Tag Archives: librarians

Libraries again and again

National Library Day is Saturday 6th February. Here we are again, defending public libraries, arguing for them to be kept open in the face of so-called austerity, reminding people of the value of free access to books.

Public libraries are in danger. Cutting them is a shortsighted policy; libraries contribute in the long run to many, many people’s knowledge and understanding, to their creative abilities and to their imagination and wonder. They do not cost much, in comparison with, say Trident or HS2 or keeping people in prisons.

We need to hear and repeat the arguments supporting public libraries from those who benefitted from open access and a friendly librarian in their youth, from those who are out-of-pocket and who benefit from reading for free (as well as using the other facilities of public libraries) and for the civilising influence of culture on a country. Neil Gaiman said that libraries are

the thin red line between civilisation and barbarism.

I bring three witnesses to support National Library Day.

Peter Balaba, Head Librarian, Nakaseke Community Library, Uganda.

Peter says,

Nakaseke is a very rural region. Most of the population live as subsistence farmers, growing crops like coffee, maize or beans or raising animals. This is not a rich area. Perhaps sometimes people have enough produce to sell and make extra money, but very few people have books in their homes. No one has a computer to access the internet. This is why the library is so important for the community here.

For the farmers of Nakaseke, the information the library provides is vital. It can mean the difference between a good crop and a bad one. A good crop will feed their families and leave something over to sell. A bad crop can mean ruin.

There are no books in the schools here – they do not even have money to buy desks or chairs for the children. The classrooms are bare. So we run outreach programmes for the children, which means that up to 100 children might be in the library – so many we have to put half of them in our reading tent outside.

Nakaseke library has been supported by Book Aid International since 2003. Their slogan is BOOKS CHANGE LIVES.

66 Bookaid logo

Zadie Smith, novelist

23 Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith tried to save Kensal Rise Library in London, but it was closed with 5 others in 2011, saving £1m annually.

I can see that if you went to Eton or Harrow, like so many of the present government, it is hard to see how important it is to have a local library. But then, it’s always difficult to explain to people with money what it’s like to have very little. But the low motives [of the government] as it tries to worm out of its commitment … is a policy so shameful that they will never live it down.” Local libraries, Smith said, are “gateways to better, improved lives”. (Guardian 16th 2015)

The article that reported this goes on to list other libraries under threat in Fife, Newcastle, Liverpool and Lewisham in London. Writers such as Zadie Smith and many others are active in the campaign to save them.

Great Shelford Library, Cambridgeshire, by James Yardley via WikiCommons

Great Shelford Library, Cambridgeshire, by James Yardley via WikiCommons

Ali Smith, writer

229 Ali Sm

She is one of the most inventive writers of the current day. Her novel How to be both was the success of last year. In 2015 Ali Smith also published Public Library and other stories. The book contains 12 short stories, none of them called Public Library. The title comes from the interspersed comments from other bookish people about the importance of libraries, especially for younger people. The theme of the collection concerns the benefits of reading, not only for writing but also for connections between people.

Ali Smith’s stories demonstrate over and over again the power of the word, delights readers with her inventiveness, her creativity, her quirky view on things so that it is as if she takes you by the shoulders and shows you a familiar thing in a different way.

She is playful with words and informative about their histories. And she lists, lingers on lists of everything. Her stories connect people through fiction, (Katherine Mansfield) and other cultural things (Dusty Springfield, Scotland).

The importance of books and libraries cannot be denied.

One short story from the collection made available to download and read by Pool here: The Art of Elsewhere.

Public Library and other stories by Ali Smith, published in 2015 by Hamish Hamilton. 220 pp

Charlie Brown

And another witness – Peanuts!

223 Peanuts library

Linked post

Library cuts are pay cuts. Really! December 2014.

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Banning Books

Why do people in authority ban a book? They fear the power of the book. They fear the ideas or knowledge within the covers. As so often happens when you ban something it draws attention to it. Remember Mrs Thatcher banning the voices of the IRA on the news. In the recent Banned Books Week some surprising titles were revealed to have appeared on banned lists, especially in US in school districts where they take a different line about things and have different processes.

Banning books to protect children

213 Jenny_Lives_with_Eric_and_MartinFrequently a ban on a book is intended to prevent the corruption of the minds of the young. Or to protect them from ideas that adults believe might be too difficult. Behind the idea of banning books for children is a distrust of their ability to explore their world. I remember schools being banned from using books about living with gay parents. Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin by Susanne Bosche (1983) was notorious. Local Governments were also banned in 1988 from promoting a homosexual lifestyle and ‘the acceptability of homosexual relationships as a pretended family relationship’ (the notorious section 28). The world had gone mad.

The Scottish Book Trust noted that these books about or for children had been banned somewhere: 213 1940 AnneFrankSchoolPhoto

  • Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • The Diaries of Anne Franks
  • Forever Judy Bloom
  • Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Judy Bloom writes about themes that interest young adults, their relationships with their parents, with people of their own age, fractured families, sexuality, strong emotions. She was one of the first to do so and earned a loyal readership as a result. The idea that childhood is a time of innocence is also challenged in different ways by Alice and by Huckleberry Finn.

Young girls with spirit are notoriously dangerous to those with absolutist beliefs. That must be why The Diaries of Anne Frank appears on the list.

Books that challenge social (sexual) norms

Then there are books that shock a little, intended to push the boundaries of what is discussed, what is known.

213 LolitaThe list begins with Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. It would be hard to read Lolita without noticing that Herbert Humbold is a self-serving monster. It is a tough read because he sounds so plausible. People behave in bad ways and appear plausible. Those who wanted to ban Lolita mistook the messenger for the message. I suspect that many of them had not read Lolita.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence was completed in 1928. Penguin published it in the UK in 1960 and a court case tested both the book and the obscenity laws. Lady Chatterley was notoriously ‘not the kind of book you want your wife or servants to read’, according to chief prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones. Lawrence’s particular joyfulness at sex challenged assumptions and made explicit the shocking idea that women enjoyed sex, had sexual desires. And it also offended class sensibilities. It was acquitted under obscenity laws in 1960.

Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness also from 1928 provoked extreme reactions: ‘I’d rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this book’ fulminated James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express. Its subject, lesbians, were seen to challenge the family values that the Express stood for. The Well also suffered under obscenity laws, although the legal battles over the book increased the visibility of lesbians in both British and American society.

Not about sexual norms but more about decency and a fear that it ‘wallowed in repulsiveness’ Barbara Comyns’s 1958 novel Who was Changed and Who was Dead was also banned. There is an interesting article about it on the PEN America website by Matt Bell. He argues that we should rejoice in its lack of moralising which promotes change ‘including an increase in moral complexity, intellectual range and truest empathy’.

And the political ideas

Banning the books with political themes is mystifying to our modern sensibilities, with exception of the Rushdie. Banned titles have included

  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  • Ulysses by James Joyce
  • Frankenstein by Mark Shelley
  • Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

213 PerseoplisBut again, the powerful do not like challenges to the status quo. Or do not like readers’ minds being exposed to ideas that might challenge their certainties, even if the challenge is itself a critique of the opposing ideas, as is Animal Farm. And they don’t like books that promote girls and women as active and brave and determining their own futures as Persepolis does. It is graphic novel about a young Iranian girl during the period of the fall of the Shah and after. The challenges to the book’s place in schools and on the curriculum in the US is considered on the Banned Books Week website, Case Study: Persepolis by Maggie Jacoby, September 2015.

Books are good for healthy debate and challenge some questionable assumptions. In the forefront of reminding us about banned books are librarians, fighters for freedom of speech. That’s another reason to support libraries and librarians. And so too is the writer’s organisation PEN, and you can find the English PEN website here. Support them too!

What banned books have most grated with you? Is there ever a case for banning a book? What do you think?

