Monday, 31 October 2016

I am not the sort of person that goes on demonstrations

Like Father Ted, I’m not a natural-born demonstrator.

I am not the sort of person that goes on demonstrations.

There are things that I care deeply about, but I am a writer and when I want to persuade people of something I usually try to do it by writing. I write blogs, articles, tweets and Facebook posts. I write emails to individuals, companies and organisations. I write to my council, I write to my MP. I also talk to people and try to persuade them at meetings and conferences, or on a one-to-one basis, in person or over the phone. And sometimes – if I care particularly deeply about something – I might get together with other like-minded people to organise a campaign, but even this is conducted in a relatively sedentary fashion.

What I absolutely DO NOT DO is march around shouting and waving placards …

… until now.

I will be going on next Saturday’s National Libraries Museums and Galleries Demonstration.

Although I care about museums and galleries, my main motivation for breaking the habit of a lifetime is the despair I feel about what is happening to the UK public library service. 343 public libraries have been shut down since 2010 and 600 more have lost all their staff and are now volunteer-run. And this cultural vandalism is ongoing. This month two of Birmingham’s libraries were ear-marked for closure, including Sutton Coldfield Library, the fifth most used in the city.

I’ve tried writing, I’ve tried talking, I’ve signed petitions and submitted carefully-worded arguments to public consultations, but it does not seem to make any difference. So I am going to try going on a demonstration instead.

As a children’s author, I’m particularly concerned about the devastating effect that library closures will have on children’s literacy and, by extension, children’s life chances. The current government’s willingness to stand by and let local councils lay waste to their library services represents a catastrophic failure of joined-up-thinking.

"The current government’s willingness to stand by and let local councils lay waste to their library services represents a catastrophic failure of joined-up-thinking"
Research has found that children that read for pleasure do better in maths, vocabulary and spelling than those who rarely read and they gain advantages that last their whole lives. Children have widely differing tastes, so the more books a child can get their hands on, the more likely they are to find books that they will enjoy reading. The best way for a child to get easy access to lots of books – and usually the ONLY way for children in low income families – is through a local library.

The current government appears to understand this. Last year the then Education Secretary Nicky Morgan announced a “national mission” to improve the literacy levels of young children by ensuring that every child in the country is enrolled in their local library by the age of eight. Here’s what she said at the time:
“This is a question of social justice. People with strong reading skills are overwhelmingly more likely to succeed at school, achieve good qualifications, and find a rewarding and enjoyable career. They are even more likely to enjoy good health. By contrast, those who don’t master reading in school suffer the consequences for the rest of their lives, where they may struggle to get good jobs or achieve their full potential. 
“No matter where they live or what their background, every single child in this country deserves the opportunity to read, to read widely, and to read well.”
100% library enrolment by the age of eight is a laudable aim. However 100% enrolment will be entirely pointless if it does not translate to each child visiting a library on a regular basis. For younger children, library visits need adult accompaniment. If the library is near to their primary school then the school might organise regular library visits (as is the case with my local primary school). However if their local library is not within walking distance and their family don’t have a car or money for public transport AND a parent or carer that has both the time and inclination to take them, then they will not have access to a library. Sadly this is already the reality for a great many children and – thanks to library closures – the number is increasing rapidly.

Mobile library services are also being devastated. 
According to the Education Secretary's statement, the government believes that every child “no matter where they live” should have access to a library. Of course it’s not always practical or cost effective for every child to have a bricks and mortar library building within walking distance. Fortunately there is already a solution to this in the form of mobile libraries, an essential service for many rural communities. Unfortunately mobile library services are being cut just as savagely as bricks and mortar libraries; Derbyshire Library Service has had to take nine of their mobile libraries off the road in the last few years.

To make what is perhaps a more contentious point, I think the dismantling of council-run Local Education Authorities (LEAs) by successive Labour and Tory Governments in favour of independently-managed free schools and academies has removed a huge incentive that councils used to have for maintaining a decent library service. Given the link between library access and educational attainment, a council that ran both libraries and schools would be far less likely to close libraries as that same council would be held responsible for the resulting lack of educational attainment in its schools. I think the academisation of the UK school system represents yet another catastrophic failure of joined-up-thinking – but that topic deserves a post of its own.

Libraries will have to evolve.
The Hive combines a university library with a public library
I don’t regard libraries as untouchable. I accept that they need to change and evolve. CIPFA figures show that while the number of UK adults borrowing books is on the decline, the number of children’s loans is holding steady. In view of this, I think there is a case to be made for libraries becoming more family-focussed with other family-related facilities such as health and social services being offered under the same roof as part of a community family centre. Libraries could also integrate with other services in other ways. My local library service in Nottinghamshire has recently become part of a Inspire, a county-wide “Community Benefit Society” with a remit that also covers the arts, music and the county archives. And Worcestershire’s County Library Service has got together with the University of Worcester to create The Hive, the first library in Europe to house both a university book collection and a public lending library.

"If we are to achieve the government’s stated aim of giving every child in this country “the opportunity to read, to read widely, and to read well”, then we need a library of some sort in every community"
If we are to achieve the government’s stated aim of giving every child in this country “the opportunity to read, to read widely, and to read well”, then we need a library of some sort in every community, staffed by professional librarians with an extensive knowledge of reading material, so that they can connect readers, young and old, with books that they will want to read.

If library closures are not stopped and reversed we have ABSOLUTELY NO CHANCE of achieving this aim. I hope that this Saturday’s demonstration will make some sort of a difference and I’d like to think that, in a democracy, the more people that take part, the more likely the government are to take notice. So, if you or your family have ever benefitted from a local library and you can get to London this Saturday, please come along and show your support.

I am not the sort of person that goes on demonstrations – but I’ll be going on this one.

