Libraries Matter

Those who have read or heard an interview with me will know I started writing young. Even before I could actually write, I used to build houses with toy bricks and invent stories for people who might have lived in them. There came a point in my late teens where I decided I either had to take this writing seriously and start submitting it to editors and publishers or accept it was just a hobby and not to be taken further. I did try giving up writing altogether but that failed. None of the people I knew were writers. I’d heard of Leicester Writers’ Club and Leicester Poetry Society but they seemed to be for older people (bearing in mind a 25-year-old looks old to a teenager). So where did I go to get started?

Leicester’s Central Library had a poetry section. The books were musty and outdated but there were some poetry magazines. Out of date, crumpled and definitely unloved, but they were there. Reading them gave me an idea of presentation and how to make submissions. I was short of cash then but sent off for a few single issues and came up with a plan. I gave myself a year to send out submissions and see what happened. I expected to get rejected but figured if I couldn’t get one poem accepted by the end of the year, I wasn’t writing what anyone wanted to publish. To make myself sound less like a complete newbie, I mentioned I’d written music reviews in my cover letter. One magazine editor rejected my poems with a ‘please try again’ and asked if I wrote book reviews. It seemed like an opportunity to get my name in print so I said yes. Consequently getting poems and reviews published happened in parallel. But might not have happened at all if I’d not been able to get access to a few poetry magazines in Leicester’s Central Library.

At the time I started sending out poems, I’d heard of the (English) National Poetry Library based in London, but couldn’t afford to travel to it. It looked ideal: a space for a library of poetry books (there were plans for a copy of every poetry book published in England) plus copies of poetry magazines to browse. Like public libraries, it was free to access. I’m aware that they also have ebooks and emagazines plus a growing database of poetry magazines and poets published within. Even from Leicester, it looked good: a place to go and browse if I found myself in London with some time to spare. If teenaged me had been in London, I might have got into publication quicker because I’d have had more access to resources.

However, the National Poetry Library is changing its membership. From 2 October, membership will cost £35 (£30 via direct debit). If you are an existing member, you still get free access. If you are not an existing member and cannot travel down to London with proof of ID to sign up as a member by 2 October, you have to pay. This is billed as an “exciting opportunity”.

Perhaps the National Poetry Library use a different dictionary. For those of us outside London, only able to make occasional visits, the cost is not justifiable. For those running mentorship schemes, classes or workshops for beginner poets, encouraging those poets to join the library does not make sense and for some students will not be viable. For the equivalent of teenaged me in London, it’s not affordable. The changes were announced on 23 September. That’s barely any notice for those juggling work and family commitments to get down to London to join before the 2 October deadline. I know libaries cost money to run but this library is funded by Arts Council England and the National Lottery. I understand alternative sources of income have to be found. But this discriminatory scheme dressed up as an “option” and “exciting” is a retrograde step and should be discouraged. There is a petition for anyone wishing to sign:

Meanwhile, Leicester Central Library still has a poetry section. I joined Leicester Writers’ Club. Leicester Poetry Society was wound up but Leicester has several spoken word events, writers’ groups, publishers, literary festivals and a thriving literary scene as the Saboteur Awards 2019 recognised. October sees the start of Leicester’s Everybody’s Reading including the Local Writers’ Fair at Central Library, and States of Independence will be back in March 2020.

That teenager, rummaging the small, unloved selection of poetry magazines, was not particularly determined. She’d have loved someone to show an interest. A librarian who could have pointed her in the right direction. But that didn’t happen. She only sent out poems to prove to herself that no one would publish them. She failed. Even so, that skint teenager could have done with fewer barriers to publication, not more.

Update the National Poetry Library suggests that those who can’t get to London to sign up before the 2 October deadline:

How to join eloans until 2nd October:
To set up your account you will need to send us a scan/photograph of an official letter which you have received in the mail over the last three months eg bank statement, DWP letter, NHS letter, Council tax bill, utility bill. It needs to clearly show the date and your name and UK address. Please note that for data protection reasons we advise any financial documents used for proof of address exclude account details. Also, in line with data protection law we will delete this letter after we have received it.

We would also like you to tell us how you heard about the service.

We will provide you with a user ID and PIN to access the collection. You can then borrow one book at a time for a loan period of 14 days.

I plan to do this. The contact email address is info[at]poetrylibrary[dot]org[dot]uk.

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