Manchester Central Library – What the Fuss is About

I’m getting a lot of mails from people asking to clarify the main issues about the Friends of Manchester Central Library Campaign to save the huge cull currently going on of their wonderful reference stock, so I’ve taken time to write down the main issues …..

We are concerned about the way that Central Library has decided to slash its internationally renowned non-fiction reference and lending stock (Approx 500,000 books) by between 40–60%, with no public consultation, and has responded to criticism with spin, deflection and evasive answers. We believe that they are in the process of permanently damaging this important public asset. Transparency and accountability are at the heart of our concerns.

The main points are:

• As far as we can tell, there has been no public consultation concerning the fate of book stocks whatsoever, even though the library is slashing its non-fiction reference lending stock by up to 60%. A great many Mancunians will be on the train down to London to the British Library after this.

• Throughout, the library has insisted that they are only weeding out-of-date, damaged or duplicated books. This is simply not possible when talking about such a huge percentage. Recently they have also been talking about irrelevant books – but we have no idea what they mean by that. We believe they are actually working to a percentage, made necessary by the vastly reduced shelving space allocated to non-fiction reference volumes in the architect’s plans for the new library.

• When the reduction process began, Central Library posted on the FAQ’s on its website that they were anticipating no significant book loss. Later this turned into 300,000 – a full 60% of non-fiction reference and lending stock. Once our campaign was under way this dropped overnight to 210,000 – still over 42%. We do not believe they have been operating with any coherent policy.

• The library has done its best to conflate the actual reduction with the full number of volumes in the library – approx. 1,000,000. But once special collections, such as parliamentary papers, which are exempt from the cull, and other collections such as fiction, local history and music are removed, this leaves 500,000 books for the 210,000 to come from: 42%.

• The Library continued with the process of disposal for eighteen months without any Stock Editing Policy being published. After this campaign began, this document was published – then taken down – then re-posted with changes reducing the effectiveness of the transparency clause. We believe there is a strong possibility that this document was only written in response to our questions, and that for the past eighteen months, they have been operating with no coherent Disposal Policy at all. Everything is being done on the hoof in order to fit stock into a reduced space.

• There are only five, non-specialist library staff going through a total stock of 500,000, with no special training – an impossible task for such a small number to do properly. Also, however experienced these people are, they are not the subject specialists that this kind of work needs and deserves. Claims by the library that they call in subject specialists “When required,” are specious. There is no information as to under what circumstances, or when, or how they are called in or who these people are. We believe that many valuable books have been already pulped or sold on.

• We believe that the cost to the library, and money they receive for the books they sell – is somewhere between 10 and 20p a book. This represents bad value for money, in disposing of a valuable publically owned asset.

• We want the disposal process to be paused while full consultation with users, including universities, writers, other libraries, museums, readers and the local community is carried out. Once they have compiled a proper policy, based on the desires of the people who have paid for all these books, that policy should be carried out with transparency and accountability to the people of Manchester.

If you want to help put pressure on Central Library to consult before they pulp, please like our new Facebook page.

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Manchester Central Library – Time to take stock.

Carol Ann Duffy, Jeanette Winterson, John Cooper Clark, Tony Warren, Willy Russell are just a few of the writers, along with a host of academics, who have signed an open letter to Manchester Library boss Neil MacInees, asking him to think again about what is being done to Central Library.

For eighteen months, the Library has been ploughing through its reference book stock, destroying, by its own admission, hundreds of thousands of books. No one serious outside the council accepts that the figures reported – perhaps as much as half a million books – is a simple process of weeding out old, damaged or duplicated stock, and yet this flimsy piece of nonsense is the only mantra the Councils seems able to utter. No fact, no figures, no catalogue – just argument and spin. Until the last few days, there wasn’t even any coherent policy made public, laying out the criteria used to sort books destined for destruction.

All the arguments can be settled amicably right now, if the library goes ahead and does what it should have done in the first place: engage in a full and proper public consultation about what it’s doing with its books; let us know how many, and if possible which books have already been destroyed; agree to publish a full list of what is going in the future. Finally, they need to get proper, trained subject specialists to take a full part in the process.

It would also help if we knew how much shelving was available for reference stock once the refurbishment is complete, just to make it clear that the process is a qualitative one, not quantitative.

That’s no more than any professional library would be expected to do – let alone one with the international standing that Manchester enjoys.

Meanwhile, just look at this letter and the list of names signing it. If this lot asked me for something, I’d be inclined to sit up and take notice. How about it, Mr MacInnes?

And an article in the Guardian about the letter here.

