The surprise star of a book exhibition

Picture by Jan Fialkowski

Picture by Jan Fialkowski

THIS blog was devised to run alongside my exhibition, Last Writes: A Requiem For The Printed Word, currently being staged at Florence Arts Centre, Egremont, Cumbria UK.

It’s the first time I’ve staged an exhibition but I’m glad to report that it is being very well received with a steady stream of visitors. The reactions to it have ranged from abhorrence to excitement. Young people and children have been some of the most excited – primarily because of the typewriter. Few teenagers have ever had the chance to use a typewriter and they spend an hour or more happily learning to get to grips with this piece of steam-punk technology. “Oh, it prints as you type” was one excited comment. There’s one wonderful thing about typewriters that I had forgotten: There’s no exclamation mark. All young people want to end a sentence in a ! or even a !!!!!. But I have to explain that in the old days you typed an apostrophe, then backspaced and then a full-stop. “Cool” is the usual response – no doubt with at least one apostrophe on the end of it.

Also loved by the younger children is the toy train set. It runs in and out of my library which I have relocated to the centre of the exhibition hall. Libraries – I argue – should be enchanting places and so my library has a toy train set, automatons, secret compartments and really nice books.

The abhorrence has come from an unusual source – not the section on banned books or the lyrical terrorist but from a 2,000 year old poem: Thunder, Perfect Mind. The poem is from the Nag Hammadi scrolls discovered in 1945 in northern Egypt. I used it to illustrate how the written word can astound even 2,000 years after it was written but a lady took offence to the rude words (virgin and whore). She didn’t seem to understand that illustrated the power of the written word perfectly: 2,000 years old and it can still upset you.

Finally, the one section of the exhibition which always gets people shouting and shrieking is the part on handwriting. It is illustrated by beautiful handwriting from the children of nearby St Begh’s School. And I point out that American schools no longer teach (joined-up) handwriting, preferring instead to teach keyboarding. “Noooooo!” say most people. But I have persuaded many that it’s inevitable when I ask “And when did you last handwrite anything longer than a shopping list?”.

The exhibition runs at Florence Arts Centre until the end of April 2013.


The book that changes its ending according to who is reading it


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Picture: Bob Aubuchon

Picture: Bob Aubuchon

IN the short story Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius by Jorge Luis Borges, a man discovers that his encyclopaedia has an extra chapter.

A check of other copies of the encyclopaedia – even the same edition – confirms his is the only one with 921 pages. All of the others have 917. His extra chapter concerns the mystical country of Uqbar.

I quite like the concept: You buy a book and discover it is tailored just for you; that the copy of Tale of Two Cities I buy has a different ending to the one my wife buys. Or perhaps the London A-Z I buy has an extra street in it (hopefully one populated by second-hand bookshops).

It is not a new concept. Many newspapers have editions which target specific towns or areas, containing local stories the main ‘city’ edition will lack. In Northern Ireland, Protestant school children would have a different history book to those of Catholic children – giving their own religious bias on the country’s history.  In the age of the internet with its cookies and spiders, it’s easy to see how this could be developed: Order the ebook A Visitors Guide To Cornwall and – the publisher noting from your surfing behaviour that you like real ale and photography – adapt the guide to include real ale pubs and locations for landscape photographs. Or order a biography of Terry Wogan and my copy might have his enthusiasm for chess detailed at length while the wife’s version barely mentions that and tells instead of his Eurovision days.

The Times pioneered this concept in the early days of the internet (1997) with a “Daily Me” where you could select the sections of the paper you particularly wanted to read. But how much more subtle it could be now. Today’s edition for me would have very little on Margaret Thatcher’s funeral but plenty on the relegation of Portsmouth FC. Innovators of such products have, however, tended to include a serendipity factor – adding a random article. And who knows, I might enjoy a feature on Norwegian dormice just as much as the wife.

