Thursday, 27 January 2011

Bonus Library Day in the Life

This is a bonus post for the Library Day in the Life project Round 6 where librarians across the world record their daily activities. On January 26th, our hero travelled down to London to meet his fellow Voices for the Library campaigners...

Yesterday was the first ever face-to-face meeting of the Voices for the Library team. I made the epic journey down to London – centre of arts, culture and, apparently, librarianship – to meet the team I’ve been working with for the past three months.

The day before was filled with nervousness. ‘What if they don’t like me?’ ‘What if they decide to chuck me out?’ ‘What if I miss my train?’ ‘What if my elaborately detailed travel plans go wrong?’ And – because my northern prejudice told me that London is a hotbed of crime and debauchery – ‘what if someone steals my laptop / Kindle / wallet / keys / train tickets / etc.’ Eventually after an evening of backing up my important documents – just in case! – I experienced that sort of pre-Christmas excited anxiety that prevents one from sleeping.

The British Library. Shame I didn't get chance to go in.

My worries were all in vain. The trains were on time and I made it to London with time to spare. Though I felt like such a tourist wandering London’s streets with my mouth agape, I was very excited to see such landmarks as The British Library, King’s Cross Station, and a Waterstones which actually had a good selection of Alberto Manguel’s essay collections.

My crazy punctuality meant that I arrived first, pacing nervously and trying to get Twitter up on my Kindle to vent my anxiety. But when the other Voices arrived, we fell into the routine of people who’ve known each other forever. The meeting was fabulously productive – kept in check by the wonderful Chairperson Bethan – with a mountainous pile of treats brought by my colleagues. The minutes will be publicly available on our website soon.

Overall, it meant a lot to know that these people are working this hard: that we’re all on the same page; that we all want the same thing; and that we’re willing to work together for as long as it takes and as long as we’re able. It really is amazing that this group of librarians – not even public librarians – has come together to defend these institutions and provide a voice for the people who care about libraries. I’ve said before that the next few months will be the most difficult but now I know that the Voices team will be more than able to face it and hopefully save a good many libraries.

The day was a huge success. Right up until the point I fainted…

Apparently even when meeting some of the top library campaigners in the country and doing exciting things, it’s important to keep your body hydrated. I can now say that not only will the Voices team work to help libraries, they’ll also help an idiot who forgets to drink all day and then keels over in the pub. And apparently, rather than being a hotbed of crime, London is populated by rather nice people who will provide food and aid to the aforementioned idiot.

So it was a wonderful day. I feel so privileged to be part of this team and I’m not sure why I deserve the opportunity to work with these great people. There’s exciting things coming up on the Voices for the Library website and in library campaigns across the country especially on Saturday 5th February – the scheduled Save Libraries Day! Please get involved if you haven’t done so, keep fighting for your libraries if you have, and feel free to contact any of the Voices for the Library team for more information – I can guarantee that every single one of them cares what you have to say.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Library Day in the Life Round 6

This is a post for the Library Day in the Life project Round 6 where librarians across the world record their daily activities. I am currently working as the Assistant Librarian for an Army library and this was my January 24th...


Things have changed since the last Library Day in the Life. In September, I moved into a flat much closer to work. Cutting the heavy commute out of my day has given me more energy and allowed me to focus on my job. I also completed my Masters dissertation and no longer have to stretch myself between two roles as library student and librarian. In November, I joined Voices for the Library: balancing this library campaigning role with my work role has been a considerable challenge. In December, my manager took an unforeseen leave of absence leaving me in charge as Acting Manager. 


I entered the base at 0800 and collected the newspapers before heading to the library. There was a relic from my childhood in my tray: a soldier had brought back a VHS tape over the weekend with the tape mangled in the mechanism and the assistant on duty had left it for me to untangle. Using the skills developed over a childhood of watching videos to death, I untangled the tape and returned it to its 15 brothers: the proud few VHS tapes left in the library. 

The first hour was hectic. The photocopier needed toner and three teaching groups were vying for control of the library. While a library assistant went to get more toner, I organised the soldiers: one group in the PC room and two sharing ‘the Goldfish Bowl’ (the informal name for the heavily-windowed library study room). 

With the library as quiet as it was likely to get, I spent an hour or so designing the newsletter. The newsletter is a major promotional tool for the library and is disseminated across the base. It tells users what new books and DVDs are available, gives new soldiers an introduction to the library service, and this issue reveals the winners of last term’s short story competition.

At 1015, I began my first shift on the issue desk. Assorted tasks: fetching old newspapers from the store room, issuing books, and helping a class scan, enlarge and print some maps. Between enquiries, I worked on a planning report. We intend to update the library website so I’m putting all my plans, ideas, and research into one document to present to my manager. The difficulty is reigning in my elaborate plans to cater for our 16-17 year old audience. 


