Saturday, 29 January 2011

Upcoming Events with our 60 Seconder Emma Donoghue ...

Some events coming up in England to celebrate the paperback release of ROOM... not London but the much-neglected regions this time.

Woodstock Bookshop, 8 February, 7pm
Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library, 9 February, 6.30pm
Bury Library (near Manchester), 10 February, 1.30pm
Doncaster Central Library, 10 February, 5pm
A talk about the research for my next novel at the Sallis Benney Theatre, University of Brighton, 11 February 2011, 6.15pm
Warwick Library, 15 February, 7pm
Tonbridge Library, 17 February, 7pm

Hope to meet some of you in the flesh.

All the best

February 2011 Issue - OUT NOW!

It’s that time again. Winter’s been tough, what with all the snow and the cuts and Christmas etc, but we’re here to bring some much needed artificial, energy-saving sunshine into your lives with our February issue of Words With JAM.

Cover star Guy Saville talks about his upcoming release The Afrika Reich, in which he twists history a little to make it even more gripping than it actually was; we have a (slightly delayed) look back at last year’s Wigtown Book Festival, and delve into the world of virtual friendships with Catriona Troth.

We’re delighted, yet a little bit scared, to welcome two new contributors this month, in the shape of Andrew Ramsay and his take on the world of comic geekdom, and Matt Shaw, cartoonist extraordinaire.

We have our usual round up of reviews, comment and idiocy as well as new feature The Rumour Mill, where we’ll be busting myths, some of which may even be vaguely writing related. And of course, there’s the small matter of our Comp Corner Last Lines competition. Let’s just say we were ever so slightly overwhelmed by the increase in entries for this one compared to previous Comp Corners. Wonder if that had anything to do with the brilliant prize on offer courtesy of Ruth Saberton? The ten top entries as well as the overall winner are announced within!

So pull up a chair, stick your feet on the pouffe and light your pipe. Words With JAM – it’s free and it’s here to stay. Get used to it.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The Truth About Footfall?

I keep hearing this, repeated like a mantra. Footfall numbers in libraries have fallen. We can’t expect to keep libraries open when the evidence shows that footfall is down…

It’s made me think about how I use libraries and the way that has changed in the last few years.

If I want to read a particular book, I might once have gone into the library, looked for it, and if I didn't find it, I'd probably have gone away and thought about whether I could be bothered to put in a reservation for it. If the answer was yes, I’d go back in and reserve it, and then I’d finally go to collect it. Now I search for the books I want and reserve them on line, and only go into the library when the books are ready for me. One visit in place of two or even three.

When I want to renew a book, I do it on line.

If I want to refer to a newspaper from the past, I no longer drive to the main county library to use their microfiche. I log into the library website and use my library card number to access Gales Virtual Reference Library.

I’m not using my library any less than I did – in fact I’m potentially using it rather more, because those facilities are at my fingertips. But I bet my personal contribution to the footfall is down quite a bit.

It seems to me that libraries and librarians are being judged by something that is out of step with the real world. No one is counting the use people make of web, email or phone based services: services which libraries want to and must provide in order to keep up with the modern age. So local branch libraries are finding that the more they promote these out-of-library services, poorer their performance appears on paper to be.

And now they are being punished for it.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Who Do We Want Running Our Libraries?

The Reality of Running a Community Library

With libraries all over the country threatened with closure, and councils promoting the idea of volunteer-run community libraries as the best alternative, what does running a community library really mean?

Last week, I talked to Jim Brooks, Chairman of the Friends of Little Chalfont Community Library, in Buckinghamshire.

Four years ago, Buckinghamshire County Council closed eight of its libraries. Two of these, including Little Chalfont, have kept going as volunteer-run community libraries, offering a comprehensive library service. Last November, a further 14 were told that they must become community libraries or face closure, leaving only 9 council-run libraries in the county.

Now LCCL is being held up around the country as the model of the future of our libraries, which places Brooks at the eye of the storm. Librarians from all over the country are beating a path to his door, wanting to know how this small community managed to save their library.

And there is no doubt that their achievement is very impressive. They took a small village library that was under threat of closure and turned it into a vibrant community service, providing everything that the public library previously did, and more.

But be under no illusion. This was not simply a matter of a few volunteers taking over the jobs previously done by professional library staff. The original terms from Bucks County Council were that the library had to be provided at NO COST to the Council. The community had to raise enough money to pay for the rent of the existing building, charges for IT equipment, supplies such as bar codes, and a management fee to the Council. They also had to choose whether to pay the council an annual fee (£7k to rent existing stock, or to create their own stock from scratch through donations. (They chose the latter path.)

In all, their running costs amount to some £20k pa – money which is raised from a mixture of public donations, grants, library revenues (i.e. fines), and letting out the building to other community groups.

The volunteer staff, between them, have to provide not only basic librarian skills but Financial Management, Health and Safety, Staff Management, Stock Procurement, Building Maintenance, Data Protection, and a host of other managerial functions.

Bucks has learnt something from these pioneering Community Libraries. The new terms being offered are somewhat more favourable and the council is promising a more cooperative approach. But some other councils, keen to rush through the concept, appear to be ignoring these lessons. Like Bucks four years ago, they expect Community Libraries to be able to go it alone, ignoring the fact that these two communities happened to have what were probably the ideal conditions for this experiment to succeed.

Both Little Chalfont and Bucks’ other community library in Chalfont St Giles are in highly prosperous areas at the edge of the London commuter belt. The surrounding communities are both willing and comparatively able to raise the cash for a service it wishes to maintain. What’s more, there is a large pool of people (retired, at home with children etc) who have the professional, managerial and business experience to carry out all the functions necessary to run a library. The same thing simply could not work on, say, a sink estate where many of the residents are second generation unemployed, or a scattered farming community where a majority are working 18 hours a day just to survive.

Yet in Somerset and Gloucestershire, for example, the areas targeted for community libraries are among the poorest and most rural in the country.

Jim Brooks is angry that Councils are holding LCCL up as the blueprint to be used, willy nilly, elsewhere. He strongly believes that a check list of key criteria must be met in order for a community library such as theirs to be viable.

“Where communities meet these criteria, we are happy to give them all the help we can. But where they don’t, councils must understand, it’s a non-starter.”

Libraries as Social Enterprise

Another model for a community library is that being proposed in Lewisham – a very different environment to Little Chalfont. There, businessman Darren Taylor has put in a bid to take over up to four libraries the council intends to close. He spoke to me on the phone from the offices of his business, Eco Computer Systems.

Several years ago, Taylor left an IT job in the city to set up a not-for-profit social enterprise dedicated to computer recycling and the provision of IT training for those without computer access. When the company moved into the Pepys Resource Centre in Deptford and Taylor discovered that the building was a former library, he decided to restore its former function. Starting with a stock of one thousand books donated by Lewisham council, and another fifteen hundred donated by the local community, he set up a small library and computer resource centre.

Taylor’s aunt was a librarian in Lewisham. He’s dyslexic and taught himself to read in libraries. He is clearly passionate about providing universal access to books, ebooks and IT – particularly to those with learning difficulties. The Pepys Resource Centre provides specialised hardware and software for the disabled and those with learning difficulties, something he hopes to replicate in other libraries.

He plans to set up a charity, Ecolibraries, to run four much larger libraries. Lewisham council currently opens these libraries three and a half days a week. He intends to keep them open them six days a week. As at the Resource Centre, he hopes to work with other groups to provide a café, IT training, after-school coaching in Maths and English and other services. The libraries would be fully linked to Lewisham Council Library Systems and the Council would provide some services free of charge, including installing self-service tills and employing a full-time community liaison librarian whose job it is to support to the community libraries.

Taylor’s ‘multi-function’ approach means that he can obtain financial support from a variety of different sources. The provision of IT training attracts grants from the local Housing Association, and by turning the libraries into Heritage Centres for the local community, he hopes to get Lottery funding that will help to pay for the restoration of the library buildings.

But not every community has a social benefactor like Darren Taylor.

On one point both Darren Taylor and Jim Brooks are clear: they are not doing this because they think they are better placed to run libraries than the Councils. Faced with losing the libraries in their local communities, they found themselves in a position to bring together the skills and resources to rescue the service, and they acted. But neither believes they have found a panacea.

Read the full article in the next edition of Words with Jam

Jim Brooks is due to be interviewed for BBC Breakfast on 19th January.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Return to Syrupville

As has now become a tradition, nay institution, the boss and I made a triumphant, wine-fuelled return to the Wigtown Book Festival late last year.

For those who haven’t been paying attention, Wigtown is a wee place in Dumfries and Galloway that has the distinction of being officially hailed as Scotland’s Book Town, thanks to the ridiculously high proportion of book shops there. And they’re all second hand book shops, at that. Heaven.

In 2009 we were there as book fans but this time was different - this time we were journalists. The difference? We got some free tickets for stuff (thank you, Adrian) and so were able to attend a few more events than our negligible funds allowed last year. To be honest we were kind of hoping for backstage passes to behind the scenes parties with the drugs and the strippers etc, but it turns out book festivals aren’t quite the same as Jedward gigs, or at least they didn’t invite us if they are. No matter, maybe they’re waiting for us to prove ourselves and we’ll get to venture further behind the veil next time.

The festival began in 1998 and has steadily built itself into one of the premier literary events in the country, attracting big names from all corners of the writing world. This year was no exception, and numbered among those writers we didn’t see were Ian Rankin, Michael Foley, Margo McDonald, Val McDermid, James Robertson, Alasdair Gray, Alex Bellos, Fiona Watson, Matt Haig, Kathryn Schultz and Martin Berners Lee, to name but a, eh, eleven. I’m sure they were all superb and their books wonderful but I didn’t see them and haven’t read them so can’t really comment (got a few on the pile, mind). Those writers we did see, however, were uniformly excellent, and we'll be giving you a full insight in the forthcoming February issue of Words with JAM.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

eBooks - love 'em or loathe 'em

In the last issue of Words with Jam, Catriona Troth told us her views on ebooks and the Kindle. In this edition, we are inviting you to do the same.

Have you had a Kindle for Christmas? Did you fall in love with ebooks, or do you loathe the very idea of them? Are they the greatest breakthrough in publishing since the Gutenberg press, or the greatest threat since the Inquisition?

Tell us what you think, in 500 words or less. The best entries - the funniest, the most outrageous or the most articulate - received before the 14th January will be published in the February edition of Words with Jam.

Email by 14th January, with the subject 'eBooks - love 'em or loathe 'em'