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Manchester Central Library – It’s becoming a Joke.

For the past 18 months, Manchester Central Library has been destroying its reference stock with no public consultation, no records kept of what has been destroyed, and as far as we can tell, no Disposal Policy guidelines to follow. No one has any idea of what treasures have already been lost.

After a great many requests to go public with this policy – if it even exists – the Library came up with a document online. It stayed up for a couple of days – and was then removed. Why? Accountability should be the watchword in all dealings of this kind, but this process has been kept behind closed doors. What is the library trying to hide?

Meanwhile, an article in the Manchester Evening News last week highlighted the various wonderful “rare and valuable treasures” that librarians have discovered, among them a 1946 Penguin First Edition of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. A rare treasure? – you can own it yourself for less than a quid. Here it is on Abebooks – at 64p.

If anyone wanted further proof that this process requires subject specialists and not ordinary librarians, there it is.

Manchester Central Library needs to answer a few simple questions, that any responsible library would be able to do at the drop of a hat. They need to publish that Disposals Policy properly. We need to know how many books have already been lost and what they were. Finally, and most importantly, the Library needs to provide a full catalog of what is being disposed off in the months to come.


Meanwhile, for anyone interested, a copy of that short lived Disposal Policy can be found here.

And that copy of Wurthering Heights – go on, buy it. At the rate they’re going, you’ll be able to build up a lending section bigger than Manchester Central in a few months.

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Manchester Central Library; What’s Going On?

There is a good deal of unease – both within the library service and without – about the massive pulping of stock currently going on at Manchester Central Library. The Head of Libraries, Neil McInnes, has tried to address these concerns in his recent post but there are a number of points he needs to address before these concerns can be laid to rest.

1 – Why have they misled the public about the number of “books” being replaced?  (Please see the link at the end of this blog for more details.) Is it true that the the huge figure  – representing up to 70% of total stock, was decided upon on the heels of a massive miscalculation as to the amount of shelving necessary?

We understand very well that publishers, bookshops and libraries all need to keep track of their stock. For an organization the size of Manchester Central Library, 30k seems like a reasonable figure. 300k, on the the hand, is absolutely massive. We need to be reassured that this is part of a plan; we need to know what the plan is, how it was arrived at and why it is being carried out.

If it is the case that this is simply the result of someone trying to cover their tracks after making a mistake, that person needs to be taken to task.

2 – Why are there no subject specialists being involved?

Manchester Central Library is a treasure house of social and historical books, famous for the depth and range of its stock covering the period from the 19C to the present day – a period of enormous significance both for the North, for the country, and indeed for Europe and the world. It is of international significance. The only people qualified to assess the value of these books are subject specialists. Ordinary librarians, however experienced, simply do not have the skills to assess it properly.

What are the criteria for selection of books to be pulped? Why are such a huge number of books being pulped without proper assessment?

3 – Does this amount to a change of use for the Central library; in which case, why has there been no public consultation? And why are the destroyed books not being recorded?

In his piece on Twitter, Mr McInnes talks about how the stacks under the library that used to house the stock were rarely accessed and were generally available only to library staff. He speaks of how he wants to avoid the Library being “a Mausoleum.” and to make it a modern public space that everyone can enjoy. Of course we applaud the aim of making the library a modern resource for the general public. But does he really think of History as being simply a storehouse of dead books? History is not a mausoleum. It resounds and rings in us all; it has shaped our present and informs our future. Without documentation, we are all less than we could be.

Is it the case than an executive decision has been made, behind closed doors, to destroy these unique record of Mancunian history? At what point was this decision made? Who made it and why have we not been informed about it?

It is not believable that so many books are being pulped without an overall plan.

We have just finished celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and I’m certain that I am not alone in enjoying looking back to the past, seeing how much has changed, and in what ways. This, surely, is how the past should be honored. We have all seen a great deal of film footage on TV, illustrating the decades of the Queen’s reign. How dreadful it would be, and what a public outcry there would be, if this footage had been destroyed. According to Mr McInn’s criteria, it certainly would have been, since it is not generally available to the public and is very rarely accessed. Indeed, some of it may never have been accessed since it was first shot. And yet it has been preserved and presented and has given all of us a sense of who we are and where we come from. Surely it is important that the same kind of care is taken of the history of ordinary people as well as that of monarchs.

A modern library can have many roles; one of them must be as a treasure chest of the past – a place where we keep our history safe for future generation. If it fails in this duty of care, it will be failing as a library and making a dreadful mistake which cannot ever be righted. That is not modernism; it is ignorance. It is not creating resources, it is destroying them.

