Archive for June, 2014

Book Trade – ICRS, American Christian Publishing and UK Distribution

June 29, 2014 2 comments

A view from CBA’s International Christian Retail Show 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia … Evangelical Christian publishing in the USA is clearly not in great shape …

After a gap of well over 10 years, I returned to what I knew as CBA, now called ICRS, and was shocked by what I found. This was the 65th anniversary of the show but it’s a shadow of its former self. The rump of an industry that once covered several exhibition halls rivalling the Frankfurt and London book fairs, is now reduced to a few aisles in a single hall easily covered in one day.


To me, the booths were smaller, the visitor numbers lower, the aisles seemed quiet and the delegate ‘buzz’ felt decidedly restrained. However, products did appear a little less ‘trashy’; perhaps suppliers are more focused as a result of the downturn.

ICRS Atlants 2015

Such major industry shrinkage is salutary.  Publishers Weekly reported this year’s attendance as ‘flat’ with 3,722 delegates (against 3,739 in 2013), 1,520 of whom are classed as ‘Buyers’. To put this year into context; at CBA’s 50th anniversary only 15 years ago, there were over 15,000 attendees!

ICRS 2015

What has happened since the heyday of CBA in the late 90’s, when the turnover of American Christian publishers hit $3bn?

Well, for one thing, the States are now a vastly different place to that of even five years ago. Evangelical churches are haemorrhaging numbers especially from its younger demographic. Churches are extremely exercised by how many young people are leaving. Barna Research suggests that 61% of ‘once churched-youth’ are now ‘spiritually disengaged’.  Politically, evangelicalism is not the force it once was (for good or ill, depending on your point of view), and as Philip Yancey observes in his forthcoming book, ‘Vanishing Grace’, American evangelical Christianity find itself on the back foot culturally.


The largest Christian product market in the world is clearly struggling to make the numbers work. This year ICRS was held in Atlanta, and next year in Orlando, Florida (28 June 28 – 1 July 2015). But where then? Those close to the decision-makers predict a much reduced fair with a smaller and possibly more relational format. A reinvention along the lines of the UK’s CRT event would seem sensible.

The plus point is that ICRS presents a really good networking opportunity and continues to work for the international community. I counted well over 20 Brits present in Atlanta and there were a good number of other nations represented. The weather’s better as well!


Several US houses were celebrating their own special anniversaries this year:

Baker Publishing Group; 75 years, Send the Light Distribution; 40 years, Harvest House; 40 years and Gospel Light; 80 years.

American Christian Publishing and UK Distribution

One publisher told me the talking point of the convention was the distribution situation in the UK.  US Christian publishers are in a state of considerable flux following the recent  upheavals in the UK, with the demise first of STL and more recently of TMD. Distribution infrastructure is therefore hugely reduced, and many US publishers currently find themselves without a home.

Those left – IVP, CLC, Marston, Norwich and JTD – have only so much capacity and the days of easily finding a UK distribution partner are gone. This is a disrupted market and likely to remain so for a while. What to do?  Ingram and Send The Light Distribution have been a good ‘second string’ for UK retailers for some time. This solution is likely to develop further, pulling in an even wider range of shops. However, for US publishers this is not the best solution, as it does little to satisfy their very real demand for wider title visibility and full range availability.

In the UK, distributors and wholesalers are still scrambling to cope with the continuing disruption caused by TMD’s closure. It’s unrealistic to take out around £2-3m of USA turnover from the supply chain and expect everything to sort itself out in a few weeks! In my view, the current situation has a long way to run, and it could be well past Christmas before anything remotely resembling stability returns. I sense that this approaching autumn sales period will be very challenging indeed. I further suspect that some well known American names will not actually find a home in the UK.

This market has changed so much in such a short space of time. However, let’s not kid ourselves as even in the TMD days, too much imported product was already chasing far too few buyers. In some ways, the new non-exclusive model of distribution may only make matters worse, resulting in a false sense of security. More product is being brought in, but the danger is of larger unit numbers simply sitting on even more UK warehouse shelves. These arrangements are unlikely to solve the broader problem. Traditional retail has contracted and online retail is far more demanding of the supply chain.


At the same time, we are experiencing HarperCollins Christian’s introduction of their New York mandated 360-supply programme, requiring that their Christian titles (Zondervan and Thomas Nelson) are sourced via the Glasgow warehouse. Those of us with longer memories will remember something similar from some while back; a move which resulted in the then HarperCollins Religious titles moving to Carlisle due to Glasgow being unable to cope! The jury is out on whether this will work again second time around. For our niche trade, with its requirement of the long tail of titles, especially from the Thomas Nelson Bible range, somehow I have serious doubts but I’m willing to be proved wrong. Anyway, it’s yet another piece of unhelpful trade disruption for bookshops and their customers to navigate at a time when all of us need as many sales as possible.

What does this all mean for the trade, whether publisher or retailer? In my estimation, further consolidation here seems highly likely, as well as even more upheaval to the status quo. We cannot under-estimate the scale of the unprecedented industry and market changes that we are presently living through. Retailers have been coping with this particular storm for years and now it seems its the turn of the publishing community to feel the heat. At the same time, suppliers have to deal with an increasingly bellicose Amazon demanding ever increased terms for doing business in the UK.

As many readers will know, I continue to remain positive about the future of the printed book despite the onset of digital product. The key risks to print sales rest with quality and content. For the retailer, selectivity is the name of the game, together with an ability to curate relevant books to appeal to a specific customer base. