24 islands in 24hours
Over 24 hours in September we aimed to run reading events in 24 hours in Orkney and Shetland. Great fun, of course, but what was it all about?
Libraries have an image problem. They're boring, right? And they're quiet. That goes without saying. The supporters of my husband's football team have a chant they use when they think the opposing fans are half-hearted. 'You think you're in a library,' they jeer. 'Shhh...' Hilarious.
Then there's the notion that libraries are out-dated. Who needs them when we can buy books cheaply through Amazon and get information from Wikopedia via our smart phones. But not everyone has a computer at home and not everyone can afford to buy books for themselves or their children. An OECD report said that reading for pleasure is a higher indicator of educational success than parental income or social status. So how can a country that claims to value social mobility consider closing libraries?
Of course I have a vested interest. Without the support of public libraries I wouldn't be published now. They sustained me through a very long lean time. But now I'm actually earning money for the country. According to a DCMS report published in January, the creative industries as a whole generate 8 million pounds an HOUR, and provide one job in 12. So perhaps we should cherish our libraries, the places where children first find stories and art, understand rhyme and song and come across a limitless world of opportunity and adventure. We should see these unappreciated buildings as training grounds for apprentices who will go on to make film, theatre, music and poetry.
That was what the 24/24 challenge was all about. We wanted to celebrate libraries in all their forms, to pay tribute to the enthusiasm and passion of library staff who match books and readers, who encourage discussion and brave new reading choices. Of course we had a ball - what could be better than talking books with friends and strangers? We started in Papa Westray in Orkney, where it seemed the whole community came along to the school to count us down to the start. We travelled in small planes and ferries, the big overnight boat between Orkney and Shetland, by mobile libraries and friends' cars. We visited reading groups and playgroups, there were events in a cathedral and a yurt. The weather was kind to us and the planning by Stewart Bain in Orkney and Karen Fraser in Shetland was fantastic. We ended our challenge in Unst, in the most northerly library, in the most northerly school in the UK. And with the help of other writers (Lin Anderson, Zoe Strachan and Louise Welsh) we managed events in 27 islands!
We couldn't change the perception of libraries in twenty four hours, but I hope we gave a glimpse of the work that's happening, quietly and without a fuss, in branches all over the UK. Now perhaps it's time to value libraries for the service they provide throughout the UK in wild and rural areas and in cities. It's time to make a fuss before we lose them.