Why We Need To Fund Libraries 2/3

Social media networking can lead to careers

(This post has been rewritten after an earlier version was mistakenly deleted.)

A common excuse for not funding libraries is, ‘We don’t need them anymore. We have the internet now.’

We do have the internet now – my parents nearly went broke buying me a spanking set of Encyclopaedia Britannica, but during her primary education, my daughter used the wifi instead. The problem with getting your information from a general search engine comes when you need to be sure of the information you get and it needs to be more extensive than a three line entry.

There’s an awful lot of information on the internet and, as we all know, not all of it is useful…or even true. Aliens, I hate to break it to you, did not kill JFK.

Another name for Librarians is Information Scientists. That’s what their special post-graduate degree is in, Information Science. In our generation, we have a great deal MORE information that needs to be managed. So why would we assume that we need FEWER people to manage it? 

Some information (broadsheet newspapers, peer-reviewed academic journals, e-books) are only available behind a paywall. This is the kind of information you want a secondary school learner to read for extension work. It’s beyond the ability of most households to subsidise access to enough paywalls for one child, let alone two or or three. However, it’s not just the kids who will sometimes need top-quality, curated information. When you’re making a decision about your future; about a career choice or a business deal or a possible house move or a medical question, you might want some, as well.

Librarians are trained to evaluate, store and discard information – and that means digital information, too. Through your library, you can often access online information that would ordinarily not be freely available. And through a librarian, you will be able to identify the latest and best information on any topic – instead of making an important decision on the basis of what your sister in law’s neighbour saw on Facebook.

And don’t even get me started on the difference between reading on an electronic device and reading a book. I do both, of course, like most avid readers. But a recent study proved that children get more enjoyment from reading paper books . That might be because they learn better from the paper version. Buying a load of paper books is expensive and they’re hard to store (I could show you pictures of my house). They get dusty (achoo!) and… But at a library, you can just borrow them and hand them back again. You get online resources and paper resources at a library, so you can decide what’s best for you and your family.

We’ve got the internet now, I know. Which is why we need properly funded libraries and librarians even more. 

 

 

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Why We Need To Fund Libraries 1/3

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Let’s start with the basics. What is a library?

A library is not a collection of books. Above you’ll see why it’s not. This is The Ship’s library. The Ship is my local pub and this is their book corner. It started off well, but in the three years I’ve been…erm…monitoring it every Friday evening (with a pint or two), it’s gone right downhill.  All that’s left is old tat.

That’s because there’s no librarian. Any fool can bring books onto a shelf – any fool can buy all the latest books the reviewers say are good and stack them in alphabetical and Dewey Decimal order. But librarians don’t just know how to do that…they also know what to throw away.

Librarians are trained to curate information; trained to gather information (yes) but also to evaluate it, decide if it’s still valid and get rid of the bad stuff. They’re Snopes  in real life. Only they don’t just evaluate the worth of internet memes and rumours and fake news…they can monitor and evaluate EVERY BIT OF INFORMATION ON THE PLANET. They can also store it, manipulate it, find it, file it, retrieve it and archive it and will know when to do all those things.

Let’s look at another example: A friend of mine was at the dump/tip the other day and saved a first edition of George Orwell’s 1984 from going in, not even the book bin (which gets picked over by charity shops) but the paper recycling.

Librarians also know what to keep.

Libraries aren’t stacks of books: they’re the repository of a society’s knowledge. In good libraries, everything on the shelves is of worth; good fiction, up-to-date and verified non-fiction, poetry worth reading, how-to books that actually teach you how to do something, reference materials that are collections of the latest and best thought humanity has to offer.

They’re the intellectual hub of our communities and librarians are their maintenance crew. Trying to have one without the other is like trying to run an airline without any mechanics. The planes might look very pretty. But I wouldn’t like to fly in one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Actual Glamour

For the last two years, I’ve come onto this page, posted something (usually moaning about writers’ money) and promised to post regularly.  Then I’ve disappeared again…for months at a time.

I have shame.

But the fact is, things are going well. My books are being reviewed and are actually selling (I got a royalty cheque – I thought they were fictitious). I’ve got a new job…I’m now Reader in Creative Writing at the University of Bristol…and I wrote a new book over the summer.

In the photos, you can see me hanging out in Soho, signing a stack of Coyote Summer at the Bristol Waterstones and attending my last graduation at Bath Spa University in my doctoral robes from the University of the West of England. (In case you didn’t know, your official academic robes are decided by the last place that awarded you a degree. Academics spend all their time at graduation examining each other’s robes and talking about the ones they like, wishing they’d thought about this when they’d decided where to do their PhD.)

And then there’s the photo of the most glamorous thing of all – hanging out with eminent children’s authors and discussing how to help families re-wild themselves using our narratives. Julia Green, Gill Lewis, Nicola Davies and Jackie Morris were there as we discussed the #mywildworld initiative… and I even got to meet Karin Celestine and her wee felted animals. There’s a chance that some of these authors may come onto this blog and talk about their glamorous literary lives soon.

But let’s keep it real. I spent my summer holiday mainly at the tip as my hoarding family finally decided to declutter. I wrote my book so quickly because I had a stomach bug and was pretty much tied to my bed and the loo for two weeks. My royalty cheque is going to  stop my shower from leaking through the kitchen ceiling. Then it will go towards repairing my kitchen from the deluge.

I’m still not rich and I’m still not famous. But I do love my literary life. And it is, sometimes, actually glamorous…

Writing the Magic

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Books may be the only true magic.

Alice Hoffman

The last time I wrote, I wanted to explain that even successful books, don’t, for most people, make a great deal of money. I intended to follow that up with another post, about how satisfying the writing life actually is, despite the fact it doesn’t make you rich…but my day job got very busy and I never had the chance.

