V for Volunteer – a dystopian reality.

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

A little background first.

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

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

This is their story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://mylibrarybyright.org.uk/

 

 

 

 

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Columbus Metropolitan Library – treasure and tranquillity. 

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

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

 

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

The central atrium

Stairs to the upper levels

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

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

The reading room

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

Art in the Carnegie space

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

Child-sized doorway of the children’s library

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

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

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

Dawn Finch

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

Children’s writer and librarian. 

@dawnafinch 

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

National Libraries Day – get in!

 

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It hardly seems like a year since the last one, but here it is again – Saturday Feb 6th is National Libraries Day! What a year its been. Despite huge evidence of the beneficial contributions that libraries and librarians make to their communities, we are still witnessing the decimation of our library service. The library campaigners have been working flat out to try to save the libraries in their communities, and we owe them a great debt of gratitude for all their hard work. National Libraries day gives us the opportunity to show our appreciation for our libraries and the people who work in, and for them.

National Libraries Day is a grassroots celebration led by library staff and library users. It is supported by CILIP and a coalition of leading literacy, reading, library and education organisations including the Reading Agency, the School Library Association and the Society of Chief Librarians, top authors, and you!

NLD is an opportunity for everyone to step up and show just what their library means to them, and here are some ideas for how you can get involved too. It doesn’t matter where you are in the country, there is a way for you to show that you value our libraries and librarians, and that you don’t want to imagine a future without them.

Retweet our message:  Send a strong message to your followers – something like “I’m sending a message that I love libraries & the wonderful work done by librarians.” RT to celebrate National Libraries Day #librariesday

Share your support on social media
Follow @NatLibrariesDay and sign up to our Thunderclap. Download the #librariesday social media frame and share your library pictures

Share a library shelfie or two with caption /comment and share or tweet it using #librariesday

Lend your talents – Write or create something – could you find the time to write a blog, letter or create a piece of work about what libraries mean to you?

Visit a library – If you can get out to a library, take some photos and show us where you are. Show us what is interesting and unique about your library.

Find an event near you – get out and get into your local libraries (with our without chocolates!). Tell them who you are and let them know that you support them. The NLD map on the website will show you where the registered events are.

Oh, and don’t forget the Elmer the Elephant competition!

As you will still feeling all passionate and full of library love – join us when we lobby Parliament to save our libraries. This event will take place on February 9th and you can find all of the details on the Speak Up For Libraries website.

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Keep the momentum going and sign the CILIP petition to legally challenge the handling of our public libraries. Support, sign and share the My Library By Right petition and use #mylibrarybyright

 

Dawn Finch

President Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP)

Children’s author and proud librarian

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lighting the way – Libraries and Wellbeing

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The CILIP Public and Mobile Libraries group this year hosted their first conference and the theme of the two day event was the contribution that libraries make to the wellbeing of their communities. The conference had a superbly well-timed focus as the link between reading and wellbeing has never been better documented. Over the past few years we have seen the publication of many robust reports that prove that reading and libraries are vital to the wellbeing and mental health of their communities.

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Over the two day event we heard from many speakers, all of whom had a direct involvement in the wellbeing agenda and how this relates to libraries. First up we heard from Paul Blantern, of the Sieghart Libraries Taskforce, who talked about the need for a national framework for libraries so that we could have a “consistent library offer” right across the country. During his talk he drew attention to the fact that libraries are often seen as the easy way to make cuts, but this will reflect upon the other services offered. He also talked about why libraries are important, what they offer to their communities, and how the Taskforce hopes to protect them.

Photo 12-10-2015 13 00 54One of the most interesting speakers of the day was Brian Ashley from from Arts Council England who talked about the financial impact of the library contribution to health and wellbeing. Brian’s talk was drawn from the Arts Council commissioned report “The Health and Wellbeing Benefits of Public Libraries”. His talk was filled with some astonishing data such as the fact that library users are more likely to report better health, and less likely to take trivial issues to a doctor. This relates to a saving of an estimated £25m a year to the NHS. Extraordinary figures, and it seems pure folly that this is not taken into account by Government.

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Mike Brook talked about the success of a Library Mental Health festival and he stressed the importance of the safe haven that a library provides for anyone with mental health issues. The need for this sort of space in our communities can’t be underestimated. He also talked about how to market and advertise the event so that it reached the right people.