I expect I’ll be doing a bit of marching around and shouting and – if anybody has a spare placard – I’ll be happy to wave it.

The demonstration will start outside the British Library on Saturday 5th November at 12 noon. You can find more information at:


Sunday, 23 October 2016

Making an Impossible Bookshelf

One of my hobbies is making unusual furniture. The largest piece I've made is this Dr-Seuss-inspired playroom cupboard below.

Our playroom cupboard, which has a two dens built into it, one in each of the top corners.
The left-hand den is accessed via a ladder and trapdoor behind the left-hand doors.

As you can see, one of the cupboard's less playful functions is as a bookcase. The problem is, like most book-lovers, it didn't take long before it was full to overflowing and we needed somewhere else to put the surplus books.

The only wall-space that was free in playroom was above the arched doorway next to the cupboard. I thought about extending the cupboard over the arch, but decided I couldn't do that without the extension looking like an ugly bolt-on, so I played around with a few other ideas. 

I liked the idea of doing a bookshelf that followed the archway below it, so I googled a few photos of arches for inspiration. I've alway been impressed by the simple elegance of self-supporting stone arches like the one shown below and they provided the inspiration I was looking for.

I decided to make a bookshelf in which books fanned out like the voussoirs (the wedge-shaped stones) that make up a stone arch. Here's what I came up with.

There were a couple of problems that had to be overcome. Books are not wedge-shaped, so they will not fan out neatly into an arch like voussoirs do without some help. And I needed to find a way to stop all the books in the middle of the shelf from sliding down to the sides if someone took a book out from one of the ends.

I realised I could solve both problems by fixing angled bookends at regular intervals along the shelf. However, rather than spoil the impression that the arch was entirely made from books, I disguised the bookends to look like dummy books.

The real books are held in an arch-like fan by dummy books that are part of the shelf.

Rather than use real book and author names for the dummy books, I decided to have some fun and came up with a list of book titles with punning author names like Art is Rubbish by Phyllis Stein (Phyllis Stein - philistine - geddit!).

The dummy books all have punning author names.

Most of the dummy books would be sandwiched between real books, so I only designed the spines. However the front and back of the two on either end of the shelf, which appear to hang off at impossible angles, are visible, so I designed whole covers for these.

I designed whole cover for the two dummy books at either end of the shelf.

I even wrote some blurb for the back covers!

In case you want to have a go at making your own impossible bookshelf, here's a quick run through of how I made it.

I measured the existing arch to work out the radius I would need. Then I made a card template for the backboard of the bookcase,and stuck this to the wall with Blu-tack to check that it looked right on the wall.

I used the template to mark out a cutting outline on a piece of 12mm thick MDF board and cut out the outline with a jigsaw. Then I drilled in 5 holes (to allow the shelf to be screwed to the wall) and routed in a series of grooves into which the other pieces of the bookshelf would be slotted: ten short straight grooves for the dummy books and one long curved groove for the shelf piece.

WARNING: If you are cutting, drilling, routing or sanding MDF,  you should wear a breath mask to avoid breathing in the sawdust.

The drilled and routed MDF backboard

The shelf-piece is made from two layers of 6mm thick flexible MDF. This is ribbed on one side to allow you to bend it. I cut a couple of pieces to the right size (I could not get a single piece long enough) and then glued these, with the smooth side upwards, into the long curved slot using PVA wood glue. 

Flexible MDF is ribbed on one side to allow it bend.

I cut some 9mm thick MDF into rectangles to make the dummy books and then glued these into the other slots and to the shelf piece. I also hammered some panel pins though the underside of the shelf-piece into the base of the dummy books to make them extra secure.

The base board with the dummy books and shelf-piece in place.

One layer of flexible MDF is not stiff enough to use on its own, so I cut a second layer and used some PVA glue, applied with a small paint roller, to sandwhich it to the bottom of the first layer. The smooth side needs to faces downwards on this second layer, so that you have a smooth face on the bottom of the shelf. The two layers need to be held firmly in place while the PVA dries and I had to use every clamp I had to do this.

A second layer of flexible MDF is glued to the underside of the first.

Once the PVA had dried, I used some wood filler to fill in the ribbing holes in the edge of the flexible MDF and sanded the whole thing down ready for painting.

I used wood filler to fill in the holes in the edge of the flexible MDF.

I painted the shelf with a water-based satinwood paint and a spray gun, but you could use an ordinary paintbrush. Once the paint had dried thoroughly, I printed the dummy covers onto card and covered them with some book film (clear sticky back plastic) before sticking them onto the dummy-book pieces on the shelf.

The dummy covers were stuck to the shelf using a strong, solvent based
glue and held in place with bulldog clips and clamps while the glue dried. 

And that's it!

… However I have an admission to make.

The bookshelf shown at the top of the page is actually the second one I made. The first one is shown below. The difference between the two is that the first one has a slightly smaller radius that is tight up to edge of the door arch. It looked great when I fixed it to the wall and I was really happy with it – until I opened one of the doors and found that I could not open it all the way because the top of the curved door was banging on the bottom of the protruding shelf. I had some colourful words to say about this discovery.

The Impossible Bookshelf Mark 1 looked great,
but stopped the door beneath it from opening fully.

I could have simply moved the shelf a few centimetres up the wall, but then it would no longer match the curve of the arch and I knew that this would grate every time I looked at it. And we could have put the shelf up in the kitchen on the other side of the archway (where the doors would open away from the shelf), but there was not enough space on the wall on that side.

So I ended up putting it above my office window, where it just fits snuggly.

My first attempt has been put to good use in my office.

And then, I started all over again and made another one, with a slightly bigger radius, so that it wouldn't catch on the top of the door.

If at first you don't succeed …