I divided my lunch hour between reading (Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson) and checking my email, Twitter, and Google Reader. Since I joined Voices for the Library, I’ve been checking my email more often: a few weeks ago I missed a media opportunity for BBC Radio and I’ve been kicking myself ever since. Communication is the crux of the pro-library campaign so it’s important to stay connected even if the sight of a bursting email inbox can be overwhelming. 


While most people were still on their lunch breaks, I took advantage of the quiet to straighten the library and sort out the shelves (Guinness World Records does not belong in the Travel section!). I’m in charge of ‘biographies’ and I noticed that one of the display biographies – a biography on Osama bin Laden – is missing. It hadn’t been checked out so I spent some time searching for bin Laden. Like the man himself, the book's whereabouts are unknown.

At 1500, I had a quick meeting after which I took my place at the issue desk for my second shift of the day. The library is generally quieter in the afternoon so between book issues and pleas for IT assistance, I worked on timetabling the induction sessions for the new recruits: these take place in a couple of weeks so at the moment I’m timetabling them, arranging who will do them, and ensuring we have sufficient materials. Today it involved contacting the rogue teachers who haven’t booked their classes in yet. During my stint on the desk, some education staff came over because they’d noticed my quote in the Harrogate Advertiser. I used this opportunity to get on my soapbox and talk about the plight of the UK’s library service


I arrived home at 1700 and, because I was starving, made myself a spaghetti carbonara. Plans for the rest of the evening include: ironing; I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue; preparation for the first Voices for the Library face-to-face meeting on Wednesday; University Challenge; Mass Effect; sleep.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Life, Narrative and Everything

Stories are imbedded into the fabric of human lives: stories explain things, communicate information, and entertain us. Even our lives seem to the follow the course of traditional stories with events often seen to fall into neat narrative structures. Is this a delusion – the mind imposing order where none exists – does the universe follow narrative convention? Do we impose narratives on existence or does existence impose narratives on us?

According to Christopher Booker, there are seven basic plots: all stories fall into one of these seven categories. In his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell goes further and examines the monomyth: the single narrative structure which forms the core of all myths, legends, and traditional stories (particularly children’s stories). In today’s post-postmodern society, we are familiar with traditional narratives and narrative conventions. We see/hear them hundreds of times a day in newspapers, books, movies, TV shows, the news, and in conversations.

Take for example, the following conventions: the underdog triumphing over insurmountable odds; the vain and greedy brought down; the son who surpasses the father; x goes to y and learns valuable lesson before returning enriched to z (the core of Campbell’s monomyth); the dramatic climax where all seems bleakest and suddenly the intractable knot is undone.

We see all these conventions in stories of various kinds. Do they also impose themselves on real life? Consider World War II. The underdog of the Allies triumphing over the seemingly unbeatable and indisputably in-the-wrong Axis war machine. The Allies suffering numerous defeats only to succeed with a ramshackle but heroic operation (D-Day) when things seemed bleakest. To give some examples from my own life, I’ve recently had to take over as acting manager for a while in my library. This feels like the ‘death of the mentor’ trope which can be seen in Dumbledore, Gandalf, Obi-Wan, Merlin, and others. As part of Voices for the Library, I’m currently campaigning against savage library cuts across the country. This feels like the underdog trope: the plucky band of Rebels against the might of the Empire where principle eventually triumphs over power.

The real question is whether real life determines narrative convention or whether narrative convention determines real life. On the one hand, our ancestors may have observed that events follow set patterns and then created narratives to match those patterns. On the other, it may be that our minds – and hopefully this is a wide-ranging phenomenon and not the sign of my own mental defectiveness – are suffused with pop culture and narrative from an early age and that the imposing of understandable narratives onto the chaotic flux of real life is an attempt to comprehend the universe.

This comes down to the age-old dichotomy ‘consequence vs. coincidence’. The universe can either be a meaningful story unfolding across unimaginable distances of space and time or the universe can be a meaningless void of base matter which once upon a time happened to coalesce into beings with the consciousness to contemplate themselves. The unfortunate consequence of the latter explanation is that we become people filled with enough manic self-interest to imagine the rest of the world as narrative swirling around us: the stars of our own private comedies/tragedies.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

North Yorkshire library campaign progress

Since I last posted, the national campaign to protect the UK's public libraries has made significant progress. In a real demonstration of support from library users across the UK, the #savelibraries hashtag on Twitter went from obscurity to worldwide trending status within a matter of hours as thousands of people gave reasons why libraries are brilliant. In Somerset, library campaigners are pursuing legal action against the county council and are actively seeking a public inquiry into the proposed library cuts across the UK. In London, Boris Johnson is seeking to set up a trust run by Team London to save libraries from closure. In Gloucestershire, the ever-excellent Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries are making excellent progress and the situation was highlighted in The Guardian by Joanna Trollope. Across the country, more and more people are pledging to protect their libraries and - though they shouldn't have to do so - fighting against their own councils for their public services.

