A happy new year for libraries?
Recently Newcastle City Council announced that they proposed to close ten libraries. It's possible that there's some political posturing in the decision and I hope that at least some of these branches might be saved. But the fact that this was even considered is truly shocking, especially when it goes along with 100% cut in arts' funding. It's also financially counter-productive. Much of the heavy industry in the north east closed decades ago, but we've been brilliant at making art and music and theatre. And books. And these creative industries bring prestige, visitors and money into the region. As a small personal illustration, ITV Studios film VERA entirely in the north east. The full cast and crew takes up residence for four months every year and the production team is here for much longer than that. They stay in hotels or rent flats, they eat in restaurants, they employ local actors, technical crew, drivers and security people. They give a vital first taste of the industry to new graduates. I love the fact that the team is based in the old Swan Hunter offices on the Tyne at Wallsend and that those buildings are coming to life again. And once the drama is broadcast, people from all over the world see a vibrant city and a beautiful landscape and decide that they'd like to visit our region.
So what does this have to do with libraries? Everything. I would never have become a writer if I hadn't been taken to my local branch library as a child. More importantly, I wouldn't still be published without the guaranteed sales that libraries provided. I'd been languishing in the mid-list for many years, with no paperback publication and no backlist available until I wrote the first Vera novel. So without libraries there'd have been no VERA, no Shetland Quartet, no translation into 22 languages bringing valuable overseas income to the country. I'm fascinated that the first edition of the first Harry Potter novel is so valuable because only 800 copies were published and most of them went straight to libraries. It's not fanciful to suppose that without library sales the book would never have been published. And think how much money the UK has earned from that!
That's the financial argument. But it's impossible to calculate the value to individual library members. I spent last Thursday in Cruddas Park library in Newcastle, one of the branches scheduled for closure, and soon the stories of some of the regular visitors will be told on a New Writing North website. The library is the only access that the community has to any form of art and we should be developing it, nurturing writers and artists and film-makers, widening the scope of the building so it provides a creative hub in the heart of an area otherwise known for its deprivation. My library would host a community choir, a youth theatre and a teenage writers' group. That's my notion of the big society. And we'd have an increased book fund too.
In January I'll be announcing a practical partnership project to support libraries. In the meantime please make it your new year's resolution to visit your local library. If you're not a member, then join. If you're wealthy enough to buy books now, there might be a time when you can't afford them. Then you'll be glad of the range of titles the library can provide, and a warm safe place to browse them, and knowledgeable and friendly staff.
Thanks for your support over 2012 and a very merry Christmas to you all.