Sunday, 28 June 2009

Togas, Cupcakes and Stinkbombs

Shamelessly, I have lifted the following from, because it made me smile. It is about the great Library of Alexandria, which came into being around 300 BC,and  which was the first known library of its kind to gather a serious collection of books from beyond its country's borders – in fact, was charged with collecting all the world's knowledge:

  " It contained a great repository of writings from all over the world and a lot of fat and happy librarians who got to wear long flowing comfortable robes and didn't even have a need for so-called "casual" Fridays.

The Library of Alexandria had zero public access terminals and no photocopying machine. Life was good. 

It was burned to the ground, a few times, by people who hate freedom.

This was the start of the great librarian scowl, and lousy work clothes.

And, since enemies of our enemies are our friends, we now love the freedom to read."

In fact we don't really know what did for the Library of Alexandria. But I do know that if I was a 2nd-Century-BC author of a Work Of Staggering Genius that reposed there and nowhere else*, and hadn't, you know, backed up...well, I'd have been pretty fed up. And the fact is, WE WILL NEVER KNOW  what was lost, when that library burned down, or whatever happened to it.

Now, some would say that the Internet is our modern equivalent: the ultimate collection of the world's knowledge. And it's true that it is an incredible mind-boggling resource that has revolutionised our lives. But to say that now we have the Internet we don't need books is a bit like saying that now we have cars we don't need wheels. And to be fair, no one's actually saying that – quite. What they are saying – and some of them are people in positions of power – is that we can afford to get rid of libraries.

Well I've blogged about this before, and I make no apologies for doing so again. Less than a year ago, author Alan Gibbons (below) started the Campaign for the Book; already it is making real changes, and we have just had its first ever conference.
But there's much more to do. We are still losing libraries, and as one speaker pointed out, once it's gone, it's gone: "the spider's web cannot be put back together by hand". We heard of at least one new school that has been built with no library in it. Cicero is famously quoted as saying "a room without books is like a body without a soul": well, what does that make a school without a library? Author Beverley Naidoo said "Britain is being barbarized". Coming from someone who grew up in a segregated South Africa, and whose first book was banned there, that is worrying indeed.

Books are your individual window on the world, a prism through which you can interpret it in your own unique way. As was also said at the conference (and apologies, I didn't attribute all of my notes): "reading a book is a creative relationship between one mind and another". The same cannot be said of the Internet. We were mostly librarians and authors at the conference; that's me with authors Bernard Ashley, Lucy Coats and below that, me and Linda Newbery in matching dangly necklaces.  And among the speakers were Frank Cottrell Boyce, Celia Rees and Gillian Cross.  But EVERYONE can do their bit, whether in matching dangly necklaces or not. 

Libraries are the cornerstones of our civilization, so if you know of a school or a local authority that is facing cuts, EMAIL ME ABOUT IT. I will make a stink, and if I know of any authors in the region, I will make sure they do too! Don't stand for this! Seriously. Let's all make a stink together. I'll come round to your house, we'll make stink bombs and then we'll let them off outside the councillor's office. Won't that be grand! 

And there'll be the added bonus of making librarians happy, like those ones in Alexandria before the fire. We can make them fat too, if we want, by making them cupcakes – though I'm not sure we can persuade them to wear togas.

You can also petition the Prime Minister to make school libraries statutory: go to .

I'll leave you with this thought: In 1948, George Orwell wrote a scary futuristic book called Nineteen Eighty-Four. Maybe you've heard of it. Two TV programmes have taken their titles from concepts in this book: Big Brother and Room 101. It's a truly great book that's scary for many reasons, not least because it depicts a world in which there is no freedom of information. And Big Brother, who's watching you all the time, and his Inner Party, use Newspeak, "the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year." A key characteristic of Newspeak is calling something the opposite of what it actually is; so the "Ministry of Peace" actually deals with war, and so on.  I thought of Nineteen Eighty-Four when I was at the conference, because of some of the official governmental terminology that was quoted:

budget cuts = 'funding prioritisation'
library closures = 'strategic asset review'

And finally there is 'library', which apparently is a dirty word, and so needs to be called something else, like 'learning resource centre'. What is WRONG with "library"??!

So like I say; we need to club together on this and make a stand, before it's too late. Stink bombs, cupcakes and togas at the ready!!

*Quite likely, since in those days it never took less than 200 years for authors to become widely known – and authors complain about publishing being slow now. Sheesh!


David Calcutt said...

It was also at the Library of Alexandria that punctuation was created for the first time, as an aid to reading.

Anonymous said...

great post, fiona! i'll make stink bombs with you anytime. i really wanted to go to that conference. catching up on all the blogs about it now!

Anonymous said...

George Orwell was there? I missed him...

fionadunbar said...

He didn't want a big fuss, so went as Eric Blair and wore a false beard.

John Dougherty said...

Really wish I'd been able to go to the conference - although my necklace would have been insufficiently dangly. However, count me in for the stink bomb manufacturing team, for which I presume necklaces with any degree of dangliosity will be prohibited on health & safety grounds.

And on the subject of 1984 - don't you think the Ministry of Justice sounds as if it belongs there, too?

fionadunbar said...

And the Ministry of Education too, I think, John! Right; you're on my list. Excellent. You're right; too much dangliosity could be hazardous in such situations – but I might have to insist you bring your guitar!