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Laureate Log #9

It’s always hard to discern patterns and trends, but I fear that we are in a time when libraries are more under threat than they have ever been. In this phase of the laureateship, I’ve been approached by several local campaigns to support librarians’ struggle to keep libraries open. For one of these, on the Wirral, I wrote this in early January:

‘Libraries have played an important part in the cultural and democratic life of this country. We talk of the 'republic of letters' meaning that we have created a world in which we share books as equals. This was only possible when books became free, which, thanks to a mix of philanthropy and municipal goodwill, was achieved through the invention and provision of libraries.
Now, more than ever, we need this 'republic of letters'. We live in a time when the main organs of information, entertainment and education (outside of schools) are owned by very few giant multinational corporations. However, within the world of books, there is still more diversity than in any other form of media. In part, this is because of the very process of reading books. Books are portable, durable packages where we can read slowly, toing and froing across the pages at a tempo that suits ourselves. Libraries are the treasure-houses that store these 'packages' and it's here that we can browse for free, to find the books that we want or need to support our lives and interests.
It is vital for the lives of us all that these places are supported, expanded, enriched and diversified. If we let them close, we are in effect consigning huge sections of the population to a world either without books, or a world with only the books that the giant corporations want us to read. This is an appalling prospect and I urge the councillors of the Wirral to fight every attempt to destroy your local library service and I will support any action taken by librarians to defend that service.’

I’ve come to think that a key to the survival of libraries is to be found in the links that they should have with schools. In many but not all places, this is casual, informal and patchy. If schools really put books at the centre of the curriculum, the local library becomes an essential part of that process and would prove to those who have the power to slash the library system that libraries are an essential part of our lives.

I’ve been doing poetry performances in Winchester, on the Isle of Wight, Bookmarks Bookshop in London, Seven Stories Museum in Newcastle, Southport, the Little Angel Puppet Theatre and St Albans and the poetry and jazz Nonsense project reached the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank.  I also had the experience of turning up at a school with my voice gone. I did wonder for a few hours what I’d do with my life if it became permanent!

I’ve finished making a one-hour programme for BBC Four about helping a school become a book-loving place for everyone. It’s called ‘Just Read’ and it’ll be going out sometime in early February. The NHS filmed me along with several celebs performing a poem they commissioned me to write and I introduced a discussion on the French film, ‘Le Ballon Rouge’ at the London Socialist Film Festival. In the latest run of ‘Word of Mouth’ for Radio 4, I had the fascinating experience of going to Newbury Park Primary School in east London where they have a language of the month and a child who speaks that language is recorded talking. This goes up on the school website and the whole school gets involved in activities around that language.



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