Sunday, July 13, 2008

Campaign for the book

A campaign for the book
Sometimes it just isn't good enough for a writer to sit in his or her study tapping out the latest novel. Events recently propelled me into a fortnight of frantic activity that made me sit down and think very carefully about the position of the book in society. The trigger was an invitation to speak at a public meeting in Doncaster, South Yorkshire to protest against swingeing cuts to the town's library service.
According to the public sector union Unison, Mayor Winter's administration is proposing savings of £662,000 and a further £268,000 being put aside to pay for redundancies. In all some thirty staff are earmarked to go. There will also be cuts to the book budget and to opening hours.
Corporate Director of Customer Services (sic), Stuart Hall, has had this to say about cutbacks that will materially damage the library service:
“What is the point in buying new books? Tescos sell them cheaply and everything you need to know is on the Internet.”
He also said:
“What’s the point of having a Rolls Royce when a Mondeo will do?”
On my return home, I fired off an open letter protesting against this butchery to the many writers, educationalists and librarians I had encountered at the 150 public speaking engagements I do every year.
The response was instantaneous. The signatories are too many to list here but they included Philip Pullman, Philip Reeve, Michael Morpurgo, Geraldine McCaughrean, Toby Litt, Anne Fine, Mark Steel, Beverley Naidoo and dozens of others.
Many contributors to the statement included personal testimonies to the importance of public libraries in their own professional journeys.
The statement figured in the Doncaster press and produced much hand-wringing in the corridors of power. Indeed, Mayor Winter wrote to me this week, responding to the statement. His letter denied that there was any wide-scale cost-cutting at all. This gave an extra fillip, if one was needed, to the several hundred strong demonstration by librarians and their supporters through Doncaster town centre on Saturday, July 12th. At the rally, author Helena Pielichaty and I spoke.
But my concerns go wider than just Doncaster, dire though the situation is. Many of those who emailed me told me of similar situations in their own areas. To cap it all, on Thursday, July 10th at the Kids' Lit Quiz Final in Oxford, I was told by a librarian, a leading member of the Federation of Children's Book Groups, that she faces a £7,000 pay cut. I was appalled to discover how a local authority could treat someone with vast experience and expertise.
In conclusion, recent events acted as a flash of lightning which illuminated the current landscape in the world of books. Libraries are under threat. Some sixty closed last year. The numbers of professional library staff fell in the decade 1995 to 2005 by 13%. National book expenditure in libraries is at its lowest level since 1995.
Nor is it just public libraries. Everywhere, there is a shift from the book to computer services. In some schools the library has been closed, only to reopen as an IT suite. And the books? They have been boxed up and locked in a cupboard somewhere. School librarians have been dismissed and don't forget, only 28% of schools had qualified staff in the first place. Finally, in both public and school libraries, there is a shift from qualified staff to untrained volunteers. In my opinion, this amounts to nothing less than an undeclared war on the book.
I would propose a national conference to set up an umbrella body including everyone who wants to preserve the place of the book in the life of the UK. The country has plummeted down the international PISA ratings for children's reading, a scandal when we remember the UNESCO report that concluded that reading for pleasure is a more important indicator of educational achievement than social class. The conference would include the main professional bodies such as CILIP, the SLA, the Society of Authors, the Poetry Society, the teaching and public sector unions, children's book magazines such as Carousel, Books for Keeps and Armadillo and the country's novelists, illustrators and poets.
The aim would be to draw up a brief, popular, commonly agreed charter to defend the place of the book in our national life. Hopefully, it could also produce a free book full of accounts from people in public life together with poems, stories and snippets about the importance of reading. This may sound a very ambitious undertaking but, despite the marvellous Year of Reading, everywhere I go reading for pleasure faces significant challenges. There are sharks circling in the water. It is time to make a splash and drive them away.

Alan Gibbons, children's author
0151 474 8392 (website) (blog)

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