Tag Archives: Personal musings

Sunday Post – 6th January, 2019 #Brainfluffbookblog #SundayPost

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This is part of the weekly meme over at the Caffeinated Reviewer, where book bloggers can share the books and blogs they have written.

Happy New Year! We were lucky this year that Himself had an early shift on New Year’s Eve, so he was able to join my sister and me seeing in 2019. We played games, nibbled nibbles and drank mulled apple and ginger juice (which is delicious, by the way). It was a peaceful, enjoyable way to see in 2019 and the following morning, we walked along the beach to watch the first sunrise of 2019, which was stunning – then adjourned to the Sea Lane Café for breakfast.

Since then, I have been busy completing work on this term’s Creative Writing course. Mhairi and I met up on Thursday, had lunch together at Haskins, before returning home where she helped me load the box set of The Sunblinded Trilogy on Amazon. Himself and I had a lovely meal over at my sister’s house last night – the first time we’ve been there for a while, given she was poorly for quite a while and then as she was recovering, I was ill and too exhausted to go out in the evening unless I had to. It was wonderful to get together over well-cooked food and indulge in the usual silliness the three of us get up to – there was a long conversation as to whether the deserted Paris scenes on the placemats were down to a zombie apocalypse or a Prussian invasion – even Google was consulted…

Today, we took down the Christmas decorations and returned them to the loft – a chore I always dread, so we nipped across to the local supermarket to cheer ourselves up with one of their delicious cupcakes after we finished. I start back at Northbrook tomorrow and am looking forward to seeing my students again.

Last week I read:
The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas
In 1967, four female scientists worked together to build the world’s first time machine. But just as they are about to debut their creation, one of them suffers a breakdown, putting the whole project—and future of time travel—in jeopardy. To protect their invention, one member is exiled from the team—erasing her contributions from history. Fifty years later, time travel is a big business. Twenty-something Ruby Rebello knows her beloved grandmother, Granny Bee, was one of the pioneers, though no one will tell her more. But when Bee receives a mysterious newspaper clipping from the future reporting the murder of an unidentified woman, Ruby becomes obsessed: could it be Bee? Who would want her dead? And most importantly of all: can her murder be stopped?
This is an intelligently written, well-crafted book which takes a unique approach to the topic of time travel. I’m extremely impressed by the quality of the writing and look forward to reading more from this author. Review to follow.

The Lost Gunboat Captain – Book 1 of the Jolo Vargas Space Opera series by J.D. Oppenheim
Alone in the cold black with 36 hours of oxygen. Jolo Vargas, Federation Gunboat Captain, is trapped in a runaway escape pod zooming towards Federation space. But will he be dead before he gets there? He’s in a tight spot. But he’s a war hero, just the type of man who could work his way out of this jam. But there’s just one little problem. He doesn’t remember who he is.
This was great fun, particularly that gripping opening which I thoroughly enjoyed. After that, there was plenty of foot-to-the-floor action with an entertaining supporting character cast.

 

 

The Gilded Wolves – Book 1 of The Gilded Wolves series by Roshani Chokshi
Paris, 1889: The world is on the cusp of industry and power, and the Exposition Universelle has breathed new life into the streets and dredged up ancient secrets. In this city, no one keeps tabs on secrets better than treasure-hunter and wealthy hotelier, Séverin Montagnet-Alarie. But when the all-powerful society, the Order of Babel, seeks him out for help, Séverin is offered a treasure that he never imagined: his true inheritance. To find the ancient artifact the Order seeks, Séverin will need help from a band of experts: An engineer with a debt to pay. A historian who can’t yet go home. A dancer with a sinister past. And a brother in all but blood, who might care too much. Together, they’ll have to use their wits and knowledge to hunt the artifact through the dark and glittering heart of Paris. What they find might change the world, but only if they can stay alive.
This crime adventure where exotic magical artefacts feature had me turning the pages in this tense thriller far too late into the night. I loved this change of direction by Chokshi, who is always worth reading.