Sensible books and plain hands


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I THOUGHT I’d just share this with you. It’s extracts from The Whitehaven Gazette of 1898. The paper was running an Uncle Sam club for children. The paper declared: “The main object in view is to encourage boys and girls to take an interest in the sadly neglected art of letter writing”. Sadly neglected in 1898?! That must make it all but obsolete today!

Boys and girls aged 8 to 14 had to agree to the following conditions:

  • I will try to improve my mind by reading sensible books
  • I will try to write a good plain hand
  • I will be merciful and not cruel to animals, and thus set a good example to others.
  • I will not make use of profane, vulgar or objectionable language
  • I will try to be industrious and active
  • I will try to be honest and truthful

Hear, hear! The paper would set a subject each week (for example gardening) and children would have to write letter to the paper on that subject. The prize was goods to the value of half a crown. Among the other fun things that Uncle Sam provided was a ‘spot the mistake’ column. But as this paragraph demonstrates, the editor wasn’t going to stand any nonsense from the children hoping to win the competition:

“Two applications have been made for the prize for pointing out errors but as one of these contains two instances of bad spelling in the application, and the other does not specify the one error alluded to, the prize will be with-held this week.”

There. That’s told them! Blue Peter it wasn’t!

Drowning in Books


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  • On Books And The Housing Of Them – W E Gladstone, March 1890

The British Library – now receiving 3 million books a year. Picture by Xavier de Jauréguiberry

In 1890 book lover and former British prime minister W.E. Gladstone was worried: Britain could one day be drowning in books. He predicted there could soon be 60,000 books a year being published. How would libraries store so many books? And how would they be organised?

In 2013 The British Library receives 3 million new books a year. Somehow we are coping.

But such was Gladstone’s concern in 1890 that he published a pamphlet: On Books And The Housing Of Them. In it he gives detailed advice on how to build your private library, what size shelves should be and how your books should be organised. And he had a radical solution to the problem of having too many books: A book cemetery.

But there’s more than the humour of hindsight evoked by this short pamphlet. At a time society is looking once more at the future of books, the future of libraries, and the birth of the Google Library (an attempt to digitise every book ever published), this proves to be a surprisingly timely publication by a 19th century bibliophile.

Take this quote for example: “Noble works ought not to be printed in mean and worthless forms, and cheapness ought to be limited by an instinctive sense and law of fitness. The binding of a book is the dress with which it walks out into the world. The paper, type and ink are the body, in which its soul is domiciled. And these three, soul, body, and habilament, are a triad which ought to be adjusted to one another by the laws of harmony and good sense.”

An explanatory preface in front of Gladstone’s booklet for today’s reader would be useful (it’s a free download from Gutenberg books or the Kindle library) but it seems that he was writing at a time when copyright laws between American and the USA were being ironed out and cheap printing was heralding a greater democracy in book publishing and book ownership. Gladstone warned: “When artificial fetters are relaxed, and printers, publishers, and authors obtain the reward which well-regulated commerce would afford them, then let floors beware lest they crack, and walls lest they bulge and burst, from the weight of books they will have to carry and to confine.”

He has no doubts over the importance of the book: “Books are the voices of the dead. They are a main instrument of communion with the vast human procession of the other world. They are the allies of the thought of man… In a room well filled with them, no one has felt or can feel solitary.” But he was having serious concerns about how libraries in the future would cope with so many books. How could you afford to have them all bound? (it seems Victorians paid to have books and periodicals bound anew when they bought one). How would you build rooms big enough and shelving long enough to store them all? And how would you organise the millions of books so you could quickly find the one you wanted?

Gladstone spends much time on the physical dimensions for shelving (could he have ever dreamed of millions of books stored on a hard disc measuring just a few inches across, or stored on a ‘cloud’?!). He writes: “First, the shelves must, as a rule, be fixed; secondly, the cases, or a large part of them, should have their side against the wall, and thus, projecting into the room for a convenient distance, they should be of twice the depth needed for a single line of books, and should hold two lines, one facing each way. Twelve inches is a fair and liberal depth for two rows of octavos.” That a leading politician should bother to take time out to advise others how how wide to make their library shelves is a wonderful example of how much importance he placed on books.

