Cost of Living crisis: Libraries as warm banks

When Dawn of the Unread was created nearly a decade ago, one of our main questions was whether libraries could become a focal point of communities again. Rather than being just book storage facilities, we argued libraries had the potential to bring people together, to act as a hub for knowledge exchange, and to help generate the kinds of conversations that would equip citizens with confidence and access to communities.

I was originally sceptical of libraries as one stop centres, particularly as somewhere to pay your council tax, as this trivialised their purpose and brought negative associations. However, I changed my view when I saw people queuing up to use computers at City Library and listening into storytelling sessions. By having multiple purposes, libraries are able to connect with communities that may otherwise not come into contact with books.

One thing I mocked in the opening issue of Dawn of the Unread was the perception of libraries as inhabited by ‘oldies’ and serving no other function than to keep them warm. Who would have thought that a decade on, a reason for keeping libraries open would be exactly this – as warm banks.

As the cost of living crisis intensifies, families are forced to make impossible decisions between whether to eat or put on the heating. The fact that libraries can now help with one of these issues may be one of the reasons that kept Basford Library, the Radford Lenton Library and Aspley Library open after the council planned to close them to save £233,000.

The Broadmarsh Centre has finally been flattened yet Central Library, the fulcrum of this recently renovated area, has sat stagnant for too long. One thing holding this up, according to the Nottingham Post, is the £10m required to fit-it out. However, I wonder if this delay is also down to how much it will cost to heat and light such a large building. All of which makes it more important than ever to keep the other libraries open – for now.

Unfortunately, the question of whether a library can be a focal point of the community seems to be the least important function at present. The current economic climate means the ambitions, at least in terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, are purely physiological, to provide shelter and warmth.  

Further reading

  • How to find your nearest ‘warm room’, as community spaces pop up across the country
  • Martin Lewis backs guide for libraries wanting to become winter ‘warm banks’
  • Art galleries and libraries to become ‘warm banks’ as energy bills hit £3,500
  • 3 libraries proposed to close as wait continues for central library to open in Nottingham
  • Prevent the closure of the libraries in Aspley, Basford, and Radford
  • Save Nottingham Libraries

Why Physical Books Matter

Dawn of the Unread started out as a reading flashmob where people showed their support for bookshops and libraries by sitting down and reading in the centre of Nottingham. It then became a series of online comics celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. Aware that our reading habits are changing as a result of digital technology, we created Twitter accounts for some of our featured writers and captured the essence of their best known novels in a series of Tweets. We produced ‘how to’ videos on YouTube to encourage people to create their own comics and then followed this up with visual essays called the Nottingham Essay. We morphed into a smartphone app and used gaming theory to entice younger readers into libraries and bookshops. We created a dance record for our Alma Reville issue, a computer game for our Alan Sillitoe issue. And on and on we went with our relentless quest to share our passion for reading through transmedia storytelling.

The project started in 2013 and continues to flourish in 2021. The outbreak of a global pandemic has reiterated the importance of reading for our mental health as we find ourselves locked away. In these difficult times, literature transports us to different places across time, making lockdown more bearable. For some of us, books have become our main friends.

It is this that brings me us onto Zachary Omitowoju and arguably the most important ‘add on’ of Dawn of the Unread. We created 120 placements for students between 2013-15 which was one of the reasons we won the Guardian Teaching Excellence Awards. These placements continue today. I’ve now lost count of how many people have been involved. Zach is the latest student to do a 37 hour placement with us. This is a two-way relationship. Whereas he helps us produce YouTube videos which keep the important conversation about reading going, Zach is given a platform to share his ideas and have a voice. Each new placement brings something different to these conversations and allows our project to develop in ways we could not have imagined as we sat down on the cold slabs of Market Square many moons ago.

This is the second video Zach has created for us. His first was about 10 reasons I love reading but this time he has narrowed his focus to a very important issue: why physical books matter. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to focus on reading as multiple devices vie for our attention. Constant notifications and digital rabbit holes mean that we are losing the ability for deep focus. Reading physical books is no longer simply about the pursuit of knowledge or escapism from our locked down lives. It’s about bringing deep focus and concentration back. As a transmedia project, we are more than aware that we have created many digital distractions for our readers. But our goal has always been to raise awareness of great books and writers, to encourage people to use libraries and bookshops, and to celebrate the physical medium of books for their ability to engage with our imagination. Needless to say our favourite transformation was when we became a book in 2018, published by Spokesman Books. The profits from sales go to literacy projects via Nottingham City of Literature. Show your support for these causes by buying a copy.      

