sourdough loaf. Okay, so more chemistry than actual magic but there is something wonderful about the slow process of creating a beautiful artisan loaf from such simple ingredients. Flour, water and a bit of salt – that’s all. I’ve been trying to bake the perfect sourdough loaf for years and recently went on a workshop where I discovered I had been missing one essential ingredient – patience. I’d been rushing through the process and not allowing those friendly little bacteria the chance to do their thing.
The results have been so good that I thought I would pin it down and share my recipe with you. Lots of people have different versions, and when you get used to it you’ll probably find things that you prefer. You need to begin with a healthy sourdough starter. Here’s a recipe to make one, but it’s even better if you can get some from a friend. You do need a good set of weighing scales – no guesswork allowed! This is a no-kneading version (I have a bit of arthritis in my hands so prefer not to knead), but it does take three days.
Trust me, it’s worth it!
Ingredients – makes 2 x 20cm boules
A healthy sourdough starter
800g flour (I like a mix of 600g organic unbleached white and 200g organic rye)
600g room-temp water
Half tablespoon of sea salt
Feed starter in the morning as usual.
Late afternoon/evening refresh 100g of starter with 100g of water and 100g flour. (Levain stage) I use white flour at this stage because rye takes longer to ferment.
Cover and leave overnight at room temp to ferment. It should look nice and bubbly on day 2.
Take 200g of the levain, add 500g room temp water and whisk together. (You can discard the rest of the levain or refresh your main starter with it. That’s what I do.) Always add the water first as it allows an easier mix.
Add 700g flour to the levain and water and mix together. I use my hands to mix because I can feel it’s all mixed in. The dough will feel quite wet and sticky. Best to use unbleached organic flour because it aids fermentation to have flour that’s a bit more alive! I like a mix of 500g strong white and 200g wholemeal at this stage. Rye is good too but needs a bit longer at the final prove (more on that later)
Let the dough sit aside in the bowl for an hour (Autolyse stage) This is when the flour is mixing with the water and the starter is getting going on doing its thing. Be patient and leave a proper hour. If it’s a really hot day, pop the bowl in the fridge.
After the autolyse stage add half tablespoon ground sea salt and mix in with your hand. I like to add it at this stage as it seems to make a better rise. (Tip – Don’t use flour on your hand as that will thicken the mix with raw flour. Use water on your hand instead. It’s much easier to work the dough with a wet hand.) Don’t worry too much about mixing the salt all in because it will be well mixed by the end of the folding stage.
Patience (and all these steps) will allow the starter to do its job and create the characteristic sourdough bubbles and crisp crust.
Next is the folding stage. You’ll need to grab a corner of the dough in the bowl and fold it into the middle. Repeat all the way around making about four folds into the centre.
Let it rest for 45 mins, then repeat. You’ll need to do that about six times to make the dough nice and stretchy. That means this stage takes about four and a half to five hours. Lots of people have different opinions about this stage, and you might find you prefer a different number of times. This is the one that I find works to make the loaves you can see in the photos on this blog.
After you’ve done about 6 goes of folding and it’s nice and stretchy, leave it aside in the bowl for another hour and you should notice bubbles forming in the dough. Cover with a lid (I tend to use a clean tea towel topped with a plate) and pop in the fridge overnight.
Yes, a long slow cold-rise is best.
Day 3 – morning
Wet your kitchen surface and with a wet hand gently coax the dough out of the bowl. Divide into two pieces and carefully shape into two balls. Fold the edges under to create a surface tension. Leave it to sit for about 30 mins. This is called the bench rest stage.
After 30 mins the dough will have flattened a bit but that’s okay. Nothing to worry about.
The dough looks a bit splat at the bench rest stage
After the bench rest is when I do things like fold in seeds (or chocolate if I’m feeling indulgent).
Prepare 2 clean tea towels (or bannetons if you have them) with lots of flour. I use a gluten-free flour for this stage as it’s a rice mix and doesn’t stick. You want to be pretty heavy with the flour. Line bowls with the floury tea towels. I use standard-sized colanders in place of bowls because I like the size and shape. Bowls need to be about 20cm wide.
This is a banneton. They leave a nice spiral on the loaf, but I haven’t bought them as they are quite expensive and you don’t really need them.
