#Mondayblogs: The oldest library in Scotland

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The Orkney Islands are made up of roughly 70 islands with 980km of coastline to keep you suitably distracted. The archipelagos are home to a ridiculous number of Neolithic sites that span back over 5,000 years and are lit up in the winter months by the Aurora Borealis. But I’m not here for that. I’m here for the oldest public library in Scotland.

Kirkwall is the capital of the mainland and home to the library. You know you’re getting close when you spot the tip of St. Magnus Cathedral and its red sandstone which has been worn away by fierce winds over the centuries. According to David M.N Tinch, the Cathedral possibly held the first collection of books as far back as 1544 for use by the clergy. But as these were all written in Latin they didn’t serve much use to the general public.

William Baikie, a local gent and bibliophile, was persuaded to bequeath his ‘eight score’ volumes to Kirkwall given that he was a confirmed bachelor. He agreed, and by his death in 1683 the first Publick Bibliotheck of Kirkwall was formed. His collection contained mainly theological and polemical works which make for a bit of a dry read but were indicative of reading habits of the time. At first they lived in the home of Reverend James Wallace, but were later transferred to the Cathedral where the collection began to grow. In 1740 the books got their own space thanks to revenues from a recently built Tollbooth. During this period libraries of an ‘improving’ kind had also started to develop, supplying books to the Highlands and surrounding islands.

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St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall

By the 19th century there was a greater demand for a broader range of books and after a public meeting on 17 March, 1815, an appeal led to a donation of 200 books and £70. This resulted in the formation of the Orkney Library, intended for use by the entire country. Baikie’s Biblitheck was incorporated into the library.

Although it originally used the Subscription Model, the library was flexible, allowing strangers to borrow books without charge. Lending times were determined by your postal code, with those living on the periphery of the mainland given three weeks to loan a book. Gradually public libraries started to pop up across the islands in Stromness, Sandwick and Birsay. In Westray, Thomas Belfour started a free library for people unable to buy books and in 1903 Andrew Carnegie, who had made previous donations to the community, offered £1,500 for the erection of a Free Library Building on condition that Kirkwall Council guaranteed an annual sum of £80 to ensure the libraries continual development. Many of the older books, including the original Bibliotheck, were deemed unsuitable for a modern library and sold to raise funds. These were purchased by Archdeacon Craven and now reside in the University Library, Aberdeen in the collection Bibliotheck of Kirkwall. The library at Aberdeen featured in a previous post.

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The library was completed by 1909 and Andrew Carnegie attended the opening, declaring ‘It is the mass of the people who will benefit by it, and who must consider it as their special institution.’ But it wasn’t until 1946 that the library service really started to develop with the appointment of Orkney’s first County Librarian, Mr. Evan MacGillivray. MacGillivray was a real force of nature with a strong vision for library provisions that were delivered with military precision up until his retirement in 1973.

By 1954 he oversaw the amalgamation of the County Library and Kirkwall Free Library. This was followed by the appointment of three full-time assistants who helped him implement his vision of regularly supplying books directly to homes, no matter how isolated or hard to reach, known as the Family Book Service. The Family Book Service was in effect a personal door-to-door service that saw book borrowing in the outer islands grow from 3,846 to 57,752! The service was introduced by MacGillivray himself and resulted in 54 out of 56 households in North Ronaldsay giving it a go. In 1963 a similar scheme of mobile libraries provided service to mainland readers. The incredible impact of this personalised and professional service is worth bearing in mind today as volunteers are gradually replacing professional librarians across the UK as a result of government cuts.

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Me reading in Stromness with Hoy in the background. Bust of George Mackay Brown in Kirkwall Library.

When I started Dawn of the Unread I put forward the question as to whether it was possible for libraries to remain a focal point of the community in the digital age. In the Orkney Islands, perhaps because bandwidth is pretty poor and internet connections are intermittent, the library is at the heart of the community. During my visit I witnessed a celebration of Scottish Pen’s 90th birthday. This included readings in Orcadian dialect from Orkney Stoor, the latest publication from Duncan McLean’s small press. There was also a duet by a local songwriter and poet that was absolutely magical. Upstairs in the Archives is a collection of juvenile manuscripts known as ‘The Minervian Library’ created by 12 year old Maria Cowen and her 10 year old sister, Clara in 1864. This beautiful hand drawn collection is worthy of its own blog which I’ll publish next Monday.

