Libraries Matter

4382573983_01b715dcbf_oLet’s celebrate libraries-all is not lost!

This blog formed part of my article published in the January/February 2018 edition of Staffordshire Living Magazine.


The human species has always been a curious one, and generous too; in fact, collecting knowledge to store and share is as old as civilisation itself. Archaeologists have found 5000-year-old inscribed clay tablets in Iraq, Ancient Greece had libraries by 400 B.C, and by 350 A.D there were twenty-nine libraries in Rome; providing reading material for those enjoying their visit to a public bath.

With the fall of the Roman Empire the library baton was thrown to the monasteries who continued the tradition, assisted by the Renaissance inspired universities and the printing press invented by Gutenberg. This was the catalyst for the public library; the first in London was established in 1425, and “Chetham’s Library”, opened in Manchester in 1653, is still open without appointment to the public today. By now the floodgates were well and truly open with demand for lending libraries spiralling upwards. Subscription libraries were fuelled by the emergence of novels, the best sellers of their day, as well as a growing social awareness which devoured the hottest political and religious releases.

The spirit of Victorian philanthropy responded to this demand for libraries; with industrialist Andrew Carnegie building 660 libraries in Britain between 1883 and 1929.The growth in the middle class, and in a more vocal and independent working class, both fuelled by increased urbanisation and industrialisation, led to the Public Library Act 1850.This Act created community libraries provided by local authorities at public expense; the birth of a system that continues to this day.

This historical testament to our thirst for knowledge is important as we arrive in 2017 and assess the current state of our libraries. Nick Poole from CILIP (The Library and Information Association) sees the situation as a tale of two halves; one the impact of massive cuts to library services, and the other the creative work despite this; supported by a volunteer spirit that is keeping the historical legacy of sharing knowledge alive.

Nick Poole puts the figures on the state of 21st century libraries:350 libraries (8% of UK total) closed or merged, 8000 professional staff made redundant and 500 “library” services under the statutory provision of Councils transferred wholly or partly to community ownership. A Guardian article from December 2014 highlighted the dramatic decline in libraries over the previous four years, and Alan Bennett called the 2013-14 5.1% cut in UK Library Service expenditure “child abuse”.

Nick Poole also highlights CILIP’s concern with “hollowing out”: keeping libraries open but underfunding their services to the point at which they are unable to deliver meaningful support to their communities. In 2013 a new £183 million library opened in Birmingham; by 2015, and allegedly banned from buying new books, it was reducing opening hours in response to Council spending cuts.

Libraries have also been impacted by the changes in user behaviour driven by new technology: the internet, the growth of e-books and the “virtual” world. The 2006 financial crisis prompted austerity measures, and local authorities cut budgets by out sourcing services. Academies broke the link between schools and local authorities; an act which CILIP claims resulted in the loss of school libraries and librarians.

The other half of the library story is far brighter with over 3,500 outstanding UK public libraries matching their services to a 21st century audience, and some local authorities actively investing in library services. Libraries are becoming more proactive in how they respond to new technology, including coding, and in creating social spaces for work and leisure. Our love of libraries and what they stand for is shown by the number of volunteers who have stepped in to keep them going, and how we have seen libraries pop up in telephone boxes, pubs, supermarkets and post offices. Last October it was reported that paper books were growing in popularity again to the detriment of e-books.

It is still a library lottery post code out there, but in October 2017 CILIP held their “#Libraries Week” with lots of positive messages and celebrity support to champion success stories and best practice.

Why should we be so concerned about our libraries?

For children and young people (our future) the statistics on reading make the reasons very clear: reading is one of life’s joys. Children who can read well are overwhelmingly more likely to succeed at school, achieve good qualifications and enjoy a fulfilling and rewarding career. It is a win- win situation: the more a child reads the greater their proficiency and vocabulary which in turn encourages them to read more. Libraries have an important role to play in developing these positive reading habits in children: research has shown that young people who did not use a library were three times more likely to only read in class, and almost three times as likely to rate themselves as poor readers. It is an accepted fact that poor literacy skills hold people back throughout their adult lives.

In the 60s and 70s schools used the iconic “Janet & John” and “Peter and Jane” reading schemes that relied on the repetition in the “story” of key words throughout the books, perhaps explaining why the plots were never designed to be page turners. At the same time some pupils were being taught to read using the phonetic and simplified Initial Teaching Alphabet (I.T.A) which had 43 symbols each representing a single sound which incredibly was mastered before moving on to Standard English!

An emphasis on phonics became a dominant part of reading schemes by the late 1970s: Letterland with its phonetic letter characters in an alliterative world, and the Oxford Learning Tree, the most widely used scheme in UK schools today, introducing millions of children to reading through the antics of Biff, Chip, Kipper and Floppy the dog.

But the world of education is an ever-changing one and a political football too, so in the decades since there has also been :key words, flash cards, “real” books, Jolly Phonics, Guided Reading , the “Literacy Hour”, Accelerated Reading  and the popular “World Book Day” .

In March 2015 the Government’s “Supporting Higher Standards in Schools” introduced systematic synthetic phonics, book clubs for Key Stage 2 pupils and (surprise, surprise) library membership for Key Stage 3 pupils; all aimed at developing a passion for reading.

New technology has enhanced reading tools: apps, web sites, computer software packages and smart phone possibilities that your child will probably have to educate you in! Remember reading ability can be affected by a learning difficulty or disability; schools and Local Authorities have a statutory responsibility to provide SEN provision, or an Education Health and Care Plan for those children and young people who need more support.

This is an edited version of my article as their education correspondent which appears in the January/February issue of Staffordshire Living magazine

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