Gently shape your dough back into tidy balls (with that surface tension on them again) and plop them top-side down into the floury cloth bowls or bannetons. Dust the wrinkly bottom of the dough with flour. Loosely cover and put in the fridge for the final rise. This will take around 3-6 hours. White flour takes around 3-4 hours, and the heavier the flour the longer it will take. Rye and spelt flours I’d leave for up to 6. You’ll need to leave it for about 6 hours if you’ve folded in other ingredients like seeds or chocolate too.
Day 3 – afternoon
My bread crock (Dutch oven)
I bake in a lidded terracotta pot (like a Dutch oven – no jokes please) but you can bake on a tray if you don’t have one. Get your oven nice and hot and pre-heat your Dutch oven or tray (around 225 fan). Preheating the oven and your cooking pot is vital. Most of the rise happens in the hot oven. You need that oven proper hot.
Very carefully plop your dough onto a piece of baking paper with the round bottom facing up. Dust with flour (but it might already be floury enough) and then slash it deeply at least twice. If you don’t do that it will burst unpredictably. Best to have it burst where you want it to! You can see the slashes in the photo of the splatted dough on this blog.
Lift the parchment and put it onto a hot baking tray or into your very hot Dutch oven. If you’re baking on a tray (or hot pizza stone) you should put a shallow tray of water in the bottom of your oven to build up some steam. You don’t need that in a Dutch oven as it traps the steam from the bread.
Bake in the Dutch oven for 30 mins covered, and then 10-15 mins uncovered. On a
Nestling in the crock fresh out of the oven
baking tray for about 40 mins. It should sound hollow when tapped underneath.
Then do the same with the other loaf! I cook one at a time so they can be alone in the oven, they seem to work better that way.
Let them cool on a wire rack and try not to slice until it’s cooled down because you want to keep the steam in so that it makes the inside lovely and moist.
The bread lasts a couple of days, and you can freeze it if you want to bake in advance.
Good luck with your own slow-baking!
Dawn Finch is a writer, baker and allotmenteer with a bit too much time (and flour) on her hands right now.
Poetry was not for kids like me. At least that’s what everyone said. In my school, the only ones who were interested in poetry were the teachers, and they weren’t that bothered. They sighed and told us, “page 238, read Wordsworth and copy out into your books. Memorise it by Thursday.”
Poetry wasn’t for us.
I loved poetry, but that was only in secret because council estate kids don’t own poetry. We didn’t read it on the bus to town. We didn’t borrow it from the library. We didn’t buy it from the jumble sale. We didn’t fill notebooks with our own poems. We didn’t dream of being able to share our love of words that flow through emotions and other worlds.
Poetry wasn’t for us.
People laughed at those who thought poetry was for them, and so we kept it secret. We carried thin volumes tucked away in the bottom of our bags and read them when no one was looking. We filled our notebooks at night like forbidden diaries – journals with our most private thoughts in verse.
Poetry wasn’t for us.
Poetry was for the academics and the kids who went to the posh schools. Poetry belonged to those who walked richer paths than we ever could. It belonged to the oak-panelled places, not our asbestos riddled mobile classrooms. Poetry belonged to places of dust, and ink, and great minds, not to kids with the same shoes all year and passes for free school dinners.
Poetry wasn’t for us.
So we grew up harbouring it like a secret wish. A secret kiss of words. The deliciousness of it all held away from the world like hiding ice cream from the sun. In that hiding, it became even more precious to us and we grew old with it. One day, feeling brave and too old to feel ashamed of it anymore, I shared a poem. It felt foolish, but I took my name off it and with the immediate ease of email, I stepped briefly out of my comfort zone and sent it to someone. I sent it to an award.
Because you see, poetry is for us. It’s for all of us, and it doesn’t matter what anyone says, all that matters is that you open your heart and your mind to it and let it in. Not all poetry is an open wound (although quite a lot of it is) and poetry can fill all sorts of gaps in your life. Read it, write it.
Poetry is for us.
This is the poem that won me the Brian Nisbet Award 2019. This is only the second time I’ve ever shared a poem publicly. I know it won’t be the last.