The informal campaign to Save North Yorkshire Libraries has also been making progress and capturing media attention. The Yorkshire Post ran this piece on library closures damaging isolated rural communities. John Harris from The Guardian put out a video of his tour of North Yorkshire libraries highlighting the situation and showing that community-run libraries like Hudswell village library may be great socialist enterprises but they are no replacement for a council-run library service with trained staff. Easingwold Library featured in a BBC Look North segment which talked to library users who valued the library. MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough, Andrew Jones, has come out strongly in support of North Yorkshire libraries and in particular Bilton and Starbeck libraries: I encourage Harrogate residents to sign the petitions Mr. Jones has made available. 

Fellow Voices for the Library team member, Lauren Smith, did sterling work appearing on BBC Radio York on Monday and BBC Radio Tees on Thursday (at the 1:37:00 mark). Later that morning, I appeared on BBC Radio York (at the 1:38:30 mark) making myself sweaty, shaky, and nervous for North Yorkshire. 

Over the next few weeks, pro-library campaigns, local and national, will continue to progress. In February, we will face country-wide read-ins on the 5th of February and we’ll see consultations come to an end. We’re making progress but the hardest days are still ahead. Please visit the Voices for the Library website, if you value your library please submit a story or pledge your support, use the closures map to find local campaigns, and follow the Voices for the Library Twitter feed for all the latest developments. For North Yorkshire residents, please see my last post for details of how you can help.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Save North Yorkshire libraries

North Yorkshire County is receiving some of the worst public library cuts of any county in the UK. The Council proposes to close 24 libraries out of the 42 currently open and take 10 mobile libraries off the road to be replaced by two “super-mobiles”. Under the council’s plans, North Yorkshire will lose 57% of its libraries. This is comparable in scale to the library cuts in Gloucestershire, Doncaster, Leeds, Dorset, and Somerset.

The libraries marked for closure are:

This video from John Harris at The Guardian highlights the situation in North Yorkshire.

North Yorkshire is the largest county in England in terms of land area. This makes its libraries all the more important: local libraries provide books and Internet access to people who can’t travel long distances across the county to one of the 18 “core libraries”. Helmsley Library, though marked for closure, was the council’s Library of the Year 2010 with a 30% increase in visitor numbers. North Yorkshire County Council has received only a 2.05% reduction in its spending power and not the 28% that the Council claim: the 28% figure refers to the estimated total budget cut across the UK’s councils given in George Osborne’s Comprehensive Spending Review prior to actual council budget cuts being announced. Under the current plans, North Yorkshire residents lose 28% of their library budget and 57% of their local libraries.

If you have any interest in saving North Yorkshire’s and the UK’s public libraries, the time to act is now. Here are a few things you can do:

North Yorkshire residents can take part in the council’s online consultation on library services available at this link.

Email or write to your local councillor. A full list of North Yorkshire councillors is available here. Cllr. John Weighell of Bedale is Leader of the Council. Cllr. Chris Metcalfe of Tadcaster is the Executive Member for adult and library services.

The most important thing to do is to connect with other people: to find others who believe as you believe and who may already be working hard towards saving libraries in your area. Have a look at the Voices for the Library website for information and contact the team if you can help. Take a look at Public Libraries News for information on the libraries marked for closure in your community. This map provides a list of library closures across the UK:

View Public Library Closures in the UK in a larger map

Connect with other people in your area by joining a local campaign. There are several active campaigns for libraries in North Yorkshire (and if anyone knows of any more, please let me know):

Friends of Easingwold Library – Facebook page and blog

Save Eastfield Library – Facebook page

Bentham Library campaign – Blog 

Take part in Alan Gibbons’ day of co-ordinated protest at your local library. On Saturday 5th of February, people across the country will gather for read-ins at libraries across the UK. More information on read-ins here and here.

Maybe we were complacent over the last few years. Maybe we failed to appreciate our libraries properly. Maybe the councils failed to support them. Maybe libraries failed to keep up with commercial developments or user demands. None of those maybes matter right now. What matters is that our free, open, cultural, and uniquely British public library system is under threat and that this year we need to show our support by working to save it. I’ll be doing so in North Yorkshire: I hope you will be doing the same in your area.