I urge the Central library to look into this matter. Let informed specialists go over these books and decide what needs to be kept, and what can be safely pulped. Let’s not dismiss the past so easily. Both ourselves and future generation may need it if we are to move into an informed future.

… If you’re interested in getting Manchester City Council to reveal more about what is going on at Central Library, you can read the letter circulated by concerned workers, adn find out how you can help here.

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No Hands, No feet, No Eyes.

This story was told to me in a Pygmy house, in the village of Samba on the Lulonga River, almost exactly on the Equator. The chief’s son, Bokote, a Bantu man, came there to see me and told these stories.

Bokote, the Chief’s soon, who told me the story of the boy with no hands, feet or eyes.

The Boy with no Hands

A Mother gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, who had no hands, or feet, or eyes. What could they do with such a child? They could not afford to keep him, but they did not have the heart to get rid of him. They kept him, looked after him, loved him and fed him; and he grew up strong and healthy, even though he was unable to do anything for himself or for anyone else, and depended entirely on the charity of his family. In time, the parents even managed to find a wife for him, even though they had to provide for them both themselves.

Every day the parents and the wife went into the forest to work, and they had to leave the son at home on his own. Each day they said to him, “All you have to do is watch the pot and try to keep strangers away, in case they steal our food.” Then, they left to do their day’s work.

One day a stranger came to the door and demanded to be given food.
“I have no hands, no feet and no eyes. I can give you nothing,” said the son.  But the man peered in through the gaps in the walls.  “I can see the food in the pot,” he said. “Give it to me!”
“I don’t see the food,” said the boy. “But if you can see it – eat, and welcome to it.”
The man came in and ate the food.

When the parents and the wife came back, they were very angry that the food had been eaten. “It’s hard enough that we are poor and have to feed you, without you giving away even the little we do have,” they grumbled.
“I am someone who has to live by the charity of others,” said the son. “So how can I refuse charity myself, when someone asks for it?”

The next day they went out again, leaving the son behind; and once again they told him to keep the pot safe; and once again the man came and asked food.
“There is food right next to you,” said the man. “All you have to do is give it to me.”
“I have no hands – how can I give you anything?” said the son. “But if the food is there, please – help yourself.”
So the man ate the food and went on his way. That evening, when the parents and the wife came home, they were more angry than ever. But again the son answered, that as he had to live by charity himself, he could not deny charity to others.

On the third day, the same happened. The man came by and asked the son to carry to pot to him.
“I have no feet, I am unable to move anywhere,” said the son. “But if you see food here, please walk in and take it, and welcome.”
The man did; and when they came home that evening, the wife was so angry she threatened to leave her husband, and the parents could hardly blame her.
“If this carries on, we shall have to take all our food with us each day. We cannot afford this charity you love so much, for anyone who happens to walk past.”

The next day, the strange man returned.
The man said; “I have eaten 3 times. Now I wish to repay my debt. I have some gifts for you, but in return for these gifts, you must make some promises. If you make anything, you must give me the first thing you make. If you collect food, you must give me the first fruits that you pick. Whatever you do you must give me the first fruit of your labour.”
“I can perform no labour, so I can never give you anything,” said the boy bitterly. “But if I ever do, I promise that I shall give the first of it to you.”
The man said to the boy,  “Open your eyes he said,” the boy opened his eyes. He could see. “Stand up on your feet,” said the man. The boy stood; he had feet. “Give me your hand, and shake hands with me on our bargain,” said the man. The boy looked down and saw he had hands. He shook hands with the strange man, who smiled, turned around, and left the house.

When the parents and the wife came home, it was to the surprise and delight of their lives. For the first time the boy could see those who loved him. For the first first time he could truly touch his wife. And now there was a strong healthy son and husband to work by the side.

The son proved a quick learner, and very quickly aquired all the skills he should have learned years ago as a boy. He soon found he was particularly good with wood, and very soon he was able to make some chairs, which he took to the market to sell. Everyone was delighted with them; everyone wanted one of his chairs. Soon he was making a good living as a carpenter.

Now that he had hands and feet, the boy loved to exercise. One day walking through the forest he saw a palm tree laden with delicious fruit. Of course he climbed the tree, picked the fruit, ate his fill, and took the rest of the market to sell.
He took some home to eat as well, and his wife had never tasted such delicious fruits from a palm tree in her life. She asked her husband to take into the woods and to show her the tree, and of course he was happy to do as she asked. Once again the boy climbed high up to reach the delicious fruits growing high up in the branches. But as he did, he heard a noise below him. Looking down he saw the strange man.

