British Library, 19 November
Tonight, at the British Library the acclaimed author Jeanette Winterson, OBE gave the inaugural Reading Agency Lecture to mark the 10th anniversary of the independent charity, The Reading Agency. The annual lecture is a new initiative from The Reading Agency which aims to provide a platform for leading writers and thinkers to share original and challenging ideas about reading and libraries as we work out how to create a reading culture in a radically changed 21st century landscape.
The charity celebrated its achievements in the company of leading figures from libraries, the arts, education and the literary world, plus ambassadors and authors championing its work. Many of the UK's most celebrated authors including David Nicholls, Adhaf Soueif, Adele Parks, Peter James, Joanna Trollope and Sarah Waters attended the event.
Miranda McKearney, Founding Director of The Reading Agency said; "In our first 10 years working with public libraries, The Reading Agency has helped create 7 million reading opportunities through innovative programmes for children and adults such as the Summer Reading Challenge. Librarians across the country are at the heart of this work and continue to transform their reading services despite the harsh conditions they are facing in many places - they are doing pioneering, creative work. Children's book borrowing has risen for seven years running and exciting new digital approaches are being trialled.
"Today, we are delighted to announce new plans to create 10 million new opportunities for adults and children to engage with reading by 2017, through reading challenges, author events, volunteering and reading groups. If you struggle with reading you can't participate fully in education, employment, your community or in cultural life. You just don't have an equal chance in life. That's why The Reading Agency is passionately committed to our work with public libraries and doing all we can to support them in work under way to modernise and embrace the demand for digital services".
Jeanette Winterson delivered an impassioned lecture in support of literature, public libraries, librarians and the innovative work of The Reading Agency.
She called for society to value libraries and the life of the mind; "do you believe there is such a thing as the life of the mind - deep thought, concentration, reflection, real imagination - the expansion of the human spirit? Learning that is more than information? Creativity?
"If you do, then for whom? For the middle classes? For the right kids at the right schools? If you do, then when - when we are rich, powerful, wealthy? Or as a priority whatever we are?
"Don't hand kids over to computer games and wall to wall TV - bring them to books early and see what happens. Give them a library as good as anything Carnegie wanted, and see what happens. It is the best social experiment we could make".
She spoke about the need for librarians saying; "librarians love books. Librarians work in their community - they get to know people. That matters. People need people. Put informed inspired librarians into libraries and kids will have another teacher - one they can talk to about books. librarians love books so let them spread the love.
She called for funding support for public libraries saying; "But culture is not leisure - though you need leisure to pursue culture - and libraries are not leisure in the way that a sports centre is leisure. Libraries began with the highest purpose in mind - to educate through the agency of a book. To encourage wide reading, deep reading. The first public libraries were aspirational and proud."
"If we want libraries to take their place - I think their proper place in modern society - we can't make them compete with sports centres for resources... Libraries are doing more education work than ever. Libraries and literacy cannot be separated, I don't see how this can be classed as "leisure" nor do I see how we have a choice between getting our bins emptied and putting cash into libraries"
"We might save ourselves a lot of agony if we took libraries out of local council leisure budgets and put them into the national education budget - allocating a basic spending allowance for local authorities that they could not use for anything else - and allowing them to bid for extra funds on top of that basic spend - and those extra funds would be project based - perhaps for a brand new building or new services - like getting older people out of the house to a weekly bookclub in the library - where there is reading and conversation and a sense of purpose.
"Either we stop arguing and agree that libraries are doing their best to re-invent themselves, and that with a bit of help, financial and ideological - they belong to the future, or we let them run down until they disappear"
She continued by saying; "Who is going to pay for this new expanding network of libraries? These people's palaces of books where everyone can go from early in the morning until late at night?
"The money is there. Libraries cost about a billion a year to run right now. Make it 2 billion and charge Google, Amazon and Starbucks all that back tax on their profits here.
"Or if they want to go on paying fancy lawyers to legally avoid their moral duties, then perhaps those companies could do an Andrew Carnegie and build us new kinds of libraries for a new kind of future in a fairer and better world?"
And talking about how libraries are changing she said; "Don't put post offices into supermarkets - put them into libraries. Libraries need crèches - with books of course. Libraries with room could offer cheap office space to small local businesses. In larger towns libraries could help regenerate an area back from boarded up wastelands. If a lot of people are visiting a library, business will benefit from the footfall."
"And if you don't think this will work, if you think it's Utopian, remember that all of life is propositional - we make it up as we go along. We can change the rules because we make the rules. We can change the story because we are the story."
She praised the work The Reading Agency does with libraries, saying: "The charity partners with libraries across the UK to make reading fun, but in that serious way that books are fun. Reading becomes the right kind of challenge."
Janene Cox, President of the Society of Chief Librarians said: "Librarians are adapting fast, to ensure they continue to engage their communities in the powerful and creative experience that is reading. We derive a huge amount of support from The Reading Agency - its programmes help us to reach out to people in new ways, digitally and physically and save money by working together."
Mandy Pursey or Annabel Robinson at FMcM Associates
tel: 020 7 405 7422 email@example.com / firstname.lastname@example.org