Further reading

10 Reasons I love Books and Reading…

On 11 December 2015, Nottingham became a UNESCO City of Literature. It was a truly euphoric moment, and we were proud to have been part of the original bidding process. Dawn of the Unread represented digital innovation, Nottingham’s collaborative grassroots culture, as well as raising awareness of Nottingham’s literary heritage. Our comics championed libraries and independent bookshops, and, most important of all, argued that illiteracy is a form of child abuse. This was a particular problem for Nottingham at the time as our literacy levels were below the national average. Therefore, achieving the UNESCO status was so important because it represented a commitment towards addressing these appalling statistics and creating a better future for younger people.

The City of Literature team has exceeded expectations and done a fantastic job so far. They really are building a better world with words. We’re particularly impressed with the way that younger people have been brought into the conversation, such as through the Young Ambassador scheme which led to their Manifesto for Change, and the Eastwood Comics project which gave school pupils the opportunity to create, edit and produce comics celebrating the work of D.H. Lawrence. The completion of the new Central Library – and with it a possible national children’s library – is the crowning glory of an incredible first five years.  

To celebrate City of Literature’s 5th birthday we commissioned Zachary Omitowoju to share his top ten tips on why reading is important to him. Zachary is a 2nd year student at Nottingham Trent University and is the latest student to take a placement with us. He is also a member of WRAP (Writing, Reading and Pleasure) a collaboration between Nottingham Trent University and City of Literature. WRAP was launched this autumn and provides writing workshops and book groups, meet ups, masterclasses and talks from readers and authors, and is another example of a concerted drive to improve literacy rates across the city.

Please visit Nottingham UNECSO City of Literature and subscribe to their newsletter so that you can get involved in their events. Get along to a WRAP café event or watch their live streams on YouTube. And if you are a business that wants to create placements and opportunities for students, please contact the Employability Team. And don’t forget to support libraries and bookshops by loaning or buying books.

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Beautiful Libraries: National Library of China

The National Library of China is an absolute whopper! Home to 37 million items, open 365 days a year, and the front looks like the deck of the SS Enterprise. I visited it in 2016 and have finally got around to sharing the experience.

Beijing is the third largest city in the world with a population of over 21 million people. Sheltered on three sides by mountains and a certain wall, it’s been the political centre of China for most of the last 8 centuries.

People visit Beijing for various reasons. It’s home to 91 universities, the Forbidden City, and the bird’s nest stadium, created for the 2008 Olympic Games. Then there’s Tian’anmen Square, where citizens can see the embalmed body of Chairman Mao, although I remember it for the man armed with two shopping bags, who stopped a tank in 1989.

But what I wanted to see most during my visit was the National Library of China, home to 37 million items – with an additional million items added each year. Fortunately, it’s open 365 days a year, although to get to it you need to cross an 8 lane highway that’s pretty chocker. Tranquil gardens calm you down at the entrance, but solitude is soon lost to the honking cars in rush hour traffic. Air pollution is a real problem in Beijing. Fortunately, there was no red warning during my visit in May 2016 as there would be towards the end of the year when a thick blanket of smog engulfed the city for five days.

The library is divided into levels. The base level contains the contemporary library with reading rooms and reference works. Its oldest collections are the inscriptions on animal bones and tortoise shells, known as the Oracle Bones. These date back 3,000 years. But you can also find epigraphs and rubbings, ancient maps, documents in 123 foreign languages, and dissertations prescribed by the State Council.

Above this is a digital library whose resources exceed 1000Tera byte. This number is increased by 100 Tera byte each year. One digital element that stands out is the China Memory Project, which collects visual historical data and other new types of literature on major modern events and important figures in China. But if you do visit this, have a read of Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years – a dystopian narrative that you won’t find in any Chinese library, and which addresses a different aspect of Chinese memory – collective amnesia.

The long glass fronted top deck of the library faces the highway, making it stand out to passing traffic, presumably to lure you in. It’s a bit like the front of the SS Enterprise, with an earthquake-proof steel canopy keeping you secure.

Although the design is sleek, it’s defining characteristic is functional – presumably in order to accommodate the 12,000 visitors it receives each day. Everything in China is huge, and so too are the reading and research rooms. This is epitomised by the central study area as you enter the building. Books, file cabinets and draws adorn the outer perimeters, with seating areas out front looking down into the abyss. This is then repeated on descending levels until you reach the basement where rows of tables are perfectly aligned and constrained. It is basically an inflexible grid, a slave to mathematics and functionalism. If we are all products of our environment, then this environment demands discipline, logic and conformity.