Photo 12-10-2015 13 03 58The event also provided a number of workshops to help librarians support their communities in ways that they might not have previously considered. I chose to go to Jacquie Widdowson’s workshop on marketing and social media – an essential skill for the 21st Century Librarian! She gave invaluable advice on how to reach more people and how to extend the library welcome to people who might not have previously considered the library as their kind of space.
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I was particularly moved by the workshop that I attended run by Julie Walker. Julie is a Bibliotherapist who works with Kirklees Library (and others) and she talked about what bibliotherapy is and how it helps people. She explained how it supports vulnerable people and showed us just how powerful the right text is at the right time. During the workshop she handed out short extracts of carefully chosen poems and asked if people would like to read them aloud. The emotions that bounced around the room made for an amazing demonstration of just how powerful this service is.

Photo 12-10-2015 13 00 34We also heard talks about how Staffordshire is supporting the mental health and wellbeing agenda in their libraries, and Carol Brooks talked about how important personal resilience is. Alan Medway gave a presentation about Staffs libraries and their decision to support issues such as dementia via their library provision. The whole event was filled with inspiring and useful talks and was a great success.

My own talk was about the powerful positive impact that reading for pleasure can have on all of our lives, and how libraries can fit in with that. You can download my presentation below, and please drop me a line if you would like to ask me anything about it, or would like me to come and speak at your event.

Libraries offer a unique service as they are the trusted and safe spaces that exist in our communities. In order to successfully fulfill this agenda we require something very special in our communities – a professional librarian who is trusted, knowledgeable and reliable.

Libraries save lives, let’s make sure that everyone is aware of that, and that people are aware of exactly how much we will suffer as a society if we lose them.

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A selection of documents referred to during the 2015 CILIP Public and Mobile Libraries Conference.

Dawn Finch –PMLG conference presentation – slides

Arts Council England – Health and Wellbeing Benefits of Public Libraries – full report

Sieghart Report (Independent Report of Public Libraries)  – full report

Carnegie Trust – Speaking Volumes, Libraries and wellbeing leaflet and infographic – leaflet

Kirklees Council – Well Into Words (information about bibliotherapy)

Bibliotherapy in action – Well into Words – video

Reading Agency – Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment – full report

Article by Dawn Finch – Vice President of CILIP. Librarian, children’s author and literacy consultant

@dawnafinch

http://www.dawnfinch.com

Libraries – “isn’t it all on the Internet?” NO!

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The reaction to the publication of the Sieghart Report highlighted a number of important issues about public libraries, but one above all others – politicians clearly have absolutely no idea at all what librarians do and what libraries are for.
Sadly there still exists the antiquated and naive view that libraries are only required for people who want to borrow a book. This is utter nonsense and deserves to be challenged. That is as narrow a view as suggesting that trains are only for delivering people to work.
So, for all of those people who still haven’t bothered to find out what libraries and librarians actually do, let’s have a closer look at that.

Let’s look at a day in our imaginary library. Our imagined library is in a rural community of around 7000 people, mainly young families and older people. The community is thirty miles from the nearest big city and has an erratic train link and a limited bus service. There is no community centre and no Citizens Advice Bureau. The council offices are out of town, as is the hospital and minor injuries clinic, and other local provisions have been cut. Even though this is an imagined community it is one that is mirrored all over the country.

One of the things that our imaginary town does have, is a library. Built with philanthropic money at the turn of the 20th Century it is in the market square, right in the middle of the town in a place designed to be accessible for all. The people of our community rely on the library for many things.
A young mother needs helps filling in the forms to apply for school for her children because she has no one at home to help her. She goes to the library and the librarian helps her to find the forms online and fill them in so that her child can go to school.

A couple need help finding out what services or help is available for their elderly parents. They go to the library and the librarian gives them information about books on wheels, local care provision and what benefits they might apply for.

An elderly person living alone faces another winter in isolation. She goes to the library and the librarian helps her to apply for winter fuel allowance online, and then she sorts out a volunteer to pop around with books and shopping once a week.

A young couple have moved into the area and do not know anyone. They join the library and the librarian tells them all about local childcare, local clubs and facilities. They borrow books and leaflets about the area and even join local reading groups.

A man is told by his doctor that his vision is failing. He talks to his librarian and she helps him to register online for services for visual impairment and, twice a week, she helps him to choose audio books by reading the boxes out to him. She even saves audio books for him that she knows he will like and she knows which ones he has already had.