The library itself saw a constant flow of people of all ages and I spent a good couple of days with the poet Aly Stoneman (author of our Ms. Hood issue) reading everything from the diaries of an Orkney farmer from the 1700s, to the poetry of George Brown Mackay, to the brilliant memoir The Outrun by Amy Liptrot. The librarians were fantastic, offering support and guidance to our endless questions, continuing the fine work started by Mr. Evan MacGillivray. But everything you need to know about the ethos and function of this library is in the motto on the County Library bookplate: “Faill not to keep your sone diligent reading and wreating, yt he losse not what he hes attained” William Baikie

Source: The Orkney Library, David M.N. Tinch

Orkney Library and Archive website

FURTHER READING

The best way to support libraries is to use them. Here’s my Orkney-inspired reading list.

  • David M.N. Tinch (1983) The Orkney Library: A Short History 
  • Duncan McLean (1994) Bucket of Tongues
  • Duncan McLean (2015) Orkney Stoor
  • Maggie Fergusson (2012) George Mackay Brown: The Life
  • George Mackay Brown (2014) Beside the Ocean of Time
  • George Mackay Brown (2014) Selected Poems 1954 – 1992
  • Amy Liptrot (2016) The Outrun
  • Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards (1981) Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney (Classics)
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#MondayBlogs Joining up the dots…

In this guest blog, Izaak Bosman explains why he’s been fannying about on his laptop doing arty stuff to get you lot reading.  

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There is a spectre haunting the city of Nottingham – the spectre of Dawn of the Unread. I find this phenomena fascinating, especially as a literature student who grew up in and around the town itself. But before I began studying at the University of Sheffield last September, I had largely neglected my local literary heritage. D. H. Lawrence, Alan Sillitoe, Alison Moore and Mary Howitt were names I recognised, of course, but not writers I had read myself. This has gradually begun to change, as I have since started to recompense for my negligence of Nottingham’s finest.

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And so I welcomed the opportunity to get involved with the project itself, as I was commissioned to devise a series of digital artefacts by James to help promote local literature and its corresponding establishments. In essence, I was commissioned to create a set of spoof advertisements centred on the Pop Art of the 1960s. Collages, in effect, compiled from old cartoons, commercial posters, and other assorted items. In creating the images, then, I followed a methodical process. I began by creating a polka dot backdrop layer, playing with the hue to create different colour pallets, before imposing characters I had cropped out of advertisements or artworks onto it. Then I added the text. Speech bubbles and captions added literary twists as businesspersons spoke with the Nottingham dialect and schoolchildren looked up to D. H. Lawrence as though he were a superhero. These punchlines replaced outrageously sexist remarks, as women went from being hung up about hair and makeup to being far more interested in their personal book collections. Satirising convention, then, was essential to the creation process.

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I suppose there are parallels between the digital artefacts and the Dawn of the Unread project itself. Both are reminiscent of bygone days, and both seek to explore the past from a modern perspective. This reimagining makes literature accessible, relatable even. And that is the way it should be.

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@IzaakBosman 

#MondayBlogs DAWN OF THE UNREAD Nottingham: City of Literature, City of Literacy

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The following article was published in Teaching English, Issue 14: Summer 2017

Nottingham – where this summer’s NATE Conference will be held – has been named a UNESCO City of Literature. David Belbin explains how the project aims to boost literacy in the city, and introduces the digital comic Dawn of the Unread, one of the ways in which the city hopes to bring Nottingham writers to a new generation, and encourage other cities to celebrate their local authors.  

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David Belbin in issue 14. Artist: Ella Joyce

UNESCO’s World Cities of Literature is a prestigious network for cities that combine literary heritage with outstanding present day creative activity. An author and educationalist, I chair the company that Nottingham set up to bid for the status and run the organisation should we win. City of Lit is a permanent designation. Few of us expected us to achieve accreditation at the first attempt. Fundamental to our surprising success was the company’s commitment to an area where we acknowledged the city was failing: literacy.

One of our board’s first big decisions was to become an educational charity. Nottingham has lots of great writing and literary events but, partly because our council area consists largely of the inner city and former council estates rather than the wider city, it also has below-average literacy rates. A year ago, when I attended an annual get-together of world cities of literature, I asked the others how they tackled literacy issues. I was surprised by the answer. They didn’t. Those who’d considered literacy had come to the conclusion that it was just too hard.