My posts last week:

Shoot for the Moon 2018 – How Did I Do?

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of Hurricane – Book 3 of the Hive Mind series by Janet Edwards

Friday Face-Off featuring Windhaven by George R.R. Martin and Lisa Tuttle

Interesting/outstanding blogs and articles that have caught my attention during the last week, in no particular order:

What is Contemporary Fantasy? https://shadowsinmind.net/2018/06/27/what-is-contemporary-fantasy/ The sub-genres can cause some confusion, particularly for those who don’t regularly read SFF, so this is a useful discussion.

Thursday Doors – New Doors, New Year https://jeanreinhardt.wordpress.com/2019/01/03/thursday-doors-new-door-new-year/ This is one of my perennial favourites and such a fitting way to beginning this year…

If somebody asked me what to read https://readerwitch.com/2019/01/03/book-recommendations/ Alexandra has a delightful selection of books for anyone asking the question at the start of the new year.

Getting Rid of Books – How To Decide When It’s Time To Part Ways https://thebookishlibra.com/2018/12/29/getting-rid-of-books-how-to-decide-when-its-time-to-part-ways/ This is a vexed question that all keen readers have to address – particularly at this time of year…

50 Most Anticipated SFF Book of 2019 https://fantasy-hive.co.uk/2018/12/50-most-anticipated-sff-books-of-2019/ A must-read for all SFF fans – I’ve bookmarked this one to return to in the coming months…

In the meantime, many thanks for taking the time to comment, like and visit my blog – and have a wonderful 2019!

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It’s a funny old world…

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It was one of Grandpa’s favourite sayings – but back then, I didn’t understand why. I do now.

I was NEVER going to have children. I was NEVER going to be divorced. I was NEVER going to marry again.

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By then I’d learnt to stop slinging THAT word around…

Only Fair, or More Bloody Political Correctness? #readwomen2014

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It’s a tricky one, isn’t it? Somehow the system of reviewing books is innately skewed towards men, despite the fact that just as many good books are written by women – and women buy and read more books, as Pechorin described in his excellent article I reblogged yesterday. The notion that because I’m differently shaped with a higher-pitched voice means I shall probably earn less money and recognition as an author than my male counterparts makes me want to bite the carpet and kick something very hard.

And yet… and yet… this is reading – we’re talking about books… Being an avid reader who loves nothing more than to regularly escape between two covers, having someone wag her finger in my face, telling me that my book choices are unfair leaves me squirming with discomfort, tinged with some anger.

Bloody hell! I can’t even pick up a book without looking over my shoulder to see whether it’s the right book written by the right person… Yep. I never said EscapeSarah was nice or fair – she just wants to… escape. So I can entirely sympathise with anyone else – man or woman – who feels the same way.

The catch is, a few years ago I decided to share my passion for books by reviewing them and the issue of gender imbalance in book marketing is something as a reviewer I cannot ignore – even if part of me would like to. Even if part of me cringes at the thought of bringing concerns such as Equality and Diversity into the wonderful worlds I dive into whenever I can. Back in early 2012, when I first came across an article in Strange Horizons about this issue, I had assumed that I read and reviewed far more books written by women than men – and was startled to discover that I had, in fact, written 44 reviews on books by men, compared to 39 reviews on books written by women. It wasn’t a huge imbalance – but the shock for me was that I was under the impression that the bias was in the other direction. Since then, I stack To Be Read books in two piles – one written by men and one written by women – and ensure that my published reviews are at least equal, though there is a slight bias in favour of women authors.

What about you, the readers? That’s down to you – the one abiding reason why I write reviews, is often I finish a good book feeling excited about it and want to share that excitement with other people who like reading. How you feel about the whole wretched business regarding the lack of reviews for women authors, compared with male authors isn’t my business.

So, whether you regard #readwomen2014 as an opportunity to try an author who sounds as if her books would be one you’d enjoy – or roll your eyes and mutter it’s damn shame they can’t all write like Heinlein, don’t let any of it get between you and your love of books. Because, in the end, that’s what really matters.

