I enjoyed growing up when books and libraries were treasured

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole.

I took assembly at my youngest daughter’s school this week to help celebrate World Book Day.

I printed off a few dozen large pictures of characters from children’s fiction and asked the 180 or so kids if they could name them.

We talked about the importance of reading and the simple pleasure of a good book.

Then I read a Horrid Henry story which had the four to seven-year-olds in hysterics and a chapter of a Famous Five novel which left the children desperate to learn what happened next to Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the dog.

It’s easy to understand why some kids these days don’t appreciate books – there’s simply so many other distractions.

Game consoles, computers, mobile telephones and umpteen television channels mean that the humble old book may seem a rather dull option.

This perhaps goes some way to explaining the poor literacy levels among pre-school and primary age children.

When I was growing up in the Eighties children’s television was in its infancy and so books were still a hugely important source of entertainment.

As a youngster I was incredibly proud of my collection of ‘fact books’ – Ladybird books on everything from birds of prey to kings and queens of England.

They’re now part of my daughters’ book collection – sitting alongside Horrible Histories.

When I reached high school I genuinely enjoyed my Saturday morning trips to Hanley Library where I would use the leather bound Encyclopaedia Britannica to research everything from the Treaty of Versailles to rise of Benito Mussolini.

But, for me, the real pleasure in books has always been through fiction.

The first book which really made an impression on me was Stig Of The Dump, by Clive King, which was actually written in the Sixties but was first adapted for television in 1981.

That’s when I and my classmates a whole generation of Eighties kids became enthralled by the tale of a boy who finds a caveman living in a rubbish tip.

Around the same time my friends and I were introduced to The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (Aged 13 and three quarters), by Sue Townsend, which became the best-selling British new fiction book of the decade.

It was funny, occasionally risque, and perfectly pitched at kids like me who were about to become teenagers and could empathise with the pathetic oik that was Adrian.

Roald Dahl was, of course, prolific during the Eighties and produced some of his best-loved works – including George’s Marvellous Medicine (1981), The BFG (1982) and Matilda (1988).

I read all of them but Charlie And The Chocolate Factory remains my favourite simply because I love the idea of the scrawny, poor but ultimately nice and polite kid finding the Golden Ticket.

As a dad with young children I’ve had cause in recent years to bump into two other beloved children’s characters from the Eighties – Spot the dog, created by Eric Hill, and Jill Murphy’s bear family – both of which were first published in 1980.

The simple narrative and beautiful illustrations are a real joy and they have become timeless classics which reinforce wholesome family values.

As an avid player of Dungeons and Dragons in my teens I was captivated by The Dragonlance Chronicles – first published in 1984 an written by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman – a sort of Lord of the Rings Trilogy for a new generation.

I’ve actually met Margaret twice since then and always say thank you. I even named by goldfish after one of the key characters.

These books eventually led me to my all-time favourite novel, first published in 1986 by English heroic fantasy author David Gemmell.

I’ve still got my original copy of Waylander – a tale about an assassin seeking redemption in a war-torn land – which was signed by David at a book store in Birmingham a couple of years before his untimely death.

As much as I appreciate what modern technology does for us I’m chuffed to have grown up in an age when books and libraries really were treasured.’

Pick up a copy of The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia.

We need public libraries in Stoke-on-Trent now more than ever

Amid the carnage of multi-million pound public sector austerity measures there are many decisions which make us sit up and think.

I’ve said before many times that I don’t envy the politicians who have to take the tough calls.

It’s a lose-lose situation for them because you can always make a case for not cutting service A or service B.

Ultimately, from the outside looking in, it comes down to personal preferences and vested interests as opposed to any kind of business case or footfall figures.

When city councillors were considering doing away with the Lord Mayor’s office that had yours truly in a lather.

Thankfully, common sense prevailed and we didn’t ditch the role of First Citizen.

As the dust begins to settle on the council’s enforced belt-tightening, I’ve become increasingly concerned about a perennial soft target.

Yesterday The Sentinel reported that funding for public libraries in Stoke-on-Trent has fallen by £700,000 in three years from £4.1m to £3.4m this year.

The libraries in Burslem and Fenton have closed and the number of librarians has been reduced from 16 to just nine.

Why should we care? Libraries are hardly saving lives or providing a vital service, some might argue.

Wrong.

They say you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone and, in the case of public libraries, I believe we have reached a tipping point.

After years of under-funding and successive regimes of councillors taking the view that a little trimming of this non-essential service won’t hurt, libraries in the city are barely able to function.

Opening hours have been slashed, staff numbers dramatically reduced and – perhaps worst of all – there seems no cohesive plan for the future of the ones that are still open.

The best assurance we can glean from council is that no further cutbacks are planned. Presumably, until the next round, that is.

I’m not saying libraries don’t have their problems.

Like the industry I work in, you could argue they have been slow to adapt to changing habits and struggled to cope with the advent of the internet.

Yes, books are cheaper than ever. Yes, many people read books using little hand-held computers which download new titles.

Yes, many people have access to the internet in their own homes or at work or school so no longer require a traditional reference library.

Yes, user-numbers are down because these facilities have yet to redefine themselves in the digital age.

However, at their heart, public libraries offer something unique which we should treasure and nurture.

They are part of the glue that binds our communities together – offering learning and social experiences to all, irrespective of background or circumstance.