Literature and Literacy

We won UNESCO status in December 2015, making us one of a total of 20 World Cities of Literature. Within six months, we had raised enough money (via a partnership between the city council and our two universities) to hire a director. The City of Literature quickly became involved in the city council’s mission to improve literacy. We are a small organisation but wanted to act a hub for the city’s literacy efforts.

Dawn of the Unread: the background

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The USP of our UNESCO bid was the city’s strength in digital innovation. In particular, our bid talked about Dawn of the Unread, an online digital project by James Walker and Paul Fillingham, which used comics to bring Nottingham’s literary legends to a new generation.

James is a focused force of imagination who, in addition to teaching and writing, is the literary editor of local free monthly paper, LeftLion. He came up with the idea of Dawn of the Unread, raised the money (largely from Arts Council England), then put together combinations of writers and artists who ranged from their sixties to their teens.

The comics featured fifteen stories, published in the traditional monthly fashion. Playwright Michael Eaton got the most distinguished partner, artist Eddie Campbell (best known for illustrating Alan Moore’s Jack the Ripper opus, From Hell­). Campbell’s is one of a huge array of styles that range from former Judge Dredd artist Gary Erskine to illustrator Corrina Rothwell’s quirky figures and collages.

Sometimes James suggested the subject, but many writers chose their own. I, for example, wrote about my late friend and neighbour, the prolific novelist, Stanley Middleton, who won the Booker Prize for Holiday in 1974. As the story developed, I also included writers who had passed through Nottingham, like Graham Greene and JM Barrie, who found his inspiration for Peter Pan here. After his death, I inherited many of Stanley’s bookcases, and I ended the script with a set of shelves holding one book by every Nottingham novelist I knew of. Hence the title, Shelves.

James Walker paired me with eighteen-year-old Ella Joyce (daughter of novelist Graham, who I worked with on NTU’s MA in Creative Writing until his 2013 death), She did a fine, painterly job and is now studying Fine Art at Ruskin. Novelist Alison Moore (The Lighthouse) was paired with Corina Rothwell to portray Mary (The Spider and the Fly) Howitt. Nicola Monaghan (The Killing Jar) had her take on Hitchcock screenwriter (and wife) Alma Reville, illustrated by Judit Ferencz. Artist Conor Boyle drew poet Panya Banjoko’s story about George Africanus, Cartoonist John (Brick) Clarke came up with the art for his own story.

The Original Concept: Dawn of the Unread, libraries and reluctant readers

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Issue 11: Books and Bowstrings featured Geoffrey Trease and Robin Hood. 

Library closures were what inspired James to start Dawn of the Unread. Its first story was published on National Libraries Day in 2014. Paul Fillingham did the digital formatting. Dawn of the Unread’s website is, in part, an interactive experience. When you read the comic on a tablet or computer, you can go off on tangents, choosing your journey. There are embedded essays and videos, accessed by clicking on star icons that appear, together with web-links, on many pages. 120 students from Nottingham Trent University were involved with the project, which, in 2015, won first prize for Teaching Excellence at the Guardian’s education awards (it was also shortlisted by The Times education awards).

Underground legend Hunt Emerson illustrated DH Lawrence – Zombie Hunter. Zombies were there to draw the target audience (teenagers, and, in particular, reluctant readers) in. The series title Dawn of the Unread suggested that writers from the past are revived to help us in the present day. Zombies are used as a narrative conceit to raise awareness of what happens when people stop reading books. There were plenty of other sweetners. Poet Andy Croft, for instance, came up with Byron Clough, pairing two city legends, while Young Adult author Alan Gibbons managed to bring together our most famous children’s author, Geoffrey Trease, with Robin Hood.

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Taking the book into schools

While the stories were being published, James, along with some of the authors and illustrators, went into schools to talk about Dawn of the Unread. He was committed to producing a book of the stories which could get into schools and libraries. By the project’s end, however, there was little money left. Publishing a book, even if you have much of the content, is a time-consuming business. This is where the City of Literature came in.

James – a former City of Lit board member – gifted us the educational rights to Dawn of the Unread. He and I met with Spokesman Books, the Nottingham-based publishing arm of the Bertrand Russell Peace foundation. We agreed to jointly publish the book. The City of Lit devoted several thousand pounds from our Arts Council start-up grant towards printing costs. We also funded a development worker to go into schools, talk to teachers and look at how to use the book with students.