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The Public Library by Robert Dawson

I find myself recently buying a few large books for leafing through. First it was one about women’s sheds: A Woman’s Shed by Gill Herz, photographs by Nicolette Hallett. The second featured the covers of Jane Austen’s novels in the last 200 years: Jane Austen Cover to Cover by Margaret C Sullivan. And then it was the subject of this post: The Public Library: a photographic essay by Robert Dawson.184 Pub Lib cover

I couldn’t resist this one having read a post by Maria Popova on the blog On Brain Pickings. You can read the post here and consider whether you would have resisted.

The book

The Public Library has a foreword by Bill Moyers, an afterword by Ann Patchett and other contributions from Isaac Asimov, Barbara Kingsolver, Anne Lamott, Dr Seuss, Charles Simic, Amy Tan and others. So many notable American writers, all reflecting on the wonder that is the public library.

In the United States – as in the UK – it appears that the public library is under threat. That means that the idea of the public library as free, accessible and local may not survive the next two decades. Robert Dawson is a believer in the free public library, clear about its significance in the States. What he says also applies to libraries in the UK:

Stoke Newington Library, London

Stoke Newington Library, London

A locally governed and tax-supported system that dispenses knowledge and information for everyone throughout the country at no cost to its patrons is an astonishing thing – a thread that weaves together our diverse and often fractious country. It is a shared commons of our dreams, our memories, our culture, and ourselves.

The project for his book is described at the start of chapter one:

The photographs in this book are intended to be a broad study of public libraries in America over an eighteen-year period. There are approximately seventeen thousand public libraries in the United States, and I tried to include the broadest range of them possible. My photographs capture some of the poorest and wealthiest, oldest and newest, most crowded and most isolated, even abandoned libraries. (13)

And so, what we get is 185 pages, most of them with B&W and colour photographs, showing the reader (the leafer-through) a very large variety of libraries – from the classical monumental building of The Handley Regional Library, Winchester, Virginia to the ‘Little Free Library’ in a replica of a school house on a post (think bird table) in Hudson, Wisconsin via the seed and tool libraries of California. Little Free Library is a community movement and you can find out more about it at www.littlefreelibrary.org I counted 15 in the UK on the website, but none near me in the South West.

A selection of libraries from the book

In the Main Library, Salt Lake City, Utah hangs a sculpture called Psyche, made of nearly 1500 small sculptures of books forming the shape of a head (p132).184 Psyche in Utal lib

Caliente branch library is situated in a former Pacific railroad station, in Nevada (p150). You can find libraries in a former gas station, bank, court house and church. A Library shares space with a liquor store in Minnesota.

In Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore, Maryland there is a chess room (p47)

The Chicago Public Library was created from the ashes of the 1971 Great Chicago fire. From England the library received 8000 books donated by Queen Victoria, Benjamin Disraeli, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold among others (p98).

In praise of the public library

And perhaps the story that resonated most with me was Anne Lamott’s account of the direct action by writers and readers in Salinas California when they heard that all three of their libraries were to close due to budget cuts. They held an emergency 24 hours read-in by a group of actors and writers. The press coverage brought in enough money to keep the libraries open for a further year.

This is what she says about librarians.

I see them as healers and magicians. Librarians can tease out of inarticulate individuals enough information about what they are after to lead them on the path of connection. They are trail guides through the forest of shelves and aisles – you turn a person loose who has limited skills, and he’ll be walloped by the branches. But librarians match up readers with the right books: “hey, is this one too complicated? Then why don’t you give this one a try?”

And about the threat to deprive the city of Salinas of all its libraries she says

Something has gone so wrong in this country that needs to be fixed, and we care about that. Books and reading are medicine. Stories are written and told by and for people who have been broken, but who have risen up, or will rise, if attention is paid to them. Those people are you and us. Stories and truths are splints for the soul, and that makes today a sacred gathering. Now we are all saying: Pass it on. (166)

Yes – that’s what we must do: pass it on!

Related post: Anne Lamott’s advice to writers: A Visit from my Inner Critic

The Public Library: a photographic essay by Robert Dawson published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2014 192pp

 

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