I am back – though very few will know that I have been away. I have just completed a cycle ride that has taken me from Edinburgh to Valence in the south of France. There were two of us on this adventure, both of us librarians. You might expect us to have gone laden with books. Far from it – we had no room for anything but the most basic change of clothes, and a Kindle. Yes, we did take books in their electronic format, though not a great deal of reading was done. However, we kept our eyes open for libraries and bookshops on the way. Sadly, the only library we tried to visit in the UK was closed – its opening hours were limited to the afternoon, and we arrived looking for maps in the morning.
Our route took us to Paris to spend the night with friends in Montreuil. Here we visited a new bookshop for children, Des Rires et Des Livres. It was tiny but full of goodies ranging from board books to YA, together with cards, games, umbrellas and colouring books. What was striking was the number of titles – especially for teens – that we knew because they were by British or American authors. While in this country we are faced with a paucity of translated books, in France there appeared to be more translated books than those by native writers. Marion, the owner of this enchanting shop, confirmed this. While, I am delighted that French children can meet some of our brilliant authors, I am concerned if this means indigenous authors are less likely to be published. –Varied books which cross boundaries and borders – this is what we should all find in our bookshops and libraries.
As we rode through France, there were signs to the local bibliothèque in many of the towns and villages, but we did not want to stop en route and we usually arrived too late at our destinations to explore. So when we reached our final stop, Valence, we took the opportunity to visit the central library, called the Médiathèque. I was struck by the similarity with the Idea Store library of Tower Hamlets, among others. There was an immediate impression of liveliness and a variety of spaces where people could study, sit, talk quietly – there were no loud noises. Books filled the shelves, and there was an extensive music library, which even had a collection of albums on vinyl. There were DVDs, magazines of all kinds from the serious to the flippant, a separate children’s library with two storytelling rooms – and staff. The layout of the building meant that there were staffed desks everywhere – what a luxury! We were shown round by Catherine Damiron-Fouilland who is in charge of adult lending stock and cultural activities. The Médiathèque is part of a group of libraries – there are 14 serving the south of the Drôme and this one is the biggest – and is run jointly by the municipality and the university. Membership guarantees access to all 14 libraries. The subscription is a modest 10E a year, but for those who cannot afford it the fee is waived; for those living outside the administrative boundaries, it is 20E.
Looking at the shelves, the range of stock and the staffing it is tempting to see this as a very possible and attractive model. However, any subscription is a barrier and prevents people from joining. The principle, established in this country over 150+ years, is that public libraries should provide free access to books, ideas, opinions, dreams and knowledge, and it needs to be fought for; it is crucially important. Every child should be able to learn, find out and develop an opinion without the intervention of adults.
There was food for thought in our visit – and food for thought on our return in time for the announcement of the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Awards. What a celebration of diversity, innovation and the strength of traditional skills! The ceremony also saw the first CILIP Amnesty Honour Books announced. Huge congratulations to all the winners for books that will reach many different readers inspiring them in many different ways. These are books to get readers talking – they are books that have no boundaries.