Tag Archives: The Reading Agency

Six Crimes against Library Books

The original version of this post was one of my earliest, written four years ago. At that time I included only 5 crimes, but since the assault on public libraries has been unrelenting I have added the worst crime of all: closing public libraries and preventing access to books. This piece focuses on the books themselves.

Libraries are under attack

Libraries are under attack and not just from this thing they used to call austerity but also from readers. I’ve quoted before from a very charming and poignant novel in a previous post about libraries in danger: Sophie Divry’s The Library of Unrequited Love. Damage Limitation. That’s how the French librarian narrator describes her mission, limiting the damage readers do – men readers in particular, apparently.

I don’t always manage it. They do stupid things all the time. Inevitably. They put books back in the wrong place, they steal them, they muddle them up, they dog-ear them. Some people even tear out pages. Imagine, tearing out pages when photocopies are only seven centimes a shot! It’s men that do that, every time. And underlining like crazy, that’s always men as well. Men just have to make their mark on a book, put in their corrections, their opinions. You see the pathetic comments they write in the margin: ‘Yes!’, ‘No!!!’, ‘Ridiculous’, ‘Very Good’, ‘O.T.T.’, ‘Wrong’. It’s forbidden to write on the books, that’s in the Library Rules. (22)

Despite her railing at the person (a man I think) who had a sleepover in the stacks for which she is responsible, Sophie Divry’s librarian has very positive views about libraries and their value.

I share this strong belief in the importance of libraries. I also find myself incensed (as well as inconvenienced from time to time) by the activities of my fellow library book borrowers.

Six things not to do to library books:

  1. Mark them. People, don’t underline your favourite bits with pen or pencil, and forbear from using a highlighter. It is not your book, and the rest of us do not want to know what you found useful, interesting or noteworthy about this book. Do not write your shopping list on the end pages, or your to do list on the title page. Do not add anything to the writers’ text.
  2. Damage them. It won’t stay open? Don’t crack the spine by bending the covers backwards. My shoulders don’t meet behind my back either. If necessary peer between the pages. Don’t damage them in any way. Don’t tear out pages you want to keep. Photocopiers were invented for you to copy pages. Don’t prop up your wobbly table by placing it under the leg, turn down the page corner to mark your place, drop it in the bath or throw it at your disgraced lover or partner.
  3. Leave important things between the pages when you return them. Never again will you see that bank note, dry cleaner’s receipt, oyster card, railway, concert or winning lottery ticket, love letter, Indian Takeaway flyer, business card. The compromising photographs, however, will reappear.
  4. Collect your toenail clippings in the open pages. More respect to other readers please.
  5. Forget to return them.
  6. Close libraries so that readers do not have access to them.

What response could there be to such bad readers and local councils? It is not good enough to suggest that we close libraries because everyone has access to on-line books nowadays. In the first place they don’t. Not everyone has access to the internet at home. If you have ever been in a public library you would know that the use of the on-line facilities is part of their attraction. And not everyone wants to read the books on-line. And libraries are not just about access to books, they have many other purposes, including being social places, although I think holding a sleepover in them may be going a little far.

Jungle Books via WikiCommons January 2016 by Katja Ulbert

Libraries and books open eyes to the world beyond the everyday, beyond the immediate and into new imaginary places and adventures. Neil Gaiman said this more eloquently and powerfully in his 2013 annual lecture lecture to the Reading Agency: Reading and Obligation. Note that word Obligation. Our society has an obligation to provide libraries.

Love libraries. Love library books. Love librarians?

Any pet hates to add to my list?

The Library of Unrequited Love (La Cote) by Sophie Divry was a gift from my sister. Published by MacLehose Press in 2013. Translated from the French by Sian Reynolds.

Related Posts

Libraries are in danger. Too much silly stuff is written about them in the media. For a refreshing riposte see this piece in Huffington Post by the American librarian, Rita Meade: A librarian’s response to ‘what’s a library?’

Libraries again and again; in this post I reported on the importance of libraries overseas, using the example of Nakaseke Community Library, Uganda and praising the work of Book Aid International.

Library Cuts are Pay Cuts. Really! This post looked at everybody’s financial impoverishment caused by cutting libraries.

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Unlimited Books for Prisoners

Do you know that poem called Sometimes by Sheenagh Pugh? It begins

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,

from bad to worse …

Well, this is one of those times. Our best efforts have not gone amiss. Thanks to some good campaigning, a legal challenge and, yes credit is due, Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Justice), all restrictions have been relaxed preventing prisoners from receiving books. The Campaign Books For Prisoners has been successful.

Books for Prisoners

Let’s credit English PEN and The Howard League for Penal Reform for their vigorous and engaging campaign. The Howard League was presented with the Charity Award for its campaign in June 2015.

The judicial review was brought by Barbara Gordon-Jones, a prisoner at HMP Send, and her lawyer, Samuel Genen. As a result in December 2014 the High Court declared unlawful the restrictions introduced by Chris Grayling (previous Secretary of State for Justice). But feet were dragged, information only slowly disseminated and practice took time to change.

And then, following the general Election, the Secretary of State for Justice was replaced. Michael Gove said, when he announced the change in policy,

We have more than 80,000 people in custody. The most important thing we can do once they are in prison is make sure that they are usefully employed and that they get the literacy and numeracy and other skills they need for success in work.

