Rooftop protests not recommended – Jenn Ashworth on the power of libraries

Posted 9 Jul 2018 by Ian Anstice in Author blogs, Opinion

Jenn AshworthWe were very lucky to have Jenn Ashworth, author of several books including the most recent Fell, talking to the Time To Read group. She is a passionate advocator for libraries and a brilliant speaker so we all fell silent – not a normal thing in the meetings - when she started speaking. We were not disappointed.This is a summary from my notes that the author has checked.

"being she truanted in public libraries she gained a lot out of it"

Jenn started with her upbringing and a confession or two, for she had a “troubled and troubling” childhood and often truanted. However, being she truanted in public libraries she gained a lot out of it. “Libraries were a place to go for free and that were warm and safe” she said, saying they offered “a strange combination of safety and freedom”. The author found the time she spent skiving at the Harris Library in Preston as “a way to be part of the community”.

"The best things the librarians did for her was not telling her what to read"

The best things the librarians did for her was not telling her what to read. So she read everything, from  Jane Austen to Stephen King to a guide to how to get published simply because she did not know this was not the right thing to do. But the librarians did teach her one thing. Forgiveness. Jenn sometimes did not return books and repeatedly lost her library card but that did not prevent the library from allowing her to take out more, for which she is very grateful.

"She remembers forgetting she was in a library for a couple of hours due to that book. How had Melvin done that?"

Baby and Fly PieThere was a book, “The Baby and Fly Pie” by Melvin Burgess, which made as big an impression on Jenn than the forgiveness shown. Although it was a depressing dystopia, it allowed Jenn to be “lost in that world and not in mine” and that was what was so important for her at the time.  She remembers forgetting she was in a library for a couple of hours due to that book. How had Melvin done that? How had the book managed to transport her to a different world? Jenn had to find out. She stole the book from the library. 

"Authors can go to festivals to sell books but authors don’t go to libraries for that to the same extent. Talking to readers, in a way that libraries can facilitate, is why they write."

What libraries do is incredibly important and have life-changing effects. Authors are usually deeply and personally grateful to libraries and can be their biggest champions as a result. Libraries develop relationships with readers and the wider community in the way that other purveyors of books do not. The staff often have a unique personal relationship with readers and with reading groups. Authors can go to festivals to sell books but authors don’t go to libraries for that to the same extent. Talking to readers, in a way that libraries can facilitate, is why they write. A writer wants to make connections and want to write to explore what it is to be a human, messily in relationships with other humans, the landscape and the world - and to help the reader think about those things for themselves …  and libraries can be very helpful in that. The local connection libraries have are important. Jenn comes from the Northwest and knows that the region has a strong literary community that is under-represented in the publishing and prizes worlds.

Jenn at lecternThen there were some tips on how to get the best out of an author visit:

  • Be clear on what the author is doing, what they’re good at and what genre they write. For example, Jenn, like many others, finds the teenage age group challenging and would not appreciate discovering a group of teens being dragooned in to one of her talks.

  • Be clear to the author as to what you expect them to do and why you want them. If it’s for an end-of-year celebration for reading groups, who may not have read the author’s books, tell the author that and they will prepare very differently than if it is for a group of fans who have read every word of their writing.

  • If an event is pairing the author with another one, there needs to be a reason. Just availability or geographic closeness is not enough. The authors will read eachother’s  books and discuss them so there needs to be a thematic or other connection.

  • Make sure the branch library staff know who is coming and not to be afraid of them. Authors very rarely bite.

  • Authors need to make an entrance at the start of the talk to make the opening crisp Fell ashworthand obvious. For this reason, have them in a separate room (be it staffroom or broom cupboard) beforehand.

    "Authors know what libraries are like. They have not come for the building but for the audience."

  • Give authors advice on travel and parking. Think about how easy it is getting to the venue will be and offer to pick up from the station if necessary.

  • Get in touch with the author’s publicist as soon as you can. An author will give an image or two but the publicist can help with graphics, how to do publicity and social media.

  • Above all, get whoever is introducing the author to have read the book. The library staff have the personal connection with the audience and if they don’t have a connection with the book, the audience will see that and take their cue from them.

  • If an introduction is delegated to front line staff, make sure they want to do it and know what to do. A terrified introduction does not a successful event make.

Rooftop protestAuthors do not expect libraries to be swish. There’s no need to apologise for not being so or if the building is a bit small or grubby. Authors know what libraries are like. They have not come for the building but for the audience. They know that a library is not a place where people simply come to get culture but to make culture.

"a library is not a place where people simply come to get culture but to make culture."

Jenn then finished with a story. When she worked in a prison library, she talked about a book she had published. Her audience talked about her book and then offered to do a rooftop protest and show the book to the television crews filming it from helicopters. You don’t tend to get such offers from festival audiences. Those who attend library events tend to be more helpful. Although, of course, rooftop protests are not recommended.

North West Libraries

Librarians in the North West have pioneered partnership working to encourage new readers into libraries. Time To Read is a partnership of librarians engaged in reader development activity in public library authorities in the North West Region. 22 public library authorities in the region currently support Time To Read.

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