There is also much discussion on how books are categorised – A to Z or by subject? And he asks “whether the arrangement of a library ought not in some degree to correspond with and represent the mind of the man who forms it?” Surely still a question relevant to how people store books on their Google cloud or Kindle library?

Finally he discusses – and he acknowledges how sensitive this subject will be – what to do with all those books and periodicals that you hardly ever read and you don’t want clogging up your bookshelves. His solution is a book cemetery – an underground storage facility but likened more to storing vintage wine in vats than disposing of bodies in a graveyard. “Undoubtedly the idea of book-cemeteries such as I have supposed is very formidable” he writes. “It should be kept within the limits of the dire necessity which has evoked it from the underworld into the haunts of living men. But it will have to be faced, and faced perhaps oftener than might be supposed.” So that will be the ‘archive’ button on my Kindle then.

Since this booklet is free, I’d urge everyone to download it and read it. It’s a Victorian worthy grappling with issues and concepts that we still face today. His hope was that his measurement for private libraries would “prevent the population of Great Britain from being extruded some centuries hence into the surrounding waters by the exorbitant dimensions of their own libraries.” He probably failed to save me from the impending collapse of my house from the hundreds of books on my shelves but perhaps those architects of the virtual library at Google might find his advice helpful.

* I should add that Gladstone had an impressive library of his own – which you can visit and even sleep in! (They offer accommodation). See St Denioils. I’ve also been reminded that Gladstone had a Scouse accent so please read his pamphlet accordingly!

Bookshops for dogs


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Totally dog-friendly Barter Books of Alnwick, Northumberland, UK

A FEW days holiday enabled me to visit Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland – a most remarkable second-hand bookshop. It is set in a disused railway station and includes many unique features which woo a steady stream of booklovers through its doors. First, there’s the totally dog-friendly policy which even includes bowls of water for dogs. More and more places (including cafes) in the UK are becoming dog friendly and it’s obvious that bookshops should welcome dog lovers with open arms. Afterall, when you’re taking the dog for a walk, what better than to call in to your local bookshop for a few minutes for a browse. Then there’s the real fires which you can rest in front of while you read your books. And running above the bookshelves are model train sets – echoing the railway station in which it is based. There’s a cafe of course (in the railway waiting rooms) and thousands upon thousands of second-hand books. I’d encourage all book lovers to visit Barter Books but I’d also encourage bookshop owners to visit the shop for some ideas as to how they might improve their bookshop experience. My only ‘criticism’ is that the model trains are difficult to see on top of the shelves. In my library, the model trains run along the shelves, including in and out of the books!


Visitors to Barter books relax in front of a real fire to read their purchases

train set

Model trains run across the top of the shelves at Barter Books, Alnwick

Three things libraries need to do to survive


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A library sadly typical of those you’ll find today… dull, dull, dull

I’VE been using libraries all my life so that must make me an ‘expert’ and perfectly qualified to say what needs to be done to make them fit for purpose in 2013 (insert ironic smile icon).

1. We need a new definition for the library. The Collins dictionary says it is “A room or book where books and other library materials are kept”. Hardly sufficient.

Libraries now offer DVDs, ebooks, internet access, games, meeting rooms etc which is great but the public are now unsure what a library is there for – free books? entertainment? education? a place to meet friends?

We need a clear explanation as to what a library is in 2013. Plastic language in library missions statements such as ‘hub’, ‘facilitate’ and ‘accessible’ may mean something to library managers but they are meaningless to the public.

The urban dictionary defines a library as “an awesome place that is underrated in today’s society”. But it also says it is “A day shelter for: a. children without responsible parents; b. recently released adult convicts.” Perhaps both are right.

2. Don’t put libraries in a library. At the moment libraries are somewhere you have to go to. They are in a building separate from the rest of the town. In Finland, for example, there are no school libraries – the books and materials are incorporated in the classrooms rather than being a separate entity. Perhaps it’s time to take books to the people. Let’s have libraries adjacent to supermarkets, at football grounds, beside bus-stops (or on buses) or on the beach.