Channings Wood, Boundary Fence, by Roger Cornfoot December 2009 via WikiCommons

Channings Wood, Boundary Fence, by Roger Cornfoot December 2009 via WikiCommons

It is a little sad that the rationale for the new policy is framed in instrumental terms, and all about work. As a good old-fashioned liberal leftie I want books and education to be promoted for their own sakes, not just to improve the work chances of prisoners – or children and young people and students of all ages. But hey-ho, the policy has changed. The statement went on,

One of the big influences on my thinking on social policy is Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute.

He believed that we should see all human beings as assets, not liabilities. I agree. Every individual has something to offer, every one of us can earn respect.

People who are currently languishing in prison are potential assets to society. They could be productive and contribute. If we look at them only as problems to be contained we miss the opportunity to transform their lives and to save ourselves and our society both money and pain.

From 1st September families and friends will be allowed to send books directly to prisoners and no longer be obliged to go through approved retailers. The limited of 12 books in cells has been lifted, but prisoners must not exceed the limits on the volume of personal possessions permitted.

Wood engraving of Elizabeth Gurney Fry reading to prisoners in Newgate Prison, London, from Bodleian Library, Oxford, via WikiCommons

Wood engraving of Elizabeth Gurney Fry reading to prisoners in Newgate Prison, London, from Bodleian Library, Oxford, via WikiCommons

Why are books important in prisons?

Let’s put aside the views of people who think being economically productive is the main duty of an adult human. Let’s ask for other reasons why books are important in prisons.

This is the view of someone who knows. Chandra Bozelko wrote this post for an American blog, Quartz, on her experiences of prison. She argues for more support for literacy training, not only for Obama’s proposed degree courses, in jail.

I was never an avid fiction reader before being incarcerated. But once inside, the last page of every novel I read arrived with an emotional thud, because I knew I would have to re-submerge myself into prison reality. Real life was never as good as the story I had been reading. To finish a book was often so disheartening that sometimes I wondered if I should even start another one, knowing how I would feel when I finished. …

Reading can save an inmate. A novel is a buoy in prison; it keeps you afloat because you can enter someone else’s life without ever leaving the facility. But not everyone in prison can read a whole book. Because I’ve witnessed that struggle first-hand, perhaps that’s why I’m one of the few who know that reforming the US corrections system means focusing on basic adult literacy—and therefore that providing university-level courses to inmates isn’t as helpful as it sounds.

We need to say this again and again – access to books is important for everyone. Books are good for you! A Report to the Reading Agency by BOP Consulting, funded by the Peter Sowerby Foundation, notes that the benefits of reading include:

  • increased empathy,
  • improved relationships,
  • reduced symptoms of depression, and
  • improved wellbeing.

I’d like some of that! That’s why libraries are important. Everyone should be able to access book easily. That’s why literacy activities in prisons are important. That’s why prison libraries are important. That’s why prisoners should have adequate time out of the cells to visit libraries (reduced it appears because of cuts to prison staffing).

Check out the list of benefits again. Not only should prisoners enjoy books for their own sake, but their life chances can be enhanced by reading. Books for prisoners!

Turning pages of a book by Mummelgrummel, February 2013 via WikiCommons

Turning pages of a book by Mummelgrummel, February 2013 via WikiCommons

Two notes

Note 1: American Enterprise Institute is an American conservative think tank. Arthur Brooks might be described as a compassionate conservative. According to Wikipedia, in 2006 he wrote Who Really Cares: the surprising truth about Compassionate Conservatism. And he earned his living for a while as a French Horn player. Hmm …

Note 2: The decision by Gove means that books are no longer part of the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme, or to put it another way they become an entitlement rather than a reward.

Related posts

Books for Prisoners November 2014

Books in Prison March 2014

Follow the hashtags on twitter #BooksForPrisoners and #noreadingingaol.

 

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National Libraries Day

It’s National Libraries Day on Saturday 8th February 2014. We need to say again:

  • We need libraries.
  • Libraries matter.
  • Libraries change lives.
  • Books change lives.
  • Libraries are more than the sum of the books they lend.
  • Save our libraries!
  • Celebrate our libraries!

We know that books change lives from countless accounts by writers and readers of early immersion in libraries. How many times have you read “I wouldn’t be a reader/writer if I hadn’t spent my childhood in libraries”? Libraries and books open eyes to the world beyond the everyday, beyond the immediate and into new imaginary places and adventures. Neil Gaiman said this more eloquently and powerfully in his lecture: Reading and Obligation. Note that word Obligation. Our society has an obligation to provide libraries.

Library shelvesDSC00248Libraries are more than the collection of books. They provide other services: loans of DVDs, CDs, access to newspapers, journals, courses, local information, pamphlets, computer time, story-telling, spaces for poetry and writing groups … Libraries have a communitarian function.

A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen instead. (Caitlin Moran, The Library Book p92)

The-Library-Book-154x250_mediumThe Library Book is published by of The Reading Agency, which works hard to support reading, including libraries. Their strap line is: ‘Because everything changes when we read’. There are 4,200 public libraries in the UK. We must not lose them. And that’s why everyday is Libraries Day.

I have been with my writing group at Totnes Library (a new library, opened less than a year ago – what a treasure!). We had live music outside our meeting room and 15 writers focusing on life writing. Where are you on National Libraries Day?

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