Catching Time, by Dawn Finch
My hands caught time without me realising
The years crept across them leaving freckled footprints
brown pressed on paper-thin
tissue-like, drawn tight
Decades pasted upon knuckle bones
The lines of palm that in my youth
were sharp, and deep
and spoke of truth
of future hopes and things to come
now speak more of years long gone
A craquelure of wet
and faster years
and growing old
When I was small and pink of fist
with life to come and nothing missed
my grandmother’s stern hands reigned
white and sweet with flour and sugar
rose-scratched, earthy raw
steadying and strong
At her bedside as the lights of her life dimmed
I saw the tissue of her skin
thin-laced over knotted bones
Her grip a mere moth-like flutter
I laid my hands over hers as she neared a century old
and wondered if she’d felt the years unfold
if she, in her time, had also thought
of all the years her hands had caught
and if she had mused on how much they
had accidentally let slip away.
Dawn Finch is a children’ s author, librarian, library activist and secret poet.
Follow on twitter @dawnafinch
Image credit – Dante Gabriel Rossetti, detail of Dante holding the hand of Love from Dante’s Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice
Most people will still be reading this article after that comment. I think I will probably still have some readers who are curious to know what sort of pain I live with.
I suffer from endometriosis.
There it is. That’s the switch-off for many because now they know that I am about to talk about the unseemly things, the “women’s things”, the “downstairs” stuff, the things that should be unspoken. I’m going to plough on, hopeful that people who also suffer will identify with this, and people who are curious will feel better informed.
1 in 10 people born with a uterus suffers from endometriosis. If you’re reading this on public transport, look around you. Do those sums in your head. Chances are a good percentage of the women around you are in pain right now. If you are not sure what endometriosis actually is, best have a read of the details on the website of Endometriosis UK. But what is it like to live with it? For me, it predominantly means pain.
What do I mean by “pain”? I had nightmarishly heavy periods right from thirteen years old. I bled through my clothes and often couldn’t afford to leave the house as period protection was too expensive. With those heavy periods came crippling pain. I fainted a good few times at school but managed to keep it a secret. For roughly ten days every month, I spent more time in the toilet than the classroom.
I finally got my courage up to talk to a doctor about it, and he put me on the pill.
That was all he did. He told me that heavy periods are “normal” and at 16 he put me on the pill.
Over the next couple of decades, the periods got worse, and the pain too. It was only after I had a child that I realised the pain I was in was exactly the same as the early contractions of birth. I’d realised with some horror that I’d grown used to dealing with pain that was every bit as bad as having a child (and I did not have an easy birth).
After my daughter was born, the pain became worse. It no longer only came monthly, it was all the time. I kind of dragging ache as if my organs were being pulled downwards by hot hooks. Sometimes it was so bad it made me vomit. Sometimes I couldn’t walk. I had warnings at work about sick days, but how could I work when I couldn’t stand upright? How could I work when the pain came in waves that made me faint?
I kept going back to the doctor, but each time was told it was “just bad periods”. I was given stronger painkillers and told to “try yoga” and various other things. Hot water bottles. Long walks. Running. Stretching. Acupuncture. Hypnosis…. Then more drugs to arrest the bleeding in the hope that would also stop the pain. It didn’t. Norethisterone is normally prescribed to arrest periods for 4-6 months. I took it for over five years.
I wasn’t sent for any further tests for another five years.
Five more years in constant dragging pain. Five years in pain that some days would literally take my breath away. Five years of bloating, and backache, and anger and exhaustion and the depression associated with feeling as if I couldn’t take the pain for a moment longer.
Finally, I found a doctor who agreed to send me for tests. Blood tests first, then scans. Standing alone in cold rooms in backless hospital gowns while faceless men told me to “lie still, turn over, on your side, the other side, thank you, you can go.” Only to have “inconclusive” results. Then internal scans, scrapes, biopsies, more blood tests, more scans… Told repeatedly that it “probably isn’t cancer”. With the pain eating away at you for years it becomes increasingly difficult to believe the “probably” in that sentence.
Eventually, the doctors (so many by now that I’d lost track) gave me a diagnosis of endometriosis. I have two ovarian cysts, and some polyps, and some scarring. It took me over eight years to get that diagnosis.
I wish I could say that with a diagnosis came a solution, but that would be a lie. I was fitted with a coil to prevent bleeding and that helped a bit. The other things I’ve been offered included hysterectomy and uterine ablation. If you’re not familiar with these options, feel free to look them up. It’s definitely making a choice between a rock and a very very hard place.