What else are you looking for? List of local doctors and dentists? Go to the library and ask the librarian. Information about local planning applications? Go to the library and ask the librarian. Can’t work out how to use your computer? Go to the library and ask the librarian. Stuck at home with small children and need some time-out? Go to the library and ask the librarian. Lonely, depressed, isolated? Go to the library and talk to the librarian (or just be somewhere safe and warm.) Need some help with your studies and don’t have the support or technology at home? Go to the library and ask the librarian……
Getting the idea?

We need to shake off the idea that all libraries are fit for is to borrow a book. Right from their inception that is not what libraries were for – they were for educating the people and providing information for those who would not have otherwise had access to it. I’m guessing that not all of the political parties are that keen on providing information to the masses and educating adults for free, because I can’t think of any other reason why they would not be supporting libraries and the professionals who run them.

This is not an old fashioned or twee idea of protecting an antiquated institution, but rather a 21st century idea to ensure that each and every community has access to the information it needs. Look at what we’ve done in our imagined community and see the bigger picture. The mother now has a place for her child in school, thus saving money and time for local authorities and for the school board. The couple have found support for their elderly parents and this means that they are able to stay in their home for a while longer thus saving the social services tens of thousands of pounds. The virtually housebound elderly lady now has visitors and is less isolated and has a winter fuel payment and is less likely to succumb to illness associated with age and cold. The young couple feel more engaged in their community and are more likely to contribute to it and to stay within it. The visually impaired man is now able to function in his community again and is less likely to have to rely on expensive care services.

Most of these people have also borrowed books (or audio books, or dvds, or cds, or leaflets….) but that’s not why they went there in the first place. They went there because they needed answers to questions that they did not know how to ask. The snobby response to this would be “they can look it up on the internet can’t they?” Can they? What if you live in a rural community where you don’t have internet access or phone signal? What if you don’t know exactly what question to ask? What if you do ask the internet, and it gives you a million hits and you don’t know which one to trust?

This is what libraries are for, and what professional librarians are for. It is monumentally short-sighted to cut away one of the most important services in a community without ever having a clear picture of what they do in the first place, but that is exactly what is happening all over the country. Librarians are being replaced with inexperienced volunteers who, with the best will in the world, will never be able to provide the service that a trained professional can. Libraries are either being closed or their hours are cut so that they are only able to provide an erratic and unreliable service. Schools have little or no library provision and  more often than not there is no trained professional to support their reading progression. The areas worst hit seem to be the ones that need the library the most; poor areas and ones in rural communities. The Sieghart Report has some valuable ideas in it but none of this will mean anything if the various political parties do not act upon it. Join the campaign for libraries and make sure that you and your family have access to something that will ultimately give you, and your entire community, a better standard of living – a library with a librarian. 

A full list of current (2104/2015) public library legislation is available here

For other ideas about campaigning and advocacy, you should also see Speak Up For Libraries. and follow @speakup4libs Many other counties also have powerfully active library campaigns, search twitter and social media for their details and please feel free to share your details in the comments below (note – all comments are moderated and so will not immediately appear)

 Article written by Dawn Finch 

Vice President CILIP

(@dawnafinch) author and children’s library and literacy consultant.

Footnote – this article is in an updated form, first posted April 2015

A Primary School Librarian’s List Of 125 Books That A Child Might Want To Read.

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The publication of yet another list of the “top 100 books” that children “should” read in primary school raised an extensive discussion on social media about the books chosen. Whilst the books on the list are undeniably classics, and books of quality, do they actually represent the kind of books that will nurture a love of reading in children, or is this instead a list of national curriculum and Amazon favourites?

To challenge that list I give you the list of an experienced primary school librarian. These books are the ones that I know have created delight in young readers and have been loved with a passion. You might not agree with all my choices (and some of them are not to my personal tastes) but these have all been loved by REAL CHILDREN who devoured them and wanted more after finishing them. These are not only books that children have enjoyed, but also ones that parents have enjoyed sharing with them. Sharing books aloud is an important way to foster a love of books and reading in a child, and no one is ever too old to hear a story.

The list progresses roughly through developmental stages, but is by no means prescriptive, and it is not in order of preference. “Top books” charts are far too subjective, and the books on this list are all great. If you need more guidance and advice on children’s reading there really is only one person to seek out – a school librarian. These titles are all for primary age children and (with one notable exception in William Grill’s Shackleton) are all fiction titles.

Just for clarification, I don’t believe that any of these books “should” be read by all children, that’s not how a love of reading works. This is list of great books that I know children have loved and, if any of them suit the tastes of children you know, then they too might read them and enjoy them. If they want to. Your list might be different, and I’d love to know what you’d recommend – please add your titles to the comments. I’m sure there are many titles that you feel should be added, so go ahead! Please do add newer books that you know have worked, and please remember to credit all creators of the work, and do post links to their websites where possible. I’ll aim to keep the comments open so that we can keep adding to it and share the list as a resource.