3. Libraries should be magical places for adults and children. Many libraries think putting up a brightly-coloured poster immediately makes their library ‘fun’. Not even close. Think instead Harry Potter meets Costa coffee. Let’s have libraries with secret passageways, model steam trains running along the shelves, a pet cat or dog wandering around and librarians who do magic tricks. Perhaps even a library lit by candles.

Now over to you. What else do libraries need to do?

The dying art of handwriting


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ImageBut for those who might struggle reading my handwriting…

You may not have noticed but the art of handwriting is coming to an end. Within a generation the ability to write ‘cursive’, to do joined-up writing could be lost. Is that a problem? It might be a sad loss but to be brutally honest it may be better in the computer-age for children to be learning keyboarding skills. We might mourn the loss of people writing in the copper-plate style but it’s hardly a practical necessity. We should urge, however, that handwriting is not completely cast aside. It is an ‘art’ and it would make sense for it to be put under the auspices of the art teacher. Handwriting is one of the few skills that perfectly combines both left-brain and right-brain activity. It encourages the writer to think about spelling, grammar, sentence construction and writing style as well as considering the beauty of the written word. It is, as my title to this piece says, an art and should be considered as such with the educational system.

Finally: Of course children should still learn how to write individual letters (and sign their name) but spending hours learning to join letters up is no longer necessary in this digital age.


My library


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My library

As it is National Libraries Day today I thought I would post a picture of my own library. I love books but like my library to be fun to look at as well. There is a train set which runs around the books, a secret compartment, it is lit by candles and automatons walk around the book shelves. A mechanical bird sings and there are plenty of clocks and time pieces ticking away. I also include plants on the shelves. And I put the family heirlooms on there with note beside them explaining their history.

A definite ‘must’ for anyone visiting St Paul’s Cathedral, London



Did you know that you can take a special behind the scenes tour of St Paul’s Cathedral, in which you visit its triforium area? After being whisked like a VIP through a locked door in the staircase that ascends the main dome, you will enter the triforium – an arched gallery that stands above the nave. This area includes a number of interesting sights not normally accessible to the public, including St Paul’s Library, the Geometric Staircase and Wren’s Great Model.


But first the triforium leads down past some fascinating stone remains of the old St Paul’s – destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. These were excavated in the nineteenth century; their shelves boast unique labels, declaring ‘Norman’, ‘Gothic’ and so on. Next stop is St Paul’s Library, a wonderfully evocative old room, with its wooden bookcases full of beautiful old books. The library dates from 1709, although it was…

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A library with no books


The ‘vision’ of the first bookless public library in Bexar County, Texas

IT’S nice to see people following this blog but what makes it really nice is then discovering they’re also blogging on the future of books and libraries. For example, I’m grateful to Matt Maldre for making me aware of the first library with no books. In a sense any computer room where you can download ebooks is a ‘library with no books’ and the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Applied Engineering and Technology Library claims to be the world’s first. I think this is a heavy dose of PR spin but also in San Antonio there are plans to open the first public library with no books.

Bexar County is going ahead with the bookless library – a system they are calling BiblioTech. Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff told The Huffington Post: “The 4,989-foot, Apple Store-like space will offer 50 ereaders for loan, as well as tablets and computers, plus ebook loans for existing ereader users. It will be a learning environment – you’ll be able to learn about technology itself as well as access a tremendous amount of information.”

I love the idea of loaning ereaders as well as loaning the electronic books – a great way to introduce people to ebooks. And modelling it on the ‘cool’ Apple stores will help encourage people through the doors.

It may not be too long before UK libraries follow suit. Cumbria County Council proudly showed pictures this week of their revamped library at Kendal and it included these ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots. To be honest, they sent a slight chill down my spine showing how a room crammed full with books had been replaced by nothing more than computer screens!


Kendal’s revamped library in Cumbria, UK