I’m actually quite good at making money. I could make a great deal more if I wanted. I’ve got four business ideas right now, for where I currently live and the capital I’ve got available.

But instead, I continually decide to keep spending my time making magic.

Right now, I’m writing a timeless story as true as stone. It feels as if I’ve heard it before, a hundred times, as if I heard it as I went to sleep every night for a thousand years…but it’s really brand new. My characters – a feckless dreamer of a poor boy and a spoilt brat of a rich girl – are stereotypes…but you’ve never met these extraordinary people before.

Their incredible journey of love and hope and their impossible love is inspired by the true story of my engagement ring. Andy and I found this ring at an antique stall in The Angel, Islington in North London. We sent the money back to friends in London, who bought it for us and posted it to Yellowstone National Park. In Bozeman, Montana, we found the stone had been substituted with glass. In my hometown of Lawrence, Kansas, Goldmaker’s Jewellers cut another stone to fit the setting.

The stone was lovely, but kept falling out because the Edwardian setting had poorly-made prongs. In Bond Street, back in London six years later, Andy had the shank of the ring mended and sorted out the prongs that held the stone, as well. He also had assay marks put in.

Ten years after that, it was stolen from our tent as we slept with our four-year-old daughter, twenty miles from Paris, France. The thieves were Eastern European youngsters, exploited by an Italian gang-master.

The insurance provided another ring. I hated it. I sold it and bought a new garden shed with the money and got another vintage ring. The stone fell out of that one and was lost forever. The insurance gave us more money…I bought a silver one. I didn’t like it, either.

For seven years, I kept an Ebay search running. Every once in a while, I would look for my ring. And one day, I saw it.

I phoned Andy. We had very little money at the time, but he said, ‘Buy it. Buy it right now.’ I did. That’s when I discovered it was in Stroud, a town about twenty miles away from where we live. I felt like it had been trying to come home.

Still, I couldn’t quite believe it when I opened the box. But yes, there was the chip on the side from rock climbing in the Tetons. There were the ever-so-slightly wonky prongs. It was my ring. Impossible. But true.

So, Alice Hoffman was both right and wrong. Writers do make magic when we sit down and create a story. But that’s not the only magic in the world. There is magic all around us in love and hope and improbable kindness and coincidence and happenstance and…and it’s all as true as a blue-stoned ring.

On ‘Am I Getting Rich?

The writer’s life: Hard days, lots of work, no money, too much silence. Nobody’s fault. You chose it. ”

― Bill Barich

Short answer: (spoiler alert) No.

Author’s incomes are actually going down, not up. Publishing is a perilous enterprise these days and one way of trying to make it pay is giving most authors a great deal less than they got ten years ago. This week a bestselling Irish author decided to go back to his full time job, so that he could pay his mortgage. Most of us survive (as Ros Barber explains eloquently) by cobbling together part-time teaching jobs, school visits and other paid work.

But what do we mean by ‘getting rich’?

I think we mean feeling comfortable. Being financially secure. Even…and this almost never happens to writers: becoming financially independent.

I don’t feel comfortable or secure. If I get ill or I lose my job, my family will be in trouble. But looking at it from the standpoint of cold, hard income and outgoings, evidently my personal financial position isn’t as precarious as it feels.

Because when I research it, I’m already rich.

Looked at from a global perspective, I’m in the top 14%. In the UK, my family are in the top 26%. Trust me, if you could see my 13 year old car, my IPhone 5c and my two-up, two-down terraced house, (let alone my haircut) your first thought wouldn’t be: there goes someone rich. But clearly, I am. So, why don’t I feel rich?

So why are writers moaning about money?

I think it’s because, compared to other professions, it is so poorly paid. If you study Law or Medicine or an academic subject for years and work hard and become a success – if you become a QC or a Consultant or a Senior Lecturer/Professor, you make a very good wage. If you study writing for years and work hard and become a success – you make less than minimum wage and have to do other work to supplement your income. In the end, that means we all get less writing and writing that is less imaginative, free and inspired. Because in the back of our minds, writers are wondering how we’ll pay the mortgage if we get ill.

 

On Still Not Being Famous

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Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others.

–Virginia Woolf

I’ve written a book that lots of people love. I’ve been nominated for big prizes. I’m doing literary festivals. I’m going into schools. I’ve been interviewed by lots of magazines.

But I’m still not famous.

In films, when writers write a good book, they become famous, almost immediately. In real life, not so much. People squint when they meet me at cocktail parties and say, ‘Should I have heard of you?’ I have to spell my name three hundred times when I sign up for a new service. At the bank, when the machine ate my debit card and I was trying to prove my identity, they weren’t all that impressed with what ID I had in my pockets. In desperation, I went to my car and pulled out a copy of Dreaming the Bear. It has my photograph and name. The bank clerk wrinkled her nose. ‘The thing is,’ she said, ‘Books aren’t on our accepted list.’ Nobody is all that impressed that I’ve written a book people love.

And the thing about awards is that many are long-listed but few get the actual prize. If you hang about, hopping from one foot to the other, hoping for validation, you’re going to have a long wait and might not win in the end. If you look back and see what won and lost in a given year, you’ll see the prizewinner sometimes wasn’t the book you still remember…or sometimes isn’t the book that’s still in print.

The fact is, it’s a long game. You can’t second guess yourself. You keep learning and writing and hoping you’ve done good work. If you are very, very lucky, you’ll get some recognition in your lifetime. Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women twenty years before she died. She knew it was popular. But she had no idea we’d still be reading it – nearly 150 years later. Big names fade. Obscure authors suddenly pop up into our notice…sometimes years after their deaths. If you try and measure your worth as a writer by recognition, you will probably not get it right.

Much better to be in it for the game than the fame. And to take it easy on minding the opinions of others.