education

A love affair with libraries

Libraries are in the news a lot lately, rarely for the right reasons, though the Liverpool branches reprieve this week was a moment for celebration. Belatedly (though not too late, I hope) the Great British Public are remembering why they love libraries so much, and telling anyone who’ll listen. BBC 6Music (my station of choice, at least in rooms where Planet Rock reception is bad) are in the middle of a fortnight of library celebration, not all to do with borrowing albums. The Guardian are promoting the love letters to libraries campaign from Book Week Scotland. Regular visitors will recall that I’m quite fond of libraries, often have to be dragged away from them (this morning, for instance) or overload myself with books. Thus, while I’m not about to write a love letter as such (far too uptightly English for that) I will share some of my library experiences, in the hope that some of you out there might share back.

In the dim past that was the 1980s I vaguely remember a basement children’s library. I remember wooden cubes full of large-format books you could flick through, and my dad’s legs towering above me in corduroy. I remember Big Brother in the record department at Bradford City Library in his parka, and the LPs he’d borrow and carefully take home in the library-issue carrier bag (which finally broke in about 1996). There were the walks to the local library with my grandad (never without a stack of library books in the house) and the friendly librarian at Cockermouth (a library I spent many a Saturday morning in, from early childhood to leaving home). I first read Anne of Green Gables from Cockermouth library, and Raffles and Maigret. Later on I borrowed Aerosmith and Alice Cooper tapes, Terry Pratchett’s early Discworld novels, and chocolate-themed baking books I never seemed to bake anything from.

Through the 1990s I stopped joining libraries but still made plenty of use of them. My dad borrowed Little Angels and Metallica CDs on my behalf in his lunch-hour (yes, Metallica – this is the beauty of libraries, you can try things without blowing all your pocket money), OneMonkey borrowed my choices from the fabulous Newcastle Central Library (not as fabulous last time I went, most of the books seemed to be missing). When my parents moved to a North Yorkshire village while I was at university, Big Brother and I would take my dad’s library tickets (still the brown card pouches – technology arrived there rather slowly) up the main street to the tiny library in the holidays and load up for our reading and listening pleasure.

Come the new decade I was in Scotland, loving the old-fashioned grandeur of Edinburgh Central Library and marvelling at the Carnegie library in his home town of Dunfermline, with stock a much bigger town would be proud of. OneMonkey and I somehow borrowed an AC/DC boxed set for the cost of borrowing a single CD, and went mad at a library book sale where we filled a couple of cardboard boxes for The Nephew (still in single figures at the time). By the turn of the following decade I wasn’t far from where I’d started out and I’m still using the local library constantly. I even borrowed the books I reviewed for the Ilkley Literature Festival this year from there.

I haven’t mentioned all the university libraries I’ve been in, the school library friend T and I spent our lunchtimes in (much more civilised than having to hang around outdoors in the drizzle), Bradford Local Studies Library or the decorative tiles in Leeds. I could go on for hours (pages) more but I’ll spare you. Instead I’ll make a cup of tea and wallow in warm memories of libraries I have loved; I can only recommend that you do the same, and if you can’t think of any you need to go find yourself a good library, fast.

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MOOCs and my continuing education in writing

I’ve mentioned MOOCs (massive open online courses) here before and just to prove I do listen to myself occasionally, I’ve now followed that up with a short essay, MOOCs, a piece of the higher education jigsaw as my entry to this year’s NUHA foundation blogging prize. The NUHA foundation being an education and development NGO, all the essay titles were kind of education-related (one of my favourite topics) so I couldn’t resist entering.

Apparently, part of the voting comes from how much comment and debate the essay sparks off so if you feel like participating in the conversation, you know where to find it…

What are libraries for, anyway?

I find it hard to resist a library, even one I’m not a member of – they might have a particularly inspiring reading room, some fabulous old books to flick through, or even (whisper this when OneMonkey isn’t listening) a couple of shelves they’re selling off for 20p a paperback. Love books, love libraries – that’s the way it goes. Or so I always thought. Lately, though, I seem to have read articles, listened to radio programmes, filled in council surveys and signed petitions that imply a strenuous defence of libraries is underway. How sad that we need to defend libraries. And that reading seems to have become synonymous (in the media at least) with buying books.