My World Fantasy Con 2013

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Given that around 1,500 folks were expected, I was a bit worried that the cosy feel of FantasyCon I’ve come to expect would be fantasy worldconmissing. However I was delighted to find that everyone was still very friendly and enthusiastic – and that a lot of people I’ve met at previous Cons were here, making it a wonderful place to get together and catch up with writing friends I don’t see anywhere else.

Anyone who has read my previous reports will know that I’m something of a Panel junkie. The best panel was Style or Substance in Fiction? Not sure if it wasn’t the best panel – ever… Moderated by the great Geoff Ryman, with Ellen Kushner, Jack Dann and Lisa Tuttle, these authors knew and liked each other – and it showed. The panel settled down to an in-depth discussion on the writing process with plenty of humour – as well as digging into how each one of them constructed their prose. I came away from that session buzzing.
Other notable panels I attended that deserve a mention for the excellence of the discourse and general usefulness – Broads with Swords was entertaining and completely laid to rest the myth that successful women Fantasy writers are thin on the ground. As ever, the wonderful Juliet Panel @ Worldcon 2013 (2)McKenna was amusing and articulate – and I melted into a fangirl mess at actually seeing one of my major literary heroes on the stage – Robin Hobb. What Else Have You Got? was an enjoyable discussion on what publishers are sick of seeing – very ably moderated by Lee Harris. Creating Memorable Characters was also very good, with the authors on the stage discussing how they approached the creative process. There was a fascinating gender divide; the men – Stephen Gallagher, Thomas Monteleone and Jasper Kent tended to plan far more than the women – Robin Hobb, Suzanne McLeod and Fiona McIntosh, who took a more organic approach to their writing.

Overall I was impressed with the quality and range of the panels on offer and felt that most of the panellists were well prepared and articulate – a credit to everyone who took part. The big disappointment was We’re All Bloggers Now. It was so poor that people walked out in the middle of the lacklustre discussion which constantly circled around a couple of panellists’ opinions that back in the ‘good old days’ writers could earn a decent Julie McKenna @ Worldcon 2013living working as critics for newspapers. Thanks to the flabby moderating, no one else on the panel got a chance to take the subject somewhere else. A shame, as blogging is a vibrant part of the current book review scene – for both good and ill – and deserved far better coverage.

I also attended all the publishing Kaffeeklatsches, aware that I knew very little about how they operated. It was a fascinating insight. The first thing I realised, was that four 50-minute sessions in a row was probably a tad too long. (When will I learn the art of moderation?) The next revelation was just what different animals they were. Peter Crowther of PS Publishing had a very different view of the process, compared with Jennifer Brehl from HarperCollins, USA, for instance. While no one was as inventively abusive about Amazon as Alain Nevant of Bragelonne from France. It was both inspiring and depressing to realise that other countries in the world actually value having book shops in their towns and villages… What they all shared, was a real passion for books – epitomised by Bella Pagan’s (Tor, UK) bubbling enthusiasm.

Given that I needed time to eat, drink and sleep, I didn’t attend many readings – but those that stood out as being excellent were Patrick Rothfuss, who could have easily made a living as a classical actor with that wonderful deep voice; Gareth Powell, whose lively rendition of his new book Hive Monkey inspired Himself to rush off and buy the series; and Ellen Kushner, whose beautiful reading ended far too soon. I could have listened to her all day… She was also on THE panel of awesomeness (Style over Substance) and I met her at the Mass Signing and she proved to be charming, funny and approachable, which was something of a feat at an event where many of the authors were looking a bit jangled – other than Neil Gaiman, who wasn’t looking anything. Too busy madly signing books for a never-ending queue that snaked through the very large hall.