This isn’t me harking back to the days when I used to walk from Sneyd Green up to the reference library at Hanley to use the Encyclopaedia Britannica for my high school history homework.

This is me arguing that, at a time when standards of literacy in our city are perilously low and our multi-cultural communities are struggling to integrate and communicate, libraries are still immensely important and relevant.

Not every child will have safe, supervised access to the internet at home. Not every child has a book case that is refreshed regularly. Not every child will go to sleep with their heads filled with bedtime stories read by their parents to help shape their dreams.

Libraries can help to fill these voids and prevent the creation of more video game and television zombies.

Ever heard of ‘baby bounce’? It’s something sleep-deprived parents take their little ’uns to on a wet week-day morning.

It gets them out of the house and introduces children to the fun of nursery rhymes, songs, bouncing games and simple musical instruments.

For a baby or toddler it is enormously entertaining and, crucially, educational – while for parents buckling under the relentless pressure of a small child it offers cups of tea and some sympathy in adversity.

I can tell you, as a dad, that such sessions remind you that those days of your child’s life are golden and fleeting.

All that said, it is worth saying that libraries offer ‘baby bounce’. Along with wonderful story-telling sessions, themed weeks, game days, knit and natter sessions – the list goes on.

This is because libraries are, and should be, far more than just big buildings full of old books.

They are creative focal points and meeting places in neighbourhoods that have lost community centres, post offices and pubs.

Libraries are places where friendships are made, skills are acquired and learning is, quite genuinely, a fun experience.

Rich or poor, bereft of inspiration or aspiration, you can wander in and use or borrow books, music or films that will entertain you. You can meet people and take away ideas for life.

This is a luxury we should never take for granted in the age of subscriptions and pay-per view entertainment.

It is time we stopped butchering our libraries and put together a strategy to expand and develop the services they offer to make them even more relevant to diverse communities who, perhaps, have never needed them more.

The best things in life are free, we are told.

While libraries may cost taxpayers a tiny sum each year, as a society we are infinitely richer for the presence of these free, cultural temples.

Long may this remain the case.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

We would be all the poorer without libraries

BETWEEN the ages of 14 and 16, every Saturday morning I would walk the mile or so from my house in Sneyd Green to the city centre with a rucksack slung over my shoulder.
My destination was Hanley Library and I didn’t mind the trek because I was on a homework mission.
Geoff Ball, that most charismatic and engaging of history teachers at Holden Lane High, would ask my class to find out everything we could about a certain historical figure.
So it was upstairs to the reference library I would head in search of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
I can still recall the smell of those black, leather-bound tomes.
I’ve always been a bookworm which is why I loved the library. I wasn’t interested in borrowing videos, records or those new-fangled CDs. I was there for the books.
I vividly recall swotting up on Il Duce – Benito Mussolini – and the ensuing pride at my pencil sketch of the Italian dictator.
This was, of course, the mid Eighties – otherwise known, children, as before the internet.
If you wanted to find something out you didn’t type it into a search engine, you went and looked it up in a book.
You see, as much as I enjoy the benefits of the digital age, I have to say I’m still a terrible snob when it comes to the written word.
I’ll defend books, and libraries, to the death and when I read about the closure of these bastions of learning as part of council cutbacks I can’t help but feel incredibly sad and worried for the future.
There’s something about having a library card and visiting a place dedicated to knowledge.
You see, despite what successive governments have been telling us, no-one can convince me that standards of literacy are going up year-on-year.
I think the truth is that so much emphasis these days is placed on computer-based learning that generations of children are growing up without a love or appreciation of books which I think is a crying shame. And, at the risk of sounding like some dinosaur, give me a good book any day of the week – something I can hold in my hand – as opposed to a screen to stare at.
I visit schools to be shown the wonderful LRCs (learning resource centres) filled with lap top computers – and then despair at the fact that I have a bigger library of actual books upstairs at home.
On Sunday morning I sat with my eldest daughter Lois, who is six, and watched open-mouthed as she navigated her way around her school’s website – or ‘virtual learning environment’.
Now I don’t mind her spending a little time on a PC because Lois loves real books. We’ve read to her every night since she was six months old and she’s never without a Meg and Mog story, a Horrid Henry book or something by Julia Donaldson.
She’s also got a complete children’s encyclopedia which she’s now using every week to help her to get more out of the different topics at school.
I know that she’ll grow up with a love of books akin to my own but I wonder how many other children – shoved in front of a telly, wired into a games console or glued to a computer screen for hours on end will be as fortunate.
Yes, I understand full well that the ability to rip stuff off the internet is an essential tool for school children and students these days.
But I fear that this aversion to books is genuinely damaging.
Critics argue that libraries have failed to adapt to changing times and fashions.
They say, with some justification, that learning habits have changed, that books, music and DVDs are cheap to buy and that information is readily available via the worldwide web.
In other words – libraries as we know them, the libraries that I grew up with, are past their sell-by date.
Wrong. Anyone who has ever visited a library and watched a children’s story session knows what a magic libraries can weave.
Anyone who, like me, spent a little time at a library on World Book Night understands the key role these places have – the way in which they can bring people together through literature and the arts.
They may have to evolve further and offer other local authority services but I feel very strongly that libraries are crucial to our communities and that we would be all the poorer without them.