Last week OneMonkey drew my attention to this Forbes article: Close the libraries and buy everyone an Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscription. The author points out he’s not being wholly serious, but unfortunately policy-makers might skim over that sentence in the rush to implement his ideas as they try to pacify some of the people they’ve riled by closing down so many libraries (The Librarian, for instance, now in a precarious employment situation as well as having her principles trampled on). The idea being that it would be nearly as cheap to pay for a subscription to one company’s currently available ebook list as it would to fund libraries in their current form. And libraries are only about reading books, aren’t they?

Despite more years at university than any sane person would submit to, I’ve had a couple of fairly long stints of unemployment. As I’m sure is the case for many other people who are time-rich and cash-poor (pensioners, for instance), local libraries were invaluable during those times, even when they were only open a few half-days a week. Particularly when I was 21 and skint, buying more than the occasional second-hand book was out of the question, so obviously the local library supplied my reading material but that wasn’t the whole story. There were newspapers and magazines for information, entertainment and job adverts. There was a heated reading room that saved me having to run up a heating bill at home (or have the lights on through a winter afternoon), computers with printers and free internet access.

Going to the library can give you a routine, a reason to leave the house, someone to speak to (of course the Post Office used to do that as well, but they’ve closed most of them down already). They host story time, reading groups, family history workshops, activities to get older children reading a bit over the long summer holiday. They provide council services, from extra garden waste bags to housing advice. Our local GP sends people along the road to the library to access a Reading Well shelf, full of books on how to stop smoking, conquer panic attacks and the like. Oh but those are books again, you could just get those on the Kindle. Assuming they stocked them, and weren’t having a dispute with the publisher at the time.

Leaving aside the fast pace of technology rendering all this investment obsolete in a few years (and who’s buying the hardware, anyway?) and the lack of provision for the poor and the lonely this new arrangement would bring about, what about the serendipity of libraries? Old or locally-relevant curiosities, yes, but also I defy anyone to be as truly random in picking a book online as they can be in a library. You turned left instead of right at the photocopier and you’re in an aisle you didn’t mean to go down, then a book title catches your eye and grabs your interest. I can’t be the only person that happens to, nor can I be the only person who picks up books because of the font, the colours, or because the author with a name nearby in the alphabet wasn’t available. Everyone needs a bit of randomness in their life, and a book you can take home for free is probably one of the least dangerous ways you can get it.

Libraries are important, as repositories of knowledge and champions of ideas, the stirrers of young imaginations, and I don’t know what else. Love learning, love libraries? Love communities, love libraries? The idea of what libraries are for is just as vague (but just as important to think about, and get right) as the idea of what universities are for. And you don’t want to get me started on that.

MOOCs, autodidacts and organisation

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned I’d signed up for a free online university course. I’ve now done the first week’s work, haven’t touched the second yet despite it being available since Monday (I need to get more organised. Again) and I’m enjoying it so far. It’s what’s known as a MOOC (massive open online course) and is an introduction to forensic science, partly chosen because I thought it might be useful for crime-writing – apparently I’m not the only one, as the MOOC Twitter feed claims well-known crime author Stuart MacBride has also signed up for it (Stuart MacBride is one of those authors whose name seems to crop up everywhere but I’ve never actually read any of his stuff. I’m back on James Ellroy at the moment – White Jazz, not quite as gruesome as The Big Nowhere but neither is it as compellingly written and I keep coming close to putting it aside and moving on to something more pleasant).

Regular readers will perhaps recall that I’m a fan of lifelong learning, autodidacts, and acquiring knowledge with no immediate purpose other than to entertain or broaden the mind. So, while the MOOC was partly about adding flavour to crime-writing it was also largely about doing a MOOC to see what they’re all about. As the name suggests these courses are open i.e. free (and often with no prerequisites), and they’re online so it doesn’t matter if you can’t make a regular commitment on a Tuesday afternoon, or don’t live near a good bus route, you can do the lot in your own home (or the local library if you’re lucky enough to still have one) whenever it’s convenient.

Coincidentally, this week The Guardian has begun a series on MOOCs, trying to get to the bottom of what and who they’re for. Some people seem to think MOOCs herald the end of universities as we know them, or at least will be a game-changer. Personally, I’m not so sure they’re even direct competition, certainly not to undergraduate degrees. It strikes me that at least at the moment, when most of the open courses aren’t credit-bearing, what they’re actually replacing is all that recreational education that FE colleges ran out of funding for, or that’s being squeezed out of university lifelong learning departments in favour of access courses (stepping stones for mature students to go do a degree). With all the recent arguments about tuition fees seeming to revolve around the idea that universities are some kind of employment training centre conveying no benefits other than the increased likelihood of a well-paid job, I think we need MOOCs in a big way. You might want to check them out while they’re still free.