Other events I enjoyed – the Open Mic Poetry Evening on Saturday night was one of my personal highlights. It’s not every day joe haldemanyou get to stand up and perform at the same event as Joe Haldeman… who writes a nifty poem, by the way. The overall standard was exceptional and there was also a wonderful range of work – a testament to Allen Ashley’s sterling efforts to ensure poetry still got a look-in, although the muddle with the programming meant some folks had to leave halfway through, which was unfortunate. The highlights for me were Tina Rath, whose performance of her sly, disturbing work is superb and Megan Kerr’s stunning prose poem. It was a memorable evening, with plenty of excellent offerings. I’d dragged Himself along as support. He brought his Kindle, convinced he would be nodding off, otherwise – and ended up completely involved in the proceedings.

203605_225173104161331_110215_nMy pal Mhairi Simpson has been busy editing an anthology that came out of a late-night drinking session several Cons ago – and the launch and signing of Tales of Eve, published by Fox Spirit was the culmination of that discussion. I went along to support her on Sunday morning – to find Signing Alley packed with a crowd, all waiting to get their copies signed from the row of authors that included Juliet McKenna, who contributed her first ever science fiction short story, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Suzanne McLeod along with less well-known authors, such as Rob Haines and Ren Warom. It was lovely to see such interest in the slim volume – and once I got it back to my hotel room, I felt smugly gratified. It is an excellent anthology with a range of fascinating, humorous and disturbing stories.

Any niggles? A couple. I was frankly disgusted at the prices in the café off the main lobby and felt that signage to the lounge down in the bowls of the hotel, offering food and drink at affordable prices should have been far more prominent. The other grizzle was that the Programme Grid could – and should – have included far more events, such as the main launches and parties. It would also have been a big help if they had included the names of panellists.

Of course, I’d like to be able to report that Himself and I were soberly restrained in the knowledge that the house is already overflowing with books. That we looked at all those tempting piles and gently shook our heads, resolving to finish reading all the stuff we already own… But we didn’t. Showing the restraint of chocolate-fuelled toddlers on Easter morning, we swooped on the book-piles during Registration and spent next month’s housekeeping budget in the Dealer Room. Getting back home on the train, staggering under own weight in bound paper proved to be something of a challenge…

What is worth it? Oh yes. It was a great Con.

Legoland

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During this summer stay, I found myself promising my two grandchildren (8 and 3) a day at Legoland, Windsor… In my defence, I might add that when we took their mother and her brother a few years ago (oh, alright – MUCH longer ago than that!) we had a really enjoyable day. There was the odd queue, but overall I recall that we managed to pack a lot into the day and a great time was had by all.

Frankie & Oscar @ Legoland (4)Last Tuesday, we set off at 8 am, aiming to arrive at Windsor for the opening of the park at 10. But our journey didn’t go according to plan, as there were major roadworks which brought us to a complete halt, until we took a turning onto a teeny, tiny road barely marked on the roadmap, with yours truly navigating. Always a rather hairy business as I am one of those sad souls who needs to turn the map upside down in order to work out whether we have to go left or right. Needless to say, despite Himself’s encouraging, kind words, route-finding didn’t go smoothly.

Even Himself’s calm demeanour was fraying a bit around the edges once we hit the M25, however. We’d manage to reach 30 mph, before it all stopped for several minutes, then crawled along for another couple of miles, gradually increasing to said 30 mph, before the miserable process repeated itself. Over and over… Sheer weight of traffic was the cause.

Once we finally arrived at Legoland, of course, we realised why the M25 was so saturated with traffic – the majority of the cars were streaming into the place. We were parked a good distance away and had a longtrudge to the ticket booths – which was about the only time that day we didn’t have to queue very long, because we’d pre-booked via the internet. Our initial plan to get there for the beginning of the day was already in shreds – it was now 11am and the place was heaving. We had a 10 minute queue for the toilets. Every time.

Both children had seen the internet tour and decided what they particularly wanted to see and ride on – and we now had to rapidly Frankie & Oscar @ Star Wars, Legolandrevise that schedule. We managed to get them onto the Lego cars (40 minute queue); the submarine ride (30 minute queue); the train (50 minute queue); the JCB digger ride (45 minute queue); the lazar raider ride (70 minute queue. Add in the tour of the mini-village and the Star Wars display, stopping for food and drink and toilet breaks – that pretty much summed up the day.