As I made my way up the escalator to film the library I was immediately followed by some guards. But nobody stopped and asked me what I was doing. Presumably, I looked like an excited tourist and hadn’t broken any laws. Sometimes at iconic locations in China random people will come up to you and take a photograph whether you like it or not. Many are tourists themselves from other provinces and have never seen Westerners before, and so you find yourself a bit of a novelty. But in the library, people were only interested in the books. Always a good sign.

Libraries started to take off in China around the turn of the 20th century against the backdrop of reform, with the government of the Qing dynasty sent on diplomatic missions to Europe to understand the value of these intellectual spaces. Prominent exile Liang Qichao was particularly impressed by readers who did not steal books they had borrowed. I wonder what he would make of some British libraries today, who have adopted the attitude that if someone steals a book, they must really need it. Punitive measures are a waste of time.

The Metropolitan Library was established in 1909, with the Qing government realising the opportunities to promote national culture. Situated in the Beijing Guanghua temple, it was opened to the public on 27 August 1912, receiving its first legal deposits of publications in 1916. It would later be known as the National Peking Library, then Beijing Library, before it was moved to north of Purple Bamboo Park in Haidian District in 1989. It was renamed the National Library of China on 12 December 1998. Today it’s the third largest national library in the world, covering 280,000 square meters, costing 1 billion 235 million dollars to complete.

If you fancy visiting, get the subway unless you want to sit in traffic for hours. Lines 4 and 9 will deliver you calmly to this gigantic, beautiful modern library.


Coronavirus and Literature: What we can learn from Orwell.

coronavirus and Orwell
Design James Walker.

George Orwell wrote that moments of extreme crisis create ‘emotional unity’ and an opportunity to reboot social values. We are facing that situation now. Could this be an opportunity to reboot society or will we just binge watch loads on Netflicks…  

In Socialism and the English Genius, George Orwell suggests that England is comprised of two nations: the rich and the poor. He argues that inequality in England ‘is grosser than in any European country’ and that our class-ridden country is ‘a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly’. Only during ‘moments of supreme crisis’, when ‘emotional unity’ is required, can these two halves of Britain unite.

For Orwell, this moment of change came during World War II as people surrendered ‘leisure, comfort, economic liberty, and social prestige’ for the common good. The war also exposed the folly of private capitalism in that ‘land, factories, mines and transport owned privately and operated solely for profit – does not work’ in such conditions. This, he argued, was because during war capitalism ‘has difficulty in producing all that it needs, because nothing is produced unless someone sees his way to making a profit out of it’.

Orwell was a classic socialist in the mould of Aneurin Bevan and therefore identified a basic problem with the economic system: How could someone earning £100,000 a year ever find any commonality or empathy with someone earning £1 a week. He saw peacetime as a once in a lifetime opportunity to readdress this balance. A recent ONS Wealth and Assets survey found that the top 10% of earners finished 2018 with 45% of national wealth, while the poorest 10th held just 2%. Orwell would be horrified. Peacetime has intensified the problem.

We are now being presented with another moment of ‘supreme crisis’ as coronavirus brings life as we know it to a grinding halt. Replacing war with coronavirus, Orwell could have wrote:

‘Coronavirus is the greatest of all agents of change. It speeds up all processes, wipes out minor distinctions, brings realities to the surface. Above all, coronavirus brings it home to the individual that he is not altogether an individual. It is only because they are aware of this that men will die on the field of battle.’

The main agent of change brought about by coronavirus is complete lockdown. We’ve had no choice but to give up ‘leisure, comfort, economic liberty, and social prestige’. This enforced solitude is our moment of ‘emotional unity’ and an opportunity to rethink our attitudes towards work, capitalism, poverty, health, community, the climate, globalisation, etc etc etc. Or we could just binge watch the arse out of Netflicks.

The meta-narrative of the past few years has been about taking back control of our borders, now we need to do something more radical: We need to take back control of our lives. Moments of ‘emotional unity’ enable this to happen. It is only in dire circumstances that people pull together – although it might not feel like this when you go food shopping.

Everything we have been told is impossible has become possible: homeless people have been housed, a Tory government is implementing a loose form of socialism, and the air is breathable now that aircraft sit twiddling their thumbs at Gatwick. A brave new world awaits us. Fight for it. We might not get this chance again.

A version of this blog was originally published by Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature on Monday 13 April.