Every one of these books have two things in common: they are beautiful stories, and children love them. All in all enjoyment of reading is the most important thing. It’s all about what children want to read and it should never be about just ticking off a list of books that adults think children “should” read.

Hopefully you will enjoy these books too.

Picture Books (for first word recognition, first reading, and sharing)
1. The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
2. Dr Xargle (series) by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross
3. Farmer Duck by Martin Waddell and Helen Oxenbury
4. The Shirley Hughes Collection
5. Meg and Mog (series) by Helen Nicoll and Jan Pienkowski
6. The Blue Balloon by Mick Inkpen
7. Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers
8. Elmer (series) by David McKee
9. Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister
10. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
11. Owl Babies by Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson
12. Smelly Louie by Catherine Rayner
13. Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan
14. This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen
15. Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allen Ahlberg
16. Whatever Next? By Jilly Murphy
17. Q Pootle 5 by Nick Butterworth
18. Here Come The Aliens! By Colin McNaughton
19. Beegu by Alexis Deacon
20. Morris the Mankiest Monster by Giles Andrea and Sarah McIntyre
21. No Matter What by Debi Gliori
22. Sand Horse by Michael Foreman
23. Mousehole Cat by Antonia Barber and Nicola Bayley
24. We’re Going On A Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury
25. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
26. Wolves by Emily Gravett
27. Mouse, Bird, Snake, Wolf by David Almond and Dave McKean
28. Jim’s Lion by Russel Hoban and Alexis Deacon
29. The Whale’s Song by Dyan Sheldon and Gary Blythe
30. Changes by Anthony Browne
31. Use Your Imagination by Nicola O’Byrne
32. The Queen’s Hat by Steve Antony
33. Mr Magnolia by Quentin Blake
34. Fungus the Bogeyman by Raymond Briggs
35. A New Coat For Anna by Harriet Ziefert and Anita Lobel

First Chapter Books (and slightly longer First-Readers)
36. Shackleton by William Grill
37. Monkey in the Stars by Jamila Gavin
38. The Magic Finger by Roald Dahl
39. The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson
40. Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre
41. Fortunately the Milk by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell
42. Ottoline and the Yellow Cat by Chris Riddell
43. Mr Majieka (series) by Humphrey Carpenter
44. Astrosaurs (series) by Steve Cole
45. How to Write Really Badly by Anne Fine
46. Cartoon Kid by Jeremy Strong
47. My Dad’s a Birdman by David Almond and Polly Dunbar
48. Nelly the Monster Sitter (series) by Kes Gray
49. Dirty Bertie (series) by David Roberts and Alan MacDonald
50. Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman
51. Necklace of Raindrops by Joan Aiken and Jan Pienkowski
52. Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf by Catherine Storr
53. Horrid Henry (series) by Francesca Simon
54. Betsey Biggalow (series) by Malorie Blackman
55. Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce
56. Give Peas a Chance by Morris Gleitzman
57. Cliffhanger by Jacqueline Wilson
58. Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos
59. Dinkin Dings (series) by Guy Bass

Moving on….. (longer chapter books and/or stronger themes)
60. Dragons of Crumbling Castle by Terry Pratchett
61. Emily Windsnap (series) by Liz Kessler
62. Varjak Paw by SF Said
63. Coraline by Neil Gaiman
64. Box of Delights by John Masefield
65. Great Ghost Rescue by Eva Ibbotson
66. Mr Stink by David Walliams
67. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
68. Awful End (series) by Philip Ardagh
69. Uncle Montague (series) by Chris Priestley
70. The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks
71. Dream Master (series) by Theresa Breslin
72. Molly Moon (series) by Georgia Byng
73. Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge
74. Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
75. Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer
76. Whispers in the Graveyard by Theresa Breslin
77. Charlotte’s Web by E B White
78. Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce
79. The Dark Is Rising (series) by Susan Cooper
80. Chrestomanci (series) by Dianna Wynne Jones
81. Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome
82. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
83. The Owl Service by Alan Garner
84. Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce
85. Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
86. Holes by Louis Sachar
87. Last of the Spirits by Christ Priestley
88. Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
89. Clockwork by Philip Pullman
90. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner
91. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Transition books (stronger themes for transition from primary to secondary school)
92. The Tulip Touch by Anne Fine
93. Noughts and Crosses (series) by Malorie Blackman
94. Mirromask by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean
95. Alex Rider (series) by Anthony Horowitz
96. Strawgirl by Jackie Kay
97. The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier
98. Once by Morris Gleitzman
99. Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson
100. City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende
101. Krabat by Ottfried Preussler
102. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne
103. Dark Satanic Mills by Marcus and Julian Sedgewick
104. Looking for JJ by Anne Cassidy
105. Book of Dead Days by Marcus Sedgewick
106. Spooks series by Joseph Delaney
107. Wonder by R J Palacio
108. Diary of Anne Frank
109. Tamar by Mal Peet
110. Maus by Art Spiegelman
111. Witch Child by Celia Rees

