Boyd Tonkin: A fresh wind from the Humber

The week in books

To much of the metropolitan literati, the city of Kingston upon Hull brings just one name and voice to mind: that of Philip Larkin, librarian of its university for 30 years. Expect to read some slightly patronising Humberside clichés later this month when (on 20 April) the "Larkin Trail" is inaugurated at the Royal Hotel. (Ah yes, "Friday Night at the Royal Station Hotel": "Hours pass,/ And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,/ Leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room...") This waymarked trail through city and outskirts will lead pilgrims - two-wheeled and bicycle-clipped, one trusts - past 25 sites associated with the poet's life and work. Let's hope that, in the words of "Here" from The Whitsun Weddings, it takes visitors all the way from the "fishy-smelling/ Pastoral" of the centre (well, that was nearly half a century ago) to the shore where "Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach/ Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence:/ Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach".

Yet there is something else to talk about on the theme of Hull and books. At a time when more than 80 per cent of local authorities plan cuts to library services, the city council seem determined to protect theirs. Remote it may look when viewed from London, but Hull has not miraculously dodged the Whitehall spending axe. Cuts there will hurt as much as anywhere but, thanks to some innovative thinking of the kind that all town halls will need, at present the libraries look secure. After a new school development, which may incorporate an extra branch, the city might acquire one more.

This is no Humberside utopia. The policy depends on squeezing extra use out of the municipal estate. Carl Minns, Lib Dem leader of the city council, tells me that "We took a long hard look at the council's buildings. This process began before the details of the cuts were announced. How can we deliver services differently?" They decided that libraries, while protecting and extending book stocks and hours, should function as general access points for a range of other services. "Libraries were the original customer service centres. If you wanted any information, you went to the local library. We're effectively updating that concept."

This may sound heresy to purists who resist any dilution of the book curating and supply function. Arguably, such a strategy could threaten the professional autonomy of staff. But what if the multi-tasking library becomes the best or only way to keep a branch open? "By merging these costs, it will help the council to protect the core library service," Carl Minns says. Besides, multiple use can become a two-way street. Hull also outsources small reference collections from its libraries onto other public sites. So the allotments, say, will hold a stock of gardening books. That makes quite brilliant sense. Why should we not see sports books held – and even lent – at sports centres, or find mini-libraries in park pavilions?

Hull has already given new life to old libraries. The Edwardian-era Carnegie Library closed in 2003 (a reminder that councils let branches expire long before the current austerities). It has now opened its doors again as a "heritage centre" for local studies. The city already boasts its new History Centre, which – among much else – houses a Larkin-linked hoard of material.

Begin to broach the subject of deep change to the pattern or process of the service, and library campaigners will often sound uneasy. They see it as compromise with the cuts. This is misguided. Local libraries did not inhabit a fully-funded paradise before 2010. Dozens of councils have shut them with reckless abandon, year after year, often to score cheap political points against central government. No one actually dies, after all.

Reform was long overdue in many places, and would still be with every cut rescinded tomorrow. Library-lovers could even take a leaf out of the Larkin book. As head of the Brynmor Jones Library, he proved a far-sighted and original manager - even, apparently, in the European vanguard of computerised stock control. True, it makes for a piquant picture: the melancholy lyricist of loss and transience, future-proofing his cherished workplace. What will survive of us is... a fully-searchable online database?

Another prize race for the Hare

Mixing fiction and non-fiction, the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize always delivers a shortlist of mind-expanding eclecticism. This year's choice looks richer (and tougher) than ever. The final cut for the award, due on 8 June, agrees on two novels with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long-list: To the End of the Land by David Grossman and Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (right). Howard Jacobson's Man Booker-winning The Finkler Question will also be in contention, as will (from the non-fiction shelves) everybody's favourite memoir of the season: Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes. It's still, incredibly, a paperback chart-topper that shows no sign of slowing down.

More power to a mightier PEN

Funding for literature bodies from Arts Council England did well in last week's settlement, with an overall rise of almost 10 per cent (at around £7m. per year, it still counts as small change in opera or theatre terms). There were some perverse decisions, with no cut unkinder than the total withdrawal of a grant from the Poetry Book Society. Led by Carol Ann Duffy, a mass poets' revolt is now under way. We may not have heard the last lines yet. Meanwhile English PEN emerged a handsome winner, with support almost trebled to £230,000. Its annual Free the Word! festival (in conjunction with International PEN) continues in London until Sunday. Highlights to come include a panel on "Authorising History" that brings together a trio of outstanding novelists: Hisham Matar, Elif Shafak and Juan Gabriel Vásquez (another long-listed contender for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, with The Secret History of Costaguana). Consult the full programme and book at www.freethewordonline.com

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

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