Monday, 6 December 2010

Are you sick of hearing about libraries yet?

If the answer is "yes,' then tough! I have a lot to say about libraries. The first one here is Lavender Hill, Battersea, and we lived up the opposite hill, St.John's, when I was a child. I went there every Saturday, with my father, to take out our quota for the week.

My dad, having been taken out of school at fourteen by his father, was an auto-didact and borrowed mainly non-fiction. My choices were Worzel Gummidge, Dr. Dolittle and Mary Poppins (libraries are perfect for books that come in series). Later there was The Lord of the Rings.

I loved Lavender Hill library because the cone-topped turret made me think it was a fairy castle, a belief I still think not far from the truth. We didn't have all that many books in our flat in St John's Hill. It was a "railway flat" because my dad worked for the Railways at Waterloo (no-one said British Rail in those days). We had the complete works of Dickens, which I later devoured.

I won an LCC scholarship to an independent girls' school, James Allen's in Dulwich, something that would not have happened if Lavender Hill hadn't encouraged me to be a bookworm. At JAGs there was a well-stocked library, where the qualified librarian turned a blind eye when I bunked off Games to read Greek Myths.

I wouldn't have moved on to my next library without the JAGs one.


This was at Newnham College, Cambridge. I was in Clough Hall where the library was. Every week I competed with nine other young women to borrow the texts and critical books needed for our weekly essays in English Literature. Recently I went back to that college to give a talk and a workshop. There is a new library, unrecognisable, which contains some of my own books. That would have been unimaginable when I was a student.


Spool forward ten years or more and I am living in Crouch End, raising young children. This less than beautiful building is Hornsey Library, where we took our little girls every week to get out their books, just as I used to with the grandfather they never knew.

They know this building as a friend, from teddy bear's tea parties when they were little till the oldest was taking out books on the Russian Revolution for her A level History.

Then in 1990 came a bombshell: Hornsey was scheduled for closure by Haringey council along with several other libraries. Yes, you didn't read the date wrong: I HAVE BEEN CAMPAIGNING TO KEEP LIBRARIES OPEN FOR TWENTY YEARS! No apologies for shouting. It makes me want to shout, nay, scream. It's not as if it's all been plain sailing since then either.

I was elected Chair of the Hornsey Library Campaign and ran successful events there for three years, supported by local celebs like Penelope Fitzgerald, Tim Pigott Smith and Buchi Emecheta. We kept all the libraries open. And again when Hornsey's music library was under threat, we saved that too. My little girls, bigger now, got used to marching on demos with placards saying "Save Our Libraries" and "Closed libraries = Closed Minds" which I see are being recycled now.

We became adept at doorstepping councillors as they went into meetings at Wood Green Civic Centre and thrusting leaflets into their hands. We recognised them from their mugshots in the local papers.

In 1993 I added to my campaigning by starting CENTRAL, a support group for School Library Services, which I ran for six years.This task has now been ably taken up by Alan Gibbon's Campaign for the Book.

Write about what you know, some people say, so in 1997 I published a novel called Special Powers, in which the heroine, Emily fights to save her local library. She is helped by a family of extra-terrestrials who have a personal agenda for wanting to keep it open: it is a gateway to the other world they have come from and their route home.

We had no aliens with special powers to help us save Hornsey and the other libraries but sheer people power did it and it seems we will have to do it again. The government has announced it is withdrawing finance from 50% of the libraries in Oxfordshire, the county I live in, including ones in impoverished areas like Blackbird Leys. They think they can be kept running by volunteers, an example of David Cameron's Big Society.

Well, David Cameron is my local MP and he will be getting a letter, as will Ed Vaizey and the imaginatively re-named by James Naughtie this morning, Jeremy Hunt Culture Secretary. Re-phrasing their heroine's famous dictum, I shall tell them "there is no such thing as Big Society"!

When Emily in Special Powers hears that her library is under threat of closure, she thinks, "It was like someone saying there weren't going to be any more Fridays or that red had been outlawed."



That's how it feels when you hear something so impossible and wrong. I came from a lower middle class family where no-one had been to university but where books and learning were respected. I know for sure that I would not be a writer of nearly a hundred published books if it had not been for the libraries - and librarians - of Lavender Hill, JAGs, Newnham and Hornsey.

I salute them and I will do everything I can to make sure that generations of children to come have the opportunities - and delights - that I did. Please join me by writing to David Cameron, Ed Vaizey and Jeremy Hunt. They've had to re-think the school sports cuts; let's make them do the same for libraries.

21 comments:

Lucy Coats said...

