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It’s not big and it’s not clever

November 25, 2010

By Alison Allen-Gray

In Monday’s Guardian, Benedicte Page reported on library cuts and job losses. The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) fears that around 6,000 members could lose their jobs over the next four years. Councils may look to ‘volunteers’ to step into the breach. Not so long ago there was the jolly little suggestion that ‘libraries’ could be set up in pubs or churches (never mind those members of our society who prefer not to set foot in either). School libraries too are under enormous pressure and some heads are actually closing them. We live in dangerous times.

Perplexing times, also. You could grab any politician by the scruff, plonk him or her in front of a camera and ask for thoughts on literacy. He or she would be sure to oblige with impassioned proclamations on education. But where’s the political protection for the professionally-staffed libraries that underpin learning? It was The Public Libraries Act of 1850 that gave us the UK library system as we know it today. Where’s the optimism, self-belief, joy in discovery and pure altruism that inspired this? We need these things more than ever in straightened times and we won’t get them back by hacking away at the roots of learning.

Yes, we have E-readers, we have the Internet; some argue that because of the advance of new technologies we no longer need libraries. It shouldn’t need saying that some people can’t afford E-readers and computers or that some children grow up in homes with no book in sight. Libraries are the only places for these things to be freely provided. They are hubs of human interaction and possibly the most democratic institution we have. Their only vested interest is to disseminate the things we need to make our lives civilised and each and every one of us has the right to enter and share the treasures that exist there. We have a highly skilled professional workforce who can guide, support and enrich our explorations. It’s insulting to suggest that all this could be replaced by volunteers proffering dog-eared paperbacks to the punters in the pub. This is not the stuff of a Big Society.

Me with my team of advocates for Lifegame at the Bolton Book Award

This summer I had the privilege of going to the Bolton Children’s Book Award, for which my novel Lifegame had been shortlisted. The event is a collaboration between Bolton school libraries and the University, which itself has a creative writing degree. Local sponsors get involved and the Mayor throws open the Town Hall to hundreds of children and their parents, who come to hear groups of pupils put forward their views on the shortlisted books and say which one they want to win. The excitement was palpable, the eloquence impressive and the joy of discovery that buzzed around the ballroom was truly uplifting. Yes, a wonderful party such as this could have been organised by volunteers. But the point is that underpinning the children’s evident passion for books and reading was the knowledgeable, professional guidance and support of librarians. If we lose all this we shall become a very Small Society indeed.

Our fellow children’s author Alan Gibbons is running a Campaign for the Book and is an eloquent and passionate defender of libraries. You can sign his Charter and read his blog on

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 26, 2010 11:21 am

    I’m 100% with you on this, Ali.


  2. November 26, 2010 3:45 pm

    A very important post, Alison, especially at the moment with Michael Gove pontificating everywhere about getting back to the basics in education. How much more basic can you get than a library full of books.?This is how people in this country educated themselves before state education and even after state education when it simply had not met their needs. Many thanks for putting this up.

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