I’ve lived with this for so long and heard so many terrible things from friends who have taken the surgery route, that I’m living with the devil I know. Me and this pain are old adversaries. I know what it will do. If I have surgery there is no guarantee I’d be better off, so for now (like many sufferers) I think I’ll stick with the pain. I’ve had it for so long that I don’t think I’d remember what life is like without it. I understand this pain.
I know that I can’t stand for long, or sometimes at all. I know that if I sit for more than an hour I will limp for a while as my pelvis will seize up. Cramps can often make me limp. The cysts press against my bladder, so I can’t go for long without visiting the toilets. When the endometriosis flares up badly, it can also give me diarrhoea, so long distance travel is definitely a challenge. When the pain is at its worse it is like a hot blade in my guts. The pain at times is literally breathtaking and I’ve often wondered how it is possible to bear it. Most days it’s like a dull ache, a lurking bear of pain waiting to take a savage bite of me when I least expect it.
There are also the days I breathe through it – panting through contractions. The days I walk and walk (slowly, shuffling, limping) because there is no comfortable sitting position and I’m afraid my hip bones will seize up. You can always tell which women have endometriosis because they probably own a number of hot water bottles. On the bad days, I sit with one on my lap, and two tucked behind me. I avoid painkillers until it’s absolutely necessary because I don’t want to become accustomed to them. I did that once, and breaking the painkiller habit was awful.
I know that when we try to talk about the pain, people still don’t believe us. How can it possibly be that bad? If it’s really that bad, how can we cope?
Because we have learned to, and because we have had to.
We have been told our whole lives to “deal with it”, and for those of us of a certain age being born with a uterus has been a complicated journey. We have this complex set of monthly conditions that dominate our lives, but for some reason, we are raised to feel shame talking about it. Our blood is dirty and we have carried that shame since our early teens. We didn’t talk about our periods, we bled in secret and when we felt pain, we had that in secret too. We felt it was our cross to bear because we were encouraged to be that way. When the doctors told us it was “just one of those things”, we believed them.
This is why this conversation is so important. We have to break the silence. We have to give the future generations more options and better choices. Education is essential so that young people no longer have to feel as if this is some kind of a private shame.
When I was asked if I would endorse a new exhibition supported by Endometriosis UK and sponsored by Standard Life UK, it didn’t take me long to agree. These exhibitions in London and Edinburgh, Beyond the Invisible, are part of the greater plan to create a wider conversation about endometriosis and its sufferers. The photographer, Rankin, has taken a series of photos around which the exhibition is based. These highlight real life stories of endometriosis sufferers, and hopefully, this will help people to talk more openly about their plight.
Join the conversation, share #RealLifeStories about #Endometriosis, and visit the exhibitions if you can (full details below). Those of us who feel comfortable talking about issues like endometriosis and periods can do a great deal of good simply by not hiding away any more. The next generation coming up behind us will, perhaps, grow up not hiding natural bodily functions and illnesses. If they feel more comfortable about talking about their periods, maybe their openness will have a positive impact on things like medical awareness and diagnosis.
Let’s all work hard at making the invisible, visible.
Dawn Finch is an author, librarian, and activist.
This post has been sponsored by Standard Life UK who are in collaboration with Endometriosis UK in creating the Beyond the Invisible exhibitions in London and Edinburgh.
Admission to both exhibitions is free. Please share and use #RealLifeStories
London – 21* – 28 March, 2019
La Galleria Pall Mall
Royal Opera Arcade
5B Pall Mall
Open 11am-5pm each day
Edinburgh – 1 – 8 April, 2019
Stills Photography Centre
23 Cockburn Street
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.
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.
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 feel safe and can turn to.
That phrase “feel safe” is very important. Public opinion states that library users generally trust library workers, 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. Library users often talk of feeling safe in libraries, that is absolutely essential to protect. Lack of investment and diminishing professional staffing reduces the feeling of safety.
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 can (and should) serve 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 only 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. If you haven’t regularly used a library since you were a child, you are not the person to be casting around public opinions on how they should be improved.
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 an ignorant 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 (a staffed and funded public library that forms part of the local authority’s statutory library provision) and not a community book-swap point.
Cute it may be, but it’s #notalibrary
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.