"I bunked off Games to read Greek Myths" Mary--I already knew we had so much in common, and this is one more! This is a brilliant post--and a perfect exposition of just why libraries are so vitally important. Thank you.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Excellent Mary and I agree that working local is very important. We have a campaign in Barnet to save our libraries - which incidentally was probably the first Borough in the country to open libraries on Sunday afternoons, to cater for the local orthodox Jewish community who couldn't come to a library on Shabbat ( the Sabbath) and so of course, students of all ages couldn't get their homework done. A library is the backbone of a community and we simply can't do without them!

Gill James said...

West Bromich library where I went as a child was mock Gothic,as was the town hall. The hallways and corridors looked as if they were marble. A great sweepiong staircase took you up to the junior section.
The one we took our children to was housed in a converted chapel.
It is impossible to imagine life wihtout librarires.

GaryGreen said...

Hello Mary. You may be interested in 'Voices For The Library'. It's a national campaign aimed at defending libraries and highlighting why they are important. You can find our website at http://www.voicesforthelibrary.org.uk
Thank you.

Nicola Morgan said...

Mary - I wrote to those very people at the weekend. And have blogged about this disgrace a couple of times in the last week, and, like you, will continue to talk about it until the problem is solved. Great post.

Btw, when were you at Newnham? I was there 79-82. Did we coincide? Nx

ninakillham said...

Let's hear it for Hornsey Library and for you, for devoting so much time to this worthy cause. And come to think of it, I probably could live without Fridays. But libraries? Never.

michelle lovric said...

Lovely post, Mary. A life in libraries. I just read Special Powers, and loved the idea that the library was a portal and a powerful place, a fertile ground between worlds.
My first library, unromantically, was an unrelentingly ugly building in Bondi Junction in Sydney, but I loved it passionately.

kathryn evans said...

Moving post - perfect summary, MAKES ME WANT TO SHOUT TO. So I have, over and again http://mrsbung.wordpress.com/

Nick Cross said...

Fabulous post, Mary. I'm not sick of hearing about libraries yet, not by a long chalk!

adele said...

Way to go, Mary! A wonderful post... I like imagining David C reading your letter which I bet is a corker. All strength to your elbow. I just joined the very tiny branch library at Great Shelford and the librarian there was full of stories of how awful things are in this county as well...Anne Rooney has written about this very well on ABBA. Shouting is required...

Dave Cousins said...

Inspiring stuff Mary. Much respect for all the work you have done over the years. Let's hope we can repeat some of your successes in the ongoing campaign. I like the sound of Special Powers too!

Ian Anstice said...

Lovely post. Wigan have announced today that only 2 out of 17 libraries are safe closure. This brings the total to 258 UK libraries under threat.

We need more Mavens.

http://publiclibrariesnews.blogspot.com/

Ian Anstice said...

Oops, just noticed Redbrige. 263 now.

Book Maven said...

Thank you, lovely people all. I have been away a day and a half, hearing Michelle talk eloquently about her books and Italy (Hi Michelle - thanks for the shout out about Special Powers) and, in a very non-literary way, looking at a wedding venue with a daughter.

Nicola it's sweet of to suggest we might have been contemporary - not even in the same decade!

I have been reading lots of blogs by lots of wonderful people on libraries. Mine would have gone up sooner but I did it all on Saturday night and lost it and was out all Sunday.

I am bookmarking Voices in the Library, Gary.

Let's all keep up the pressure.

Katherine Langrish said...

And Ed Vaizey is my MP and I will be writing to him this weekend. Some years ago when I lived in the US, our local (New York State) library was closed, because funding for libraries and schools there came direct from local taxes, and people who either didn't read or have children in school would - the local mayor believed - not vote for funds to be used for such things. This meant a shortage of books and facilities for the many poor people in the neigbourhood, but that didn't matter to the local politicians.

It felt to me like the end of civilization. The Hun at the gates. The British right's admiration of the US as a model for society needs a good hard looking at. The weak go to the wall.

Linda said...

Hear, hear! And how could we get sick of hearing about something so important?

Book Maven said...

The Oxford Times printed my letter and the ditorial said they could have filled the letters page 10 times over with complaints just about libraries.

Stroppy Author said...

Lovely post, Mary. Looks like we're going to have to keep on and on campaigning...

Susan B said...

Back here in Haringey we are fighting again to keep all our libraries open and how I miss Mary's help in running FORE! (~Friends of Reading & Education)--it feels as if the story of libraries needs a few Fairy Godfathers in this government. This time we active supporters are starting in a unified position with the other 1000 threatened libraries. We are advertising our anger well in advance,and a campaign to write to these three well-educated leaders is a good beginning. In London, Libraries for Life for Londoners is the place to check for local news.
Susan Chinn of HLAG, FORE! and LLL

Librarygirl said...

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