The book was published last November and free copies sent to all city libraries. We held back on sending it to schools until our strategy was in place. Rebecca Goldsmith’s brief was to develop resources for using Dawn of the Unread in schools and find ways to encourage schools and other places to make use of the book and website. We want to encourage schools to use the stories as a bridge between lessons, school libraries and independent reading. Teachers have been enthused about how the stories can act as a transition text from KS3 to KS4. We will shortly be producing a sample scheme of work with activity sheets, quizzes and interactive content that can be tailored to a school’s curriculum.

Using Dawn of the Unread

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Artwork Izaak Bosman 

Dawn of the Unread: the book provides all sorts of possibilities, most of which aren’t tied to its Nottingham content. It can, for instance, be used as a springboard for developing research into local landmarks and, indeed, dialect; as a starting point for discussions of language and register; and as a basis for numerous kinds of creative writing activity. The free availability of the digital version means that students can access it at home (with those additional starred embeds) and teachers can display it onscreen while students look at the book or a tablet.

Rebecca and Sandeep Mahal, director of the City of Literature, will be speaking at this year’s NATE conference in Nottingham. We hope to encourage teachers to use the book and its accompanying website in schools and give us their ideas about the best way to do this. One way, of course, is to get students exploring the literary heritage of their own area and create comics which use that heritage, with the DotU approach as a model. Students can make links with other cities of literature. We’d like to see DotU create paid work for authors and artists in schools.

Nottingham sums up its UNESCO mission in six words: building a better world with words. Part of that mission is to share work with the world. We have sent copies of the book to other cities of literature. We hope that our book will ensure Dawn of the Unread’s legacy: creating comics that celebrate literature, literacy, libraries and the written word.

Dawn of the Unread may be read online at www.dawnoftheunread.com. The Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature site is www.nottinghamcityofliterature.com. James Walker’s article on Dawn of the Unread and literacy can be found at leftlion.co.uk 

David Belbin is a novelist and Chair of Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature. His website is www.davidbelbin.com Twitter: @DBelbin   

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#MondayBlogs Spoof adverts to promote reading

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For 12 years I was the literature editor of LeftLion magazine. It was an incredible experience, particularly the editorial meetings where it was compulsory for everyone to smoke and swear. The LeftLion attitude back then was not to take yourself too seriously, prod and poke at anyone who thought they were summat, and to find unique ways of saying stuff that had been said many times before. In local dialect this meant being chelpy.

It’s probably because of this that I’ve enjoyed creating these spoof adverts with help from a very talented English student called Izaak Bosman. A lot of the adverts below appeared in women’s magazines, many from a period in history when the only purpose of a woman was to look pretty, get a man, and do as she was told. You could say that we’re subverting meaning, that these appropriated adverts represent semiotic warfare, but the truth is we just like fannying about on a computer and this is more fun than tweeting me me me me me.

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We’ve all been in relationships where it suddenly ends and you have to start sharing out the possessions…which is why I’ve always insisted on keeping my books on my bookshelf so that none of them get pinched. To this day I am still fuming that an ex kept my first edition copy of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin when we went our separate ways. The cover, its place on the bookshelf are so vivid I have nightmares still to this day. So the advert above is for all of those with a broken heart (and a stolen book).

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You want a man to kiss you? Get the right lipstick! But from our perspective the only thing that will put you both ‘on the same page’ is reading the same book. This advert was also an opportunity to promote Five Leaves Bookshop. At every opportunity Dawn of the Unread has tried to promote and support other organisations.

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We added the ‘what is she reading’ to this one. I can’t remember what ‘she’ should have been doing. It was probably something like ‘But what is she cooking?’

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“We Can Do It!” is one of the most iconic adverts in history. It first appeared as an American wartime propaganda poster produced by J. Howard Miller in 1943 for Westinghouse Electric as an inspirational image to boost worker morale. The little brain on the lapel relates to one of the four tasks we set readers on our App and coincided with the launch.

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If you google ‘woman reading’ you’ll find millions of paintings. I particularly like this one by Charles Edward Hallé (1846–1914), an English painter of history scenes, genre scenes, and portraits. Expect many variations on this in the future…