OH – and you can’t nurture a love of reading without poetry – so the list gets a bit longer with some poetry…
112. Puffin Book of Brilliant Poetry edited by Brian Patten
113. All the Wild Wonders by Wendy Cooling
114. All The Best – selected poems of Roger McGough
115. Quick, Let’s Get Out Of Here! by Michael Rosen
116. Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl (illus Quentin Blake)
117. Wriggle and Roar by Julia Donaldson
118. The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear
119. Give The Ball To The Poet – an anthology of Caribbean poetry
120. Silly Verse for Kids by Spike Milligan
121. Highwayman by Alfred Noyes (illus Charles Keeping)
122. Wicked World! By Benjamin Zephaniah
123. Nightmares by Jack Prelutsky
124. I Had a Little Cat (collected poems) by Charles Causley
125. Casting a Spell (an anthology) by Joan Aiken, Wendy Cope and others

Note – almost all of the authors on this list have a whole body of extraordinary work in their catalogues, and many of these books have sequels that are equally worth reading. Please do take the time to look up the other work of these authors.
Extra footnote– I mean no offence to any of my writer friends if I’ve left off your work! If this was a list of all of the books that I love for primary age children, I would need to buy more webspace as it would be hundreds of pages long.

Dawn Finch is a school librarian and children’s author, and is currently the Vice President of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP)

Librarians – let’s get out there!

This is a transcript of the closing speech for the joint CILIP Ireland / LAI conference in Belfast in April 2015.

Libraries – advocate and motivate!

Many of us work in isolation and conferences like this are our only chance to meet the other people who work within our service. We are unlike any other industry in that we largely work alone or in very small groups. To be able to attend extraordinary events like this not only keeps us up to date with what is new and current in our industry, but it allows us to discover that we are not alone in our trials and our adversities.

Libraries have never been at greater risk. Never. I have worked in libraries for over 27 years – through several restructures and reevaluations and reshuffles and several other things that regardless of the label hung on it meant job losses and a deterioration of the service available. This apparently was not enough and the erosion of the service has continued and has led us to this place where we are now. Thanks to the Seighart report we are now matched with railways and we are experiencing our Beeching moment. Actually, I think that this is an understatement. After Beeching it was still possible to catch a train, and the system is still recovering, but it is recovering. The same will not be said of libraries. When we lose our libraries they will be lost forever. This will be a single track line and there will be no recovering. No philanthropists will step in and rebuild. Losing our libraries will be an irreversible process.
So what can we do?

Of course our biggest problem is with governments and their inability to take the time to understand what libraries and librarians do and to find out exactly how important they are. This is largely because the people in power have a limited experience of libraries that is essentially an oak panelled silent room in their old prep-school or a silent brandy-fuelled room at the club reeking of aged and over-stuffed old-boys and cracked leather armchairs. They feel that it is fine to protect that sort of library, but do the poor and huddled masses really deserve access to that?

One of the most crucial outward problems facing libraries today partially rests in the perception of libraries. There still exists a perception that libraries are a middle-class remnant of a stuffy past that has no place in the 21st century. If we step outside into the streets and ask people to describe what a library is there is a very good chance that people will still describe this….

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Is this not what a library looks like?

Why do we bristle at this statement – because we know it to be false. We know that when people think of libraries they really should be thinking of spaces like this.

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This is the plan for the new National Library of Kazakhstan and it is a far better illustration of what we know a modern library looks like. We have dozens of examples of such modern community hubs and we know that our libraries are essential and lively 21st century spaces that serve our communities (be they schools, universities or academic establishments) We know that our communities would be significantly less successful without our presence. We know this because we are in these libraries every day and we are able to track their impact.
How do others know? What are we doing to ensure that the wider community is aware of the importance and impact of libraries?

