Saturday morning, waking early to walk dogs because I have to go to Cardiff. Lying in bed thinking, 3 minutes. A 6 hour car journey to speak for 3 minutes. So much work to do. I need to stay home and paint. But instead I get ready, drink water, drive to Llanelli and join Matthew and his family as we travel together to Cardiff, to the Hayes, to lend our voices to the celebration of libraries and the protest against the cuts. It was National Libraries Day and I hadn’t realised before that this was something recent, founded by Alan Gibbons to help fight the cuts to the library services.
3 minutes. As the crowd gathersI get nervous. They suggested I read from one of my books, but 3 minutes of reading isn’t enough and there’s no relevance to libraries in a 3 minute passage. But what is relevant is my whole life. Because libraries taught me to read, gave me access to more books than I could possibly afford and librarians gave me the guidance as to what to read. So, my whole lifetime, condensed into 3 minutes?
The crowd grew. People with books. People of all ages, colours and heights. Most had books with them. Some had the most excellent banners and statements.
I tried not to be nervous. I was speaking after Peter Finch and before Phoebe, who is 12 and I didn’t want her to be nervous. Anyway, trying didn’t help. I am a better writer than I am speaker. I can organise my thoughts better through writing. So here is what I should have said.
“Libraries taught me to read. And because I can read I have a structure to frame my thoughts and can express them through words, writing in particular. I have a voice. Free at the point of use, a library is a treasure house. A local library, yes, but each and every local library forms part of a national treasure and as such should be funded nationally. We don’t fund defence county by county. Why do we fund libraries county by county? Only because then the anger at their decline is focussed away from the national government.
Because I learned to read I have had a very different one to that which I might have had. I make a reasonable living from my work. I have paid back in tax far more than my student grant, and I have contributed to the common wealth of this nation through my taxes, but now I say I want books not bombs. I want an educated population with access to knowledge free at the point of use. I want trained librarians there to help people like me who walked in to the maze of books without the parental guidance of what to read, what might interest me. I want that expertise. I want those librarians, whose jobs are funded by my taxes, whose expertise is developed with use of my tax money to stay employed so that they can lead a new generation forward as libraries change and develop to fit the modern world.
Because they do, and have changed and developed.
To those who would say that libraries are a middleclass institution I say this. The class system is a nonsense maintained by those who ‘have’ in order to divide and rule those who ‘have not’. I am working class, if I have to be anything. Just because I am educated doesn’t change the fact that my dad worked in a factory before becoming a policeman, that my aunts and uncles all worked in factories and my aunt cleaned offices at night. Just because I was the first person in my family to go to college doesn’t mean I suddenly become middle class to fit someone else’s idea of the class structure.
I say to those who claim they are a middleclass institution that if you can say that then you are not doing your job properly because your job is to see that EVERYONE knows how to use the library, especially those who are the poorest among us. The way to do this is through schools and the schools library service and if you don’t accept and action this then you are failing in your job, councillor Richard Cook.
And I say to those who say that “libraries are as irrelevant in the modern world as public phone boxes”, No, they are not. They are not replaceable by the internet because even if you put every book online just imagine this:
Imagine you are a parent and you sent your child into the internet. Imagine it is a huge room. Inside that room there are many many people trying to sell you things. There are books, there is knowledge and there is a huge mass of nonsense that is underpinned by 0 research. There are pornographers and sexual predators and deviants of more kinds than I care to imagine and there are good people who do and make beautiful things, and there are images so violent that you don’t want to even think of them. And that is just a tiny part of the massive thing called The Internet. ( Thanks to Nicola Davies for this analogy)
The internet is not a replacement for a library and not a place I would wish a child to wander through. The library is more relevant than ever today when the world is dominated by the tyranny of the literate and 25 % of our population are still functionally illiterate. Librarians are far more valuable a commodity than many realise. Yes, the internet is wonderful, a marvellous tool for communication, an addition to the library and I love that those without computers, without broadband can access it through a library. Long may it be so.
I can access books that are hundreds of years old, but I can’t access files that are 10 years old because of the way the platform moves with software. Books we can read now on kindle will be inaccessible in 20 years time as technology ‘moves on’ so that a multi-national can sell you a new device. I will still be reading my book, accessing it by opening the covers in 20, 30 years time.
It was good to see so many people coming together. There should have been more. But it is not too late. Among the great and the good who spoke were Peter Finch, Belinda Bauer, Gillian Clarke sent a letter of support, The Manic Street Preachers, who like me owe their careers to the library, Alan Gibbons and Cathy Cassidy, again through messages as they couldn’t be there in person. But the biggest round of applause came for Phoebe Howard. 12 years old and hobbling on crutches, and I can vouch for the fact that even the short walk there was painful for her, non the less she made the effort to go and to speak up for what she loves.
I had asked in a previous blog posting for people to demonstrate against the cuts by writing to Cardiff councillors to say what the libraries mean to them. Fight the cuts, but fight with words, not with riots. Because we can. We have a voice in this modern world. Pheobe’s letter was so strong that I gave it a blog post of its own. She stood and she read infront of the crowd, so well. Phoebe took the time out from homework to write a letter, hobbled across Cardiff to the stage to read it. Please, use this link to find addresses, add your voice. Send your letter too.
Pheobe’s letter has been retweeted by many of her favourite authors, shared across the world, read at the demo, reprinted in Western Mail online…. she has made her one small voice heard. If more voices were added we would reach a point where those who hold the purse strings would have to listen.
I went into the library to take a photo looking down. I was surprised to find a security guard there. I asked if he was always there and he said no, he was just a council worker who was drafted in to act as security while the demo was on. Obviously the council feared what this hoard of angry readers might do to their beloved library. But it was not unreasonable to have guards there. You never know. He said he thought that the council was wrong. They should never close a library, or withdraw funding.
And who was absent from the demo? Anyone representing the cuts.
A statement in the Mail from Councillor Bradbury states:
“In fact our proposal for Cardiff Central Library is to create a flagship super hub that will offer a number of council services under one roof, which includes library services.
“The Hub approach within Central Library represents an effective and sustainable way of bringing together the excellent services already offered with partner advice services that will maximise the positive outcomes that we always aim to achieve for the population of Cardiff.
“The City Council remains very proud that our landmark library was officially opened by The Manic Street Preachers.”
So, they aren’t cuts at all it seems. Instead we get not just a hub, but a ‘flagship super hub’ that involves losing 2 more floors of an already reduced service. Well, Cardiff City Council, we don’t want a HUB, we want a library.
Anyway, I guess if I was better at public speaking that is what I would have said.
Oh, and did anyone else spot the irony of the Tory’s backing £15 million museum to honour Margaret Thatcher? She would have been so proud of her children.
Phoebe isn’t one of Thatcher’s children. I am proud of her.
We need an educated population. If we don’t have that then the gap between rich and poor will grow wider and wilder. Please add your voice to the debate. Let’s not be the first generation to not only saddle our students with crippling debt, but also ravage the public library services when we should be investing in them. Help turn the tide.
Oh, and join the library. The best way to fight the cuts is to join the library.
Otherwise soon all libraries will look like this:
We hear authors speaking out for the libraries. It’s time we heard from other disciplines. Surely there are lawyers out there who first found their vocation through access to libraries? Doctors, surgeons, musicians, like the Manics, who had their horizons expanded by access to knowledge acquired in libraries. Structural surveyors, engineers, software designers, god help us, politicians? Surly. Don’t leave us standing alone here, join us.