When Things 20 and 22 collide: the case of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

I was saddened at the weekend when I was alerted via Twitter that most of Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s libraries were under threat. On 10th November, both local papers, the Journal and the Evening Chronicle, carried detailed articles by Adrian Pearson in which we were told that”The vast majority of Newcastle’s 18 libraries will either be closed down or handed over to community groups as city chiefs set out £90m of cuts over the next three years. Only the newly-rebuilt city centre library is said to be safe from the axe.” One of the comments led me to a transcript of a Radio Four Today Programme interview from earlier in the year with Tony Durcan, head of Newcastle’s libraries, in which he “gave, at best, lukewarm support for the universal need for paid and qualified library staff”, offering the opinion that library work was “not brain surgery”. Well, other than brain surgery, nothing is, and it doesn’t hold out much hope for the libraries if this is the attitude of the boss. More hopeful is a pre-emptive campaign against the move by authors such as Alan Gibbons, Philip Pullman and Children’s Laureate Julia Donaldson which has been covered in the Bookseller, BBC News, and the Guardian. Local anti-cuts campaign Coalition of Resistance is also taking up the fight.

So how does this relate to Things 20 and 22? Well, Thing 22 was about volunteering in which I stated my opposition to job substitution and handing libraries over to community groups in this way. Thing 20 was about Library Routes, and part of the post I wrote in 2010 for that project said of a library I visited as a child “I was intrigued by all the Browne tickets and wondered how on earth they ever found mine (especially as they seemed to be in a different place each time). The only time I remember asking for help was when we had a kitchen planning project for Cookery and the person I asked took me straight to the right shelf which I thought was very clever.” You’ve guessed, that is one of the libraries on Newcastle’s little list. My family lived in Fenham between 1968, when I was 11, and 1973. To go back to the Evening Chronicle article, I read that “Fenham’s library is one of those with an uncertain future. Mark Johnson, 85, a retired police officer, said he goes to the library three or four times a week to read the newspapers. He has been using the service for 40 years. “I’m very disappointed. They got rid of the pool too. I think it would have a very big impact on people around here.”” I must have overlapped with Mr Johnson, perhaps we queued up at the counter together and marvelled at the way the library staff could always find our tickets?

So this was the branch that first got me thinking about the methods of actually managing a library, starting me on the career path I later took. It also influenced my choice of degree subject – staff at Fenham never seemed to mind me using children’s tickets to take books out of the adult library. In those days, there wasn’t the fantastic choice of teenage literature that there is now, so I went through all the Agatha Christies that they had, then moved on to historical fiction. After that, I started taking out historical non-fiction and biographies which, coupled with a charismatic teacher, inspired me to study history at university. I can fairly say that Fenham Library shaped my life. Where are today’s young Geordies going to get that sort of experience if you close all the libraries now, Newcastle?

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Thing 20: Library routes and roots

Fulwell Library, Sunderland
Fulwell Library, Sunderland

Hooray! A Thing that can help me catch up because I’ve already done it. I contributed to the Library Routes Project at an early stage, November 2009 – you can read my story here. There’s an anecdote in it about a library staff member being nasty to me because I didn’t get my sixpence for a reservation out fast enough – sixpences are long gone as, I expect, is that library assistant, but, folks, that is the very library where the incident took place in the picture above. It was new in the late 1960s when I used it, but it looked rather shabby a couple of years ago when I happened to be in the area again. It wasn’t open, but I peered through the windows and, yes, it was exactly the same counter that I stood at as a ten-year old – except that you could see lots of holes where cabling for different generations of library automation had been. So there you are – part of my library route / roots preserved for 40 years.

Thing 20 also mentions the Library Day in the Life Project which I blogged about a couple of times in 2010 (I think I also took part in some later rounds, but only via Twitter). Looking back on those posts now, I’m struck by how much of my life was already taken up with planning for the closure of Jordanhill Library this year, after which my library route took a sharp turn towards the exit, before making an unexpected detour through the Agriculture Library I am in now. So from a personal point of view, these projects have allowed me to keep tabs on my progress – in 2009, I documented my library route, in 2010 I added a couple of snapshots through Day in the Life, and this year I’m bringing everything up-to-date via this blog and cpd23!

Taking a wider view, I think Library Routes and Day in the Life are incredibly useful to the profession. I’ve read other people’s contributions over the years and they are so varied that it should encourage anyone to think that they can find a way into library and information work. I’ve used them several times for that very purpose, recommending them to people considering librarianship as a career option, most recently just a couple of weeks ago. It’s great that Thing 20 is encouraging more people to take part.