“Wait there,” he called. “I am collecting fruit for you now. In a moment you will be eating the most delicious palm fruits you have ever tasted.”
The man said, “You have sold the first chair. You have sold the first  fruits. You have no respect for our obligation. Now, I want to take back my gifts.
“I want to see my eyes,” he said. And once the eyes fell out of the boy’s head and down to the man’s feet.
“I want to see my feet,” said the man. At once the boy’s feet fell and landed down the man’s feet.
“And now I want to see my hands,” said the man. The hands fell down – and the boy fell down after them. He crashed down and fell to his death on the ground.
The wife wept to see him what had happened. “Who has done this to my husband?” she cried. But there was no one there to answer. The strange man had vanished. She returned to the village to tell the parents what happened to the boy. They searched and searched for the man who could give such shifts and take them back, but no one ever saw him again.

That’s it – only not quite. If this were a western story, we might very well include the moral in thd end. No doubt the poor boy would have seen the error of his ways, or he might have had bad brothers who had no sympathy for the man asking for food; and it would have been them who came to a nasty end, not the hero. But in the Congo, the ending of stories is a little more interactive … it’s a bit like a game. At the end of each story, the story teller would say ..

“Now – what lessons can we learn from this story?” – and then you have to try and find as many lessons as you can.

Let me begin.  For one – always keep your bargains. For another – look after your family before you look after others; charity begins at home. the boy appeared more generous than he really was. For another – those with power take unfair venegence.

Any more? I’ll be happy to post any lessons I failed to find ….

That night, I was woken up by music – chanting, shouting, drumming. It was my paddlemen for the next day who had gathered together and were celebrating a journey with Go-Congo. I obviously wasn’t going to be getting any sleep, so I went to join them. We drank agene, the local palm spirit – kind nice; it certainly did the job put it like that. The singing was full of energy and rhythm. But when I say drumming, I don;t really mean drums. All they had were sticks and cans to bang. But like the agene – it did the job!

About an hour in, it turned out we were camped next to the medial centre and while we were chanting and dancing, a baby was being born. Great excrement! And the poor child was christened on the spot.

You Melvin, less than an hour old.

Poor child, with a name like that! I was invited to make a contribution to his education. How could I say no?

Now, that’s what I call a bong ….

… and that’s what I call stoned.

The Pygmy people always live away from the centre of the village in poorer huts. This pygmy found a well known way of passing his time …

… all free from the forest!

Paddling by the Lulongo river to the next village, and more stories ….

The next morning we set off up river again to the next village.

The river … not a breath of wind …

Next time, another village, another story …

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Stories from Inland

These first few months of 2012 have been far too busy, but things are settling down so I reckon it’s time to re-start telling the stories I collected in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2010.

The stories that follow are rather  different from those I’ve told so far. The first part of the journey, in Kinshasa, was over. After a week there with Save the Children, investigating the phenomenon of child witches, I took a trip with a company called Go Congo deep into the country. I flew first to Mbandaka, right on the equator, where I was met by my guide, Peter. We spent the night in a tent on the banks of the Congo river – such a huge river, you couldn’t even see the opposite bank.

The Congo river. The bank you can see is that of an island in the river - and there's more than one on the way across.

The next day we drove across country to the village of Samba on the Lulonga river.

It was a pretty odd experience. Samba and the other villages I was taken too had no roads, no electricity, no services of any kind. We went from place to place in dug out canoes – pirogues – which were basically the only way to get from A to B in that part of the world. There was myself, my guide Peter, six paddle men, a cook, and one other to deal with the putting up my tent and so on. When we set off, I was sitting like Lord Muck in one of those white plastic chairs people often use in this country for patios; Peter sat behind me also in a white chair, while all the others stood and paddled. Seven black men all for the purpose of pushing one white tourist along the riverways! – I felt like a fraud. But I reminded myself of something some friends of mine who live in Nepal once said. When they first went trekking over there, they carried their own bags, and did there own work; but the locals were furious with them for taking work away…

In fact, everyone was delighted to see me. What’s he doing here? A tourist! Great! We want more of them! I was certainly the only tourist I saw in the whole week … So I reminded myself that I was good for the local economy, and tried to enjoy myself.

Welcome to Samba!