So often all that the non-library using public see of libraries is when another campaign starts. Campaigns do work, especially noisy ones, but the most effective campaigns are ones that bring to bear the power of hearts and minds. We can’t expect people who have never used a library to understand what a librarian does or what a library can do for them – we have to show them. We have to make our voices heard in a way that is positive and affirming.

So how can we do this?
Use your users. One of the problems that we have with library campaigns is that it is often perceived as people just trying to protect their jobs – jobs that people do not understand or value. We need to better demonstrate what we mean to the people who use our libraries. Use your users to write about about what the library means to them, not what it means to you. A perfect example of this is the recent blog post at CILIP about prison libraries.

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Ex-prisoner Jonathan Robinson – a man who really understands how vital libraries and librarians are to the process of rehabilitation.

How much more effective is it to hear the voices of people whose lives have been changed for the better by the support of the library and the librarian? We actually have no shortage of support, but it is directing that support to the right people that can make a difference. Find out who has the most potential impact in your field or your county and get them on your side. Use the famous, use writers, broadcasters, sports personalities, local youth workers, schools, anyone who can be useful to get the message to a wider and more responsive audience.

Make sure that you are concentrating on the impact of the professional. Many library campaigns concentrate on the impact of the service, and not those delivering it. Talking about the professional is our job and we should be doing it as effectively as the campaigners are doing with the service. When you talk about digital literacy, make sure that you talk about the librarian that will deliver this service. It is not enough to save a library to have it staffed with volunteers, no matter how well meaning they are – this is not a sustainable system. Talk about the librarians and show why they are important.

Stay positive. As library campaigners it is vital that we stay positive about the benefits and usefulness of a well-run library. As a life-long campaigner for change I know that the angrier the campaign, the less people listen. These are stressful financial times for everyone, and so people need to feel something on an emotional level to stand by you and make a difference. Yank those heartstrings with positive tales and case histories and show the benefit and wider value of your library to its users.

Be seen! Be seen as an individual, not just as a faceless organisation. This is not just about a building with books in. A building with books in is not a library – no matter what the government would have people believe. You cannot run a library with volunteers – that is just a book lending service and that’s a completely different thing to a real library service. Make sure that people can see you and, in turn, that they understand what you do.
Blog, tweet, facebook, speak, get out there! Join with others and support each other. Conferences are the perfect opportunity to network and to show support for others. Take every opportunity to forge new links and new bonds with anyone who does what you do.
Show people what we do – show them that we are not just sitting there reading and waiting for a book to stamp out. Show people what you do in your service point and how you do it.

So what do we do? Who are we? Why do people deserve a real librarian and not a volunteer? This slide explains exactly what we do and why we are so essential to supporting our communities.

Qualified professionals infographicOne of the key elements of the campaign to erase the library service relies in part on all of us in the profession having divisions. It relies on academic libraries not supporting school libraries, public libraries not supporting health libraries, legal libraries not supporting prison libraries. We need to unite to ensure that we are providing an intermeshed and overlapping service – one access point effortlessly linking to the next.

Show your societal value. We do the most important job. We live in a time where the quantity of information available increases every second. With each passing moment the world faces another tide of information and only one sector of society can help to ride that wave and not drown.

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There has been a great deal of talk about the current government’s pledge to commit 7.4m towards wifi in public libraries and the campaign for digital literacy. We all know why this is so important. Those who are digitally literate have greater personal freedom and earn more.
People with good ICT skills earn between 3% – 10% more than those without.
72% of employers would not even interview entry level candidates with no ICT skills.

Who is at the cutting edge of this digital literacy revolution?
We are.
Our sector.
We are the only ones in the right place to provide management of that knowledge in all its forms and to help people to access and organise it. We are all that stands between the population and fifty million hits on videos of cats riding vacuum cleaners. We are the information conduits, we are the managers of information and we need to make sure that people understand how important this is.

These are dangerous times for libraries, librarians and for anyone who works in knowledge management. This is the time to represent a unified front. This is the time to unite and speak as one to stop the rot that threatens to destroy our libraries. If this destruction is allowed to happen, there will be no going back. If public libraries fall then there is a genuine risk that other information service points will fall in their wake. If we lose access to the unique skills that only a librarian can offer we will become weaker as a nation because of it.

Stick together, build networks, cross services and make sure that people realise that this is not just about buildings and property assets, this is not just about wages or cutting costs for local government, this is about the professionals who provide a service that ultimately improves the quality of life for every single member of our 21st Century communities.
This is what truly makes a library – a librarian.
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