Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Campaign for the Book Conference: A report from Linda Newbery

Libraries are priceless. Books change lives. We all know this – we being people who are engaged with books and readers, whether professionally or privately. But the wider world of politicians and educationists seems – alarmingly – to regard books as dispensable, replaceable by internet technology; to see literacy as a matter of standards to be met and boxes to be ticked. Enjoyment of reading comes a long way down the list of priorities, if it’s mentioned at all.

Alan Gibbons has launched his campaign with passion and commitment, and has achieved a wonderful and important feat in bringing together people from the hitherto fragmented children’s book world to protest against the closure of libraries and the dismissal of school librarians, to fight for the continuation (or in some cases restoration) of schools’ library services, and to make it a statutory requirement that every school must have a well-stocked library. This day conference, held at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, hosted by librarian Jean Allen, brought together speakers from various backgrounds and interest groups. After the conference had been opened by author Celia Rees and year 10 student Charlie Alcock, the first item was a Question Time session, with Ed Vaizey, Shadow Minister for Culture, Lib-Dem MP Richard Younger Ross, Roy Clare of the MLA (Museums, Libraries and Archives Council), Jonathan Douglas, direction of the National Literacy Trust, Miranda McKearney of the Reading Agency, and Alan Gibbons himself, chaired by author Steve Skidmore. Questions were raised about school libraries, public libraries and schools’ library services – how to safeguard them and how to prevent cuts from threatening their existence. Various speakers said that library provision should come under the aegis of central government rather than devolve to local authorities, while Ed Vaizey spoke in favour of a central cultural services agency which would include responsibility for libraries.

In the second session, Facing the Challenges, we heard from librarians Clare Broadbelt, whose school librarian post had recently been made obsolete, and Cath McNally from the Wirral. Clare told us of the promises made by senior management that although the library would no longer exist, there would be a Reading Centre – which, strangely, has failed to materialize. Cath McNally was moved almost to tears as she told us of some of the people who would be most affected by the loss of the branch library; libraries should form user groups now, she suggested, in advance of any threatened cuts. Joy Court, chair of YLG (Youth Libraries’ Group) spoke of the different status schools’ library services have in various authorities, and of the importance of raising their prestige in order to secure adequate funding.

Author Gillian Cross introduced her session, Seizing the Opportunities, by stressing that we must not be a negative campaign. Marilyn Mottram of UKLA and Miranda McKearney of the Reading Agency spoke of their work with teachers and readers, and Southwark head teacher Martyn Coles told us how the library is seen as central to the life of his school. The collapse of the national literacy strategy for primary school was announced last week, giving opportunities for flexibility in teaching and learning and reduced dependency on objectives and outcomes.

After small-group sessions which included workshops led by author Bali Rai, Christine Lewis of Unison and Tricia Adams of the School Library Association, the final address, on Literature and Freedom, was given by authors Beverley Naidoo and Frank Cottrell Boyce. Quoting Susan Sontag, Beverley Naidoo summed up: “Our libraries should be regarded as our country’s precious treasure chest.”

Of course, no one present needed much convincing, but our task now is to continue to unite and to make our presence felt. Alan Gibbons, in his closing remarks, said that this conference was a launchpad; campaigning will continue no matter which party is in power; whenever a library is threatened or a librarian made redundant, the Campaign for the Book will be there, and, quoting Sting, “We’ll be watching you.”

Congratulations to Alan and to host Jean Allen for organising such an inspirational day, and for making everyone present feel that together we can bring about change. If you’re not involved in the campaign yet and would like to be, visit

Linda Newbery

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