Himself and I don’t enjoy crowds, or queuing. So it wasn’t our favourite day by a long country mile. However, there were several positives. Overall, I was impressed by the level of service and efficiency shown. If any of the operatives working literally flat out were hot and fed up with the never-ending crowds, there was no sign of it. Anywhere. The park wasn’t completely litter-free, but it was close and the whole place was clearly used to dealing with the insane numbers of people and dealt with them as efficiently as possible.

And the other MAJOR plus-point was the behaviour of the children. Our own were absolute angels. In all those weary hours of standing still in close proximity to lots of other people and shuffling forward at the pace of a dozing snail, not once did they grizzle or complain. The majority of the young visitors were little – you had to watch out for the dozens and dozens of pushchairs being wheeled around the grounds, and while there was occasionally the wail of a weary or tired baby, mostly the noise was excited chatter. I was awed and impressed at the high standard of behaviour by the majority of young children.

And maybe a little sad. I don’t recall ever standing in a queue for over an hour aged 3 and I’m fairly sure I would have been bored and upset. Clearly, modern children are already acclimatised to this procedure and it is doubtless a useful skill to learn. But… I think of the hours we just stood waiting at Legoland, against the very short time when we were actually doing something – and wonder by the time they reach my age, how much of their lives my grandchildren will have spent standing in queues.

How Do You Like Your Heroes?

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Well done – all crusty and seared on the outside, but with a core of soft idealism that every so often reveals itself to animals and small children?

Medium – a bit of a mixture? Not exactly the lantern-jawed version, because there are some major flaws such as a weakness for the alteredcarbonopposite sex, rather too fond of drink and a good time when our hero should be righting wrongs – and at times a reluctance to step in and do the right thing because it takes effort and often hurts. More like the rest of us, in other words. But when it all hits the fan this person will step up and put herself on the line for the rest of us.

thebladeOr rare… a mass of simmering resentment against a brutal, unfair world, who will kick against anyone standing in their way. But, who nonetheless, doesn’t steal from cripples or take advantage of defenceless young girls. Mostly…

In speculative fiction, many authors explore the idea of heroes in interesting ways. We have Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs in Altered Carbon, who is a classic anti-hero right on the edge of acceptability. Violent and out for what he can get – yet ensures that he targets the corporate fat cats. Joe Abercrombie’s torturer, Glokta in the First Law series is even less attractive. After being crippled, he gets even with the rest of the world by inflicting pain on other people for a living. It is his desert-dry wit that he is liable to turn against himself as well as everyone else that lets readers empathise with him, even if we’d rather never encounter him. As I read him, I find myself wondering how I’d feel in leviathansimilar circumstances, which is, I feel, always the mark of successful fiction.

But the most absorbing examination of heroes I’ve recently encountered is in James S.A. Corey’s space opera noir thriller, Leviathan Wakes. Miller is the burned out station cop who has become a professional liability – but when confronted with the unthinkable, steps up and does what is necessary. What makes this interesting is that he is juxtaposed with Captain Jim Holden, whose classic heroic stance causes almost as many problems as it poses in a politically fragile situation, where he crashes around with all the finesse of a super-nova… So which one of these men is the more effective hero?

madnessofangelsThen we have the urban fantasy versions – Kate Griffin’s half-mad and scarily powerful Matthew Swift in A Madness of Angels is one of the most memorable, set in the grubbier corners of London. He is classically powerful, driven by an over-developed sense of responsibility as he tackles all sorts of supernatural nasties. But, he’s not all that fond of humanity, either… He is riveting enough – but takes on another dimension when compared with Griffin’s later heroic straysoulsoffering in Stray Souls. Sharon is also something of an outcast and fundamentally nice in a way that many modern heroes aren’t – and has collected around her a little group of misfits, who have as much team spirit as a herd of cats. She spends a lot of time trying to get them to understand each other, while fighting Evil in a way that Matthew Swift just wouldn’t.