The trip was pretty uncomfortable in many ways. The DRC is a Lingali and French speaking country, so I was reliant on Peter, and Peter’s English was poor to say the least. Anyone who is immersed in language as I am, and who finds themselves struck dumb by being both foreign on an idiot monoglot abroad will know what I mean. It was uncomfortable, hot, sweaty and damp, there were mosquitoes everywhere. Kulu, who was doing the tents, had forgotten much of what he’d been taught so I was frequently dripped on. But hey – how often do you get to go visiting villages deep in the forest, that can only be reached by canoe? The people there saw a white person once in a blue moon, they all came thronging round wanting their picture taken to see themselves on the screen. It was fabulous – what an experience!

I should say a few words about the nature of the trip – the package, because that’s what it was. That part of the DRC has two main tribes – the Bantu and the pygmy people. The pygmies are not the very small people you sometimes see on TV documentaries, who live deep in the rain forest. The pygmies I met were slight boned, usually not so tall as the Bantu, perhaps, but certainly not much smaller than the rest of the population.

A Pygmy family - and a few friends.

There is unfortunately, a good deal of racism from the Bantus towards the pygmies. In the villages I visited, no one had much. This was the tropics, and there seemed to be enough to eat, so long as you were happy with manioc root and manioc leaves, bananas and a few other fruits and vegetables. But no one had any money – not a penny. As such there was no economy; it was all subsistence farming. Even so, the Bantu had more. Their homes often had mud walls, roofs made of banana leaves or even corrugated iron. Often the pygmy houses were little more than shelters made of leaves and branches. Their houses were in a separate part of the village, on the outskirts, away from the centre; and they were generally looked down on by their neighbors.

My trip was an anthropological trip, as Michel, the founder and boss of Go Congo put it. The villages that we went to all had pygmies in them. My guide was a pygmy man and some of the paddle men were also pygmies. I think it was a novel experience for some of them to have a pygmy man in charge over Bantus, although I never saw any decent or arguments – everyone was very good natured. Even so, Michael had recently had to re-vamp his trip because the previous guide, a Bantu, had diverted the visits away from pygmy villages to those exclusively Bantu, were his own family and friends lived. He was determined to ensure that his trip favoured the pygmy people

And of course, I collected stories everywhere I went … So; tomorrow – The Boy With no Hands or Feet.

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The Boy Who Cried Croc

This story was told to me by Madou, who worked in save the children’s offices in central Kinshasa. She told me her children loved this story and that they will always willing to find a lesson in a story.

Many years ago, I remember reading an article arguing that black Africa had a far greater influence on Western Culture than was at that time usually thought, via ancient Egypt. One of the themes was that the fables attributed to Aesop originated in central Africa. Anyone who has followed these stories  will be familiar to the themes common to both these African and our own European folk tales, and the odd way they sometimes surface. In this case though, you’ll know the story just from reading the title. There have been many comings and goings over the years between Africa and Europe, and where this story began – that’s anyone’s guess. But I include it here for the sheer fun of hearing a story we all know from a land in which wolves are unknown.

Never Cry Croc

One day there lived a family with 4 children, 3 girls and one boy. All the children were good except one – you guessed it was the boy. But he wasn’t just unruly – he was also funny. He wanted to spend the whole day playing jokes on people.

One day the boy was sent to get water from a river that was full of crocodiles. After he had collected his water he put the pots safety on the back. Then he started to call out at the top of his voice, “Help! Help! The crocodiles! The crocodiles!”

When they heard his screams, everyone was in a panic. They all came running as fast as they could down to the river bank to help him. When they got there they found him laughing his head off. He’d fooled them all! He thought he was hilarious.

Of course everyone was very cross. “You called us was nothing. You interrupted our work for nothing. You stupid, bad boy.”

Another day the boy was given the same job to go down to the river to collect water. This time though he really was caught by the leg by a crocodile. He pulled all he could and yelled and screamed – “Help! Help! The crocodile the crocodile!”

Everyone in the village heard, and rolled their eyes. “Yeah yeah yeah,” they said. “He does that all the times. Take no notice.” When his screams got really loud and panicky, they all shook their heads. He doesn’t give up, that boy, does he? But he’s not fooling us twice!”

No one realised that they were really listening to the boy being attacked and then eaten by a huge crocodile, until they went down to the riverbank later on and found nothing but a pile of clothes and some bloodied mud.

And what is the moral of the story? Simple: you must never lie. You must always tell the truth. Even when you want to make a joke.

This is the last story fro Kinshasa. The next post will be from Samba, a village almost exactly on the equator in the DRC.

Or … and this is my version of the moral because who wants to live in a word with no jokers and no jokes … don’t make practical jokes about dangerous things – they really aren’t funny!

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