Cheap editions and the end of perpetual copyright in 1774

I am a writer, but I’m also a socialist and as such a great advocate of universal education to as high a level and in whatever form possible. Perpetual copyright, while ensuring that you and your descendants retain control of your work in perpetuity (and of course continue to rake in the royalties), precludes the kind of cheap editions that allow someone on low pay to read freely and, by extension, educate themselves outside of school. In 1774 when perpetual copyright ended in Britain there wasn’t a network of free lending libraries in every town (of course, that’s ceasing to be the case now, but that’s another story) and for a worker to read a book, they or one of their circle had to have bought it.  The cheap editions of older works that were suddenly possible due to the change in copyright law allowed that to happen.

When I was in my teens, the Wordsworth Classics range was launched: a pound for works of Dickens, Tolstoy, and a host of other, mainly 19th century, authors. At the time I’m sure I could have borrowed any of them from the library but for less than the cost of a return bus fare into town I could have my own copy to keep coming back to. Most of them still grace my shelves. The paper may have been thin and the spines plain grey but the words inside were the same as if I’d inherited a copy with a tooled leather binding. Back in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries that revolutionary cheapening of old books would, if any formally educated man was willing to engage, have enabled me to debate those contents with my supposed betters. It would have let me creep into the citadel of learning.

The Uses of Literacy, by Richard Hoggart

In the early 1950s, 30-year-old university lecturer Richard Hoggart (father of Simon, brilliant political sketch-writer from The Guardian) started writing a book rooted in his ‘northern urban working-class’ childhood (in Leeds), that he thought about calling The Abuses of Literacy. He changed it to The Uses of Literacy so as to sound less confrontational, and had to change parts of the contents so as to avoid possible libel charges. However, the result was published in 1957 and 54 years later I read it, appreciated it, and marvelled at how much is still relevant.

I was wary of mentioning it on my blog because part of me doesn’t want anyone to read it – then I figured I don’t have much influence and few people would find it an interesting topic for their leisure hours so I needn’t worry about a stampede. The reason for my mixed feelings is that in the wrong hands (i.e. those of anyone not born into northern working-class families) it could become a kind of anthropological study of peculiar speech, attitudes and customs, a kind of sneering affirmation of superiority on the part of the reader. When I read it, I found myself thinking ‘that’s a bit harsh’ occasionally, then realising I’d said almost the same thing plenty of times myself, usually for OneMonkey to reply ‘that’s a bit harsh’ – but for me, as for Richard Hoggart, there’s a mixture of exasperation that comes from looking closely from the outside, and affection for and/or understanding of the relatives and family friends looking back.

Hoggart set out to write a textbook about mass culture, by which he seemed to mean newspapers (newly-sensationalised), magazines (with pin-ups and short attention-span), cheap paperbacks (badly-written and full of sex and violence) etc and the habit of reading among a class of people who had more education as a basic background than their predecessors, but didn’t appear to be much better off for it. He then wrote the first half of the book (a summing up of recent or current attitudes in the northern urban working classes) to set his ideas in context. He seems to wander off-topic a fair bit and I must admit I didn’t follow all of his arguments, which is due in part to some of the contemporary references. I can say now a Sun-reader, a Guardian-reader, and conjure up in my own and other (British) people’s minds an idea of the sort of background or attitude I mean by that (it will be stereotypical, and in many instances unfair, but it’s a handy shorthand and a useful generalisation in some contexts, including as advertising targets, which Hoggart also covers) – but I have no idea what The Listener was like or who it was aimed at, I know nothing about any of the radio programmes he mentions (TV hadn’t really taken off at the time) and even the distinction between types of paper-shop is lost on me. However, there is enough of endurance there that I get the general gist.

OneMonkey has noted how many conversations in the last couple of weeks I’ve chipped in with ‘it’s funny you should say that because in this Hoggart book…’ and I do find it fascinating (and also quite depressing) that so little has changed in some areas; in the introduction to the 2009 edition Lynsey Hanley (a politically informed writer a couple of years older than me) says ‘no reader two generations younger than Hoggart should gasp in recognition at his descriptions of growing up…Yet, despite the social and economic transformations that have taken place since its publication in 1957, there are thousands who do.’