So… as readers, which sort of hero do you like? Who are your top three favourites? I’m principally interested in science fiction and fantasy – but if you have a classical hero you bonded with years ago, I’d like to hear about that one, too.

What They HAVEN’T Told You About Our Public Libraries…

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I wrote this article last year in response to a press release by the Government, informing us that numbers visiting public libraries were in decline.  Given what has been happening since then, I thought it might be worthwhile to repost it – as I believe the argument I’m making is even more relevant now than it was then…

Cash-strapped councils around the country must have thought Christmas had come, when a Government report was published earlier this week. This story broke with headlines such as:
The number of adults visiting libraries in England has fallen steadily over the last five years

The same article later went on to say:
‘The number of weekly library goers in England has gone down by 32% in 5 years. More than 60% of us have not stepped foot inside a library in the last year.’ (BBC News Website, 24th August 2010)

The survey published by the Department of Culture, Media and Sports paints a depressing picture of a steady decline in library use, although it did concede that the figures for children’s attendance had remained constant during the same period. Ed Vaizey, the Culture Minister, has been making concerned noises about the state of the library service since he took over the post, and in response to the Survey asked for people to think “imaginatively about where libraries could be”…

If that isn’t an open invitation for councils to forge ahead with a series of closures, then I’m a monkey’s uncle. After all, the Government’s figures prove that public libraries are an increasing irrelevance, don’t they? Stacked up against other tough decisions hard-pressed councils face, closing down your local library, shunting some of the stock and a few computers into the corner of a local Tesco will be a really soft option. Particularly because by the time they’ve done it, we’ll all be convinced that despite the fact that we miss our local library and its wide range of services, we’re the exception because everyone knows the public library service is a dwindling, broken thing. But before you shrug your shoulders helplessly and mutter about how modern life no longer seems to value the institutions that have defined our country for generations – such as a nationwide network of free lending libraries – take a look at ANOTHER set of statistics I’ve unearthed. This lot come from the LISU, a research and information centre for library and information services.

First of all, apologies for the BIG numbers. We are talking hundreds of millions, here. So if you were under the impression it’s just you and your Uncle Albert who still are quaintly old fashioned enough to regularly use your library, I’m sorry to burst your bubble – there’s more of us than you have been led to believe.

In 2008/09, there were 324,991,354 visits to libraries. Ah, you’re saying—there’s a bunch of libraries in colleges, universities and the odd private collection dotted around the country, she’s added those to the mix, to big up the numbers. Nope. That’s another set of numbers. These are just the visits to public libraries, like the one you currently have in your neighbourhood. So much for an increasing irrelevance… What is undeniable, is that the number of visits have been steadily dropping for the last five years. Hm. About that five year thing… The Government used percentages in their press release about their survey, rather than raw figures, I noticed.

But the numbers fluctuate more than you’d think from that press release. Just take look at the table below:

Table showing numbers of visits to public libraries

2000/01 2001/02 2002/03 2003/04 2004//05 2005/06 2006/07 2007/08 2008/09
*323,916 318,155 323,042 336,951 336,984 342,168 337,316 328,485 324,991

*Please add 000 to each figure, which I’ve rounded to the nearest thousand.

As you can see, although there has been a decline since 2005, there have been times when the numbers of library visits were below last year’s figure, while the highest number of visits were in 2005. Suddenly all those statistics, giving the percentage drop from 2005 to last year, make horrible sense. I believe there is a concerted campaign going on to convince us that our libraries are an outmoded, irrelevant part of our lives and need to be changed – ‘reshaped’ was the word that Mr Vaizey used. Or is it a massive coincidence that the Government survey used that 2005 spike, which just happen to emphasise the percentage decrease in numbers of visits?

The other little nugget of information I uncovered while scrolling through the LISU site, was tucked away under Other Services, – the number of visits to the public library website. I use this constantly to order books not available at my local branch, which cuts down the amount time I spend physically browsing in the library. Surely, I cannot be the only person whose visits to the library have lessened as the online facility has become more reliable? In 2006-07, the library website received approximately 64 million visits and last year that number had increased to around 113 million visits. And the ‘golden’ year of 2005? There are no available figures. So last year, if you add the virtual visits to the physical ones, you get over 437 million visits to our local libraries – an overall increase that makes the concern generated about our ‘failing’ library service look far less plausible.

I’m not going to gloss over the problems – the number of adults who use public libraries is steadily dropping, while the number of children is rising, slowly and steadily, according to LISU figures. Which is another interesting variation from the Government survey, which claims that children’s visitor numbers ‘remain steady’. The other big problem is that the number of books in the public library collection is declining year on year and many libraries around the country have been subjected to reduced opening hours, just when the public have grown to expect a 24 hour service from other facilities.

libraryBut I have a terrible feeling that local councils, desperate to claw back some money on their overstretched budgets, will use the Government survey as an excuse to axe a number of libraries across the country. One estimate is that between 800 and 1000 libraries are at risk – that is approaching a quarter of the country’s libraries.

We all saw what happened to our local Post Offices when we sat back and left it to the Government to sort out. Rustington used to have a modern, well designed Post Office that was heavily used by the community. These days, the town’s Post Office is crammed in the back of a local shop. Queues often stretch out of the door and while shuffling around the aisles, jostled by shoppers, I reflect bitterly that I should have made more of a fuss when the apparently reasonable alternatives were being proposed – which at the time did not include our current grim reality. I’m not making the same mistake, twice.

I believe that if we want to hang onto our public library network, we’ll have to fight for it. The first step is to understand that the Government will look the other way in the name of ‘progress’ when local councils propose slashing the service. These heavily massaged figures are the start of a Government initiative to talk our library service into the ground.

Mr Vaizey more or less admitted it, when he said, “A strong library service, based around the needs of local people, can play a key role in our ambitions to build the Big Society by providing safe and inclusive spaces for people to read, learn and access a range of community services.”  Er. We’ve got ‘safe and inclusive spaces for people to read, learn… blah, blah,’ Unless, of course, he means safe, cheap and inclusive spaces. In which case, in the Big Society we are all learning to dread, you might find yourself dodging supermarket trolleys as you look for the latest good read…

What They HAVEN’T Told You About Our Public Libraries…

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Cash-strapped councils around the country must have thought Christmas had come, when a Government report was published earlier this week. This story broke with headlines such as:
‘The number of adults visiting libraries in England has fallen steadily over the last five years…

The same article later went on to say:
The number of weekly library goers in England has gone down by 32% in 5 years. More than 60% of us have not stepped foot inside a library in the last year.’ (BBC News Website, 24th August 2010)

The survey published by the Department of Culture, Media and Sports paints a depressing picture of a steady decline in library use, although it did concede that the figures for children’s attendance had remained constant during the same period. Ed Vaizey, the Culture Minister, has been making concerned noises about the state of the library service since he took over the post, and in response to the Survey asked for people to think “imaginatively about where libraries could be”…

If that isn’t an open invitation for councils to forge ahead with a series of closures, then I’m a monkey’s uncle. After all, the Government’s figures prove that public libraries are an increasing irrelevance, don’t they? Stacked up against other tough decisions hard-pressed councils face, closing down your local library, shunting some of the stock and a few computers into the corner of a local Tesco will be a really soft option. Particularly because by the time they’ve done it, we’ll all be convinced that despite the fact that we miss our local library and its wide range of services, we’re the exception because everyone knows the public library service is a dwindling, broken thing. But before you shrug your shoulders helplessly and mutter about how modern life no longer seems to value the institutions that have defined our country for generations – such as a nationwide network of free lending libraries – take a look at ANOTHER set of statistics I’ve unearthed. This lot come from the LISU, a research and information centre for library and information services.

First of all, apologies for the BIG numbers. We are talking hundreds of millions, here. So if you were under the impression it’s just you and your Uncle Albert who still are quaintly old fashioned enough to regularly use your library, I’m sorry to burst your bubble – there’s more of us than you have been led to believe.

In 2008/09, there were 324,991,354 visits to libraries. Ah, you’re saying—there’s a bunch of libraries in colleges, universities and the odd private collection dotted around the country, she’s added those to the mix, to big up the numbers. Nope. That’s another set of numbers. These are just the visits to public libraries, like the one you currently have in your neighbourhood. So much for an increasing irrelevance… What is undeniable, is that the number of visits have been steadily dropping for the last five years. Hm. About that five year thing… The Government used percentages in their press release about their survey, rather than raw figures, I noticed.

But the numbers fluctuate more than you’d think from that press release. Just take look at the table below:

Table showing numbers of visits to public libraries

2000/01 2001/02 2002/03 2003/04 2004//05 2005/06 2006/07 2007/08 2008/09
*323,916 318,155 323,042 336,951 336,984 342,168 337,316 328,485 324,991

*Please add 000 to each figure, which I’ve rounded to the nearest thousand.

As you can see, although there has been a decline since 2005, there have been times when the numbers of library visits were below last year’s figure, while the highest number of visits were in 2005. Suddenly all those statistics, giving the percentage drop from 2005 to last year, make horrible sense. I believe there is a concerted campaign going on to convince us that our libraries are an outmoded, irrelevant part of our lives and need to be changed – ‘reshaped’ was the word that Mr Vaizey used. Or is it a massive coincidence that the Government survey used that 2005 spike, which just happen to emphasise the percentage decrease in numbers of visits?

The other little nugget of information I uncovered while scrolling through the LISU site, was tucked away under Other Services, – the number of visits to the public library website. I use this constantly to order books not available at my local branch, which cuts down the amount time I spend physically browsing in the library. Surely, I cannot be the only person whose visits to the library have lessened as the online facility has become more reliable? In 2006-07, the library website received approximately 64 million visits and last year that number had increased to around 113 million visits. And the ‘golden’ year of 2005? There are no available figures. So last year, if you add the virtual visits to the physical ones, you get over 437 million visits to our local libraries – an overall increase that makes the concern generated about our ‘failing’ library service look far less plausible.

libraryI’m not going to gloss over the problems – the number of adults who use public libraries is steadily dropping, while the number of children is rising, slowly and steadily, according to LISU figures. Which is another interesting variation from the Government survey, which claims that children’s visitor numbers ‘remain steady’. The other big problem is that the number of books in the public library collection is declining year on year and many libraries around the country have been subjected to reduced opening hours, just when the public have grown to expect a 24 hour service from other facilities.

But I have a terrible feeling that local councils, desperate to claw back some money on their overstretched budgets, will use the Government survey as an excuse to axe a number of libraries across the country. One estimate is that between 800 and 1000 libraries are at risk – that is approaching a quarter of the country’s libraries.

We all saw what happened to our local Post Offices when we sat back and left it to the Government to sort out. Rustington used to have a modern, well designed Post Office that was heavily used by the community. These days, the town’s Post Office is crammed in the back of a local shop. Queues often stretch out of the door and while shuffling around the aisles, jostled by shoppers, I reflect bitterly that I should have made more of a fuss when the apparently reasonable alternatives were being proposed – which at the time did not include our current grim reality. I’m not making the same mistake, twice.

I believe that if we want to hang onto our public library network, we’ll have to fight for it. The first step is to understand that the Government will look the other way in the name of ‘progress’ when local councils propose slashing the service. These heavily massaged figures are the start of a Government initiative to talk our library service into the ground.

Mr Vaizey more or less admitted it, when he said, “A strong library service, based around the needs of local people, can play a key role in our ambitions to build the Big Society by providing safe and inclusive spaces for people to read, learn and access a range of community services.”  Er. We’ve got ‘safe and inclusive spaces for people to read, learn… blah, blah,’ Unless, of course, he means safe, cheap and inclusive spaces. In which case, in the Big Society we are all learning to dread, you might find yourself dodging supermarket trolleys as you look for the latest good read…