“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” sang Joni Mitchell. This could have been written about the challenges facing school and public libraries.
This should be a good time for readers. Around the country there are numerous events to celebrate reading for pleasure.
There is a drive to get boys reading called Boys Into Books. The array of books on offer has never been broader and millions of readers devour them.
Sadly that isn’t the whole story.
Sixty public libraries closed last year and more will close in the next 12 months. The number of professional staff fell by 13 percent between 1995 and 2005.
Over a similar timescale the book stock in libraries plummeted by 26 percent. The danger is that our libraries will become tired places offering an ageing book collection which increasingly fails to attract readers.
The result is entirely predictable. Cash-strapped councils would point to diminishing “footfall” and instigate cuts in spending. Such cutbacks discriminate against working class readers in particular as they are more dependent on borrowing than the more affluent.
The situation in schools is equally worrying.
A minority of misguided head teachers have been making librarians redundant in the short-sighted belief that you don’t need to read it, you can Google it.
Some have dispensed with the library altogether, replacing it with a shiny IT suite.
Only half of our secondary schools have a librarian and only a third have a chartered professional.
Some schools know that books and the new information technologies can be integrated successfully. In many schools, there is no such vision. Here, IT zealots believe books should be consigned to the dustbin of history.
I have seen the results of such philistine vandalism during my many school visits.
Again, it is the poor who suffer most. Libraries in private schools tend to thrive. Those in many state schools face constant pressure.
There is nothing accidental about all this.
The government’s drive for standards, with its brutal apparatus of SATs, has made many schools frantic, unhappy places, perpetually dreading the letter announcing the next Ofsted visit.
The whole drift of the tracking and testing regime has marginalised reading for pleasure. Reading whole books is increasingly replaced by filleting excerpts.
Storytelling is eclipsed by textual analysis. Creative writing is being sidelined by teaching to the test.
Against such a background, books and reading for fun can be seen as “fripperies” (a word I have heard more than once from the mouths of senior managers).
Little wonder that Britain’s standing has tumbled in international comparisons.
This country occupies a middling position in terms of functionally reading print but lurks near the bottom when it comes to liking reading.
This situation has been developing for many years. It was my own personal experiences that forced me to launch the Campaign for the Book.
In July the Save Our Libraries group in Doncaster invited me to speak at a public meeting. The council was proposing major cuts to the service budget. I organised an authors’ statement which was sent to the local press.
A lively demonstration followed two weeks later at which author Helena Pielichaty and I spoke.
The moment I contacted friends and colleagues in the book world, the horror stories started to pour in.
There was the librarian in Scotland, a national expert on children’s literature, who had her pay cut by £7,000 in “regrading”.
There was the Derbyshire head teacher who closed the school library and sacked the librarian two weeks before the end of term.
There was the local authority that abolished its Schools Library Service wholesale. It was time to act.
As I write I am assembling a launch statement to go to the press in a couple of weeks.
It is already supported by hundreds of authors including Michael Rosen, Philip Pullman, Sue Palmer, David Almond and Beverley Naidoo, by illustrators, librarians and teachers, and the Nipsa union in Northern Ireland.
Our aim is to establish a network of authors, professional bodies, trade unions and local pressure groups to resist attacks on reading for pleasure.
Wherever there are attacks we hope to be able to offer our support. Many authors are offering to speak at public meetings and rallies.
It is time to fight for the right to read. In the words of the women who struck for dignity in Lawrence, Massachusetts back in 1912: “We want bread, but we want roses too.”
Alan Gibbons is a children’s author. If you would like to support the campaign, email him using the contact link at » www.alangibbons.com