Terence Blacker: Libraries are not just about books

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The Independent Online

Good news. A marvellous, heart-warming campaign has just been launched that involves government and business, public services and private business, with support from the great and the good at Westminster, in local government and within the arts. With all the right, inspirational words and phrases - "vision", "creative", "partnership", "makeover", "service", "consumers" - a campaign called Love Libraries is under way. Authors have spoken up. "Marketing mentors" are to be involved.

That very smooth minister from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, David Lammy, has been "impressed and encouraged" by the campaign and its plan to redesign and promote three libraries in Newquay, Gravesend and Richmond. He looks forward to seeing "these visionary transformations".

By coincidence, I happened to be visiting a library in Northern Ireland on the day this venture was launched, but it was one whose problems and achievements put the warm words from London into sharp perspective. To judge by the events of this week, it faces challenges that are rather different to those faced by those lucky institutions, soon to be made over, in Cornwall, Kent or south-west London.

The library is open during the evenings, and on Tuesday night, a small group of children set off a fire hydrant in the lobby. Another group had to be rescued from the lift having jumped up and down in it. There were police warnings. Two young regulars, Scott and Andrew, were banned for two months.

The next day, an author visited. I met a group of children who regularly came to the library after school. One had problems reading, but had discovered a series I had written for slightly younger readers than she is, and had read them all. Another, also with literacy problems, had typed out the blurbs of some of my books and illustrated them for my visit. We talked about stories, theirs and mine, and they were interested and enthusiastic.

Awkwardly for those who like a clean and easy division between problems and achievements, between bad kids and good, the two groups of children are essentially one. If it had not been for the unfortunate incident of the fire hydrant, Scott and Andrew would have been talking about books, too.

Here is the way it works in libraries like the one I visited. Situated near to a council housing estate, it is a regular refuge after school for children, aged from seven or eight upwards, whose parents are out or unavailable. It is warm and light; it has computers, books.

With the help of conscientious and heroically patient librarians, the children receive encouragement and interest that they get neither at home nor at school and, largely through their own free will and enthusiasm, often develop an interest in books and the world of possibility and escape that they contain.

In a better world, there would be no need for librarians to provide this kind of safety-net, but the fact is that, in many places, they do. There is a danger that, as we learn to love libraries, these rather more needy and demanding consumers, who elsewhere tend to get ignored, forgotten and excluded, may be regarded by the marketing mentors as rather too problematic to fit in with their visionary transformations.

Yet it is in places like that library in Northern Ireland where, in spite of lift problems and fire hydrant violations, libraries are fulfilling their most vital and important function.

Vinnie's walk on the wild side

Should the animal rights movement, in a bid to catch a passing wave of publicity, decide to set up an annual awards ceremony, the former footballer and hard nut Vinnie Jones would be my nomination.

Vinnie, right, has a bit of a reputation for doing harm to any passing wildlife - pheasants, fish, a neighbour's ear, a reporter's nose, Paul Gascoigne's testicles - but he may yet turn out to be an accidental friend to the animal kingdom. Having followed the fine old sport of hare-coursing in Ireland, he is in trouble after his dog Boavista, winner of the £55,000 Irish Cup in County Limerick, failed a drugs test.

Some might find the idea of bringing into disrepute a sport that involves the pursuit of a species that is in serious decline bizarre in itself, but Vinnie will doubtless defend it, and his doped-up dog, with habitual robustness. If, thanks to the publicity that will surround the case, he is the new face of coursing, it is great news for hares everywhere.

As if there were not enough to worry about, the think-tank Civitas has raised the possibility that the family itself is under threat. Their man Norman Dennis, described as "a morality campaigner", has revealed what he calls "a concerted campaign" within the BBC, describing it as "part of a systematic attack on the family".

Startlingly, this assault takes the form of the repeated use of that rather rude swear-word which begins with a C. Several Cs were heard during The Thick of It. A whole discussion of it took place in Balderdash & Piffle. Excited morality campaigners counted no less than five C's during one scene in The Chatterley Affair.

Presumably Civitas believes that some murky BBC committee is at work behind this concerted and systematic campaign. If so, it should be exposed immediately before families start imploding under a welter of Cs.

It would be an embarrassing way for civilisation to end.

terblacker@aol.com

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