Talking to OneMonkey about this book reminds me how different our views are on this kind of thing. OneMonkey sees the worth or value of culture as largely subjective (I’m not sure I agree, but I’d be hard pushed to say where worth lies – see my occasional disparaging comments on Dickens and Shakespeare), and if hard-working people with jobs that give them little satisfaction want to come home and read easy to digest escapism about sex and adventure, who am I to say that’s trash? Not everyone wants to read history textbooks for fun, or even multi-layered novels with complex characters. And anyway, some of the sci-fi and fantasy I read would be seen as trash by those with even greater intellectual snobbery than me. OneMonkey also argues, and here I do agree with him, that it’s not a class divide any more (if it ever was) – the middle classes watch X-Factor just as much as anyone else does, it’s just that they’re more likely to have some kind of hypocritical guilt going on. In the same way, they’re more likely to use the argument ‘at least I read’. Why is it intrinsically more worthy to read a cheap paperback romance than to watch with keen interest a BBC4 programme on human rights, for instance? They read, therefore they don’t have to examine their reading-material or opinions because they’re automatically better than you. Dangerous thinking.

Maybe what it comes down to is a misplaced emphasis, or one that’s no longer relevant. It’s thinking that matters (if, like Richard Hoggart and I, you think any of this matters), not reading, surely. If you never read a book or magazine from one year to the next, but listen to the radio, watch TV or discuss things with friends and colleagues and think matters through for yourself (even if you argue yourself round in the end to the position that everyone else you know holds) isn’t that better (by which I mean more indicative of some hope for humanity) than reading the papers every day, accepting what they say, and parrotting back their opinions when asked for your own (and I’m as guilty on occasion of quoting Private Eye or The Guardian as other people are of quoting papers I’m sniffy about)? Of course you may think that it doesn’t much matter either way, most people have no real say in major aspects of their lives, and deep thought and political awareness just lead to depression and a feeling of hopelessness. But if you’ve reached that position by weighing it all up for yourself, then we’re both happy. In a manner of speaking.

Historical education, a restrained rant

Reading Saville last week prompted me to dig out from the To Read cupboard a book I’d found in a charity shop a while ago and never got round to: Education and the Working Class by Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden. A 1960s book by former working class grammar school boys who’d moved on to academia, it’s a study of 88 working class pupils who passed A-levels at Huddersfield grammar schools a couple of years either side of 1950, assessing their passage through school to their various destinations and trying to make sense of why so many of their contemporaries fell by the wayside. Maybe it’s not everyone’s idea of an enjoyable book for the morning commute but I have Big Brother to thank for that (there’s a surprise) – 16 or so years ago I saw him with a copy of Friedrich Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England in his hand (which of course I later borrowed), went and read my dad’s copy of The Road to Wigan Pier, and that was that.

On a detached level as someone who’s interested in history, statistics and the West Riding of Yorkshire (so you can imagine what it’s like when they’re all together in one volume) it’s a very interesting book, raising as many questions as it answers (and it never pretends to answer many, I think the idea was to prompt people into further studies). Some of the attitudes and circumstances are recognisable from Saville, set in the educational background of the 40s, and some are still discernible in some of my contemporaries, educated in the late 80s and 90s. It’s depressing and frustrating to think that over those 50 years (and before and since) so much talent has been wasted (or conversely that so much mediocrity has been encouraged into high places by excessive coaching and the supportive wallet of a loving parent) and so many unnecessary obstacles created; one point that was noted was that middle class families in Huddersfield knew how to play the system and overcome bendable rules whereas the working class families often accepted any knockback as final.

Despite all the rhetoric, some things never change and educational opportunities in England are still not equal and universal. An article in Friday’s Guardian reported findings that state school pupils reaching university are slightly more likely to get a good degree than peers taking the same course but coming from a private education. Possible explanations are that the extra coaching and special treatment at school leave the privately-educated teenager less well equipped to deal with the realities of university, or that, to put it simply, if you’ve got to university without all the privileges of a private education you must be pretty clever. It’s all politicised, I know, and nothing is ever that simple, but amid all the current arguing over graduate tax, tuition fees and all the rest of it, it makes me want to either tear my hair out or send copies of books like the Jackson and Marsden one to all the squabbling politicians (not that they’d read it). The next book I dug out of the cupboard was The Rise and Decline of the English Working Classes 1918-1990 by Eric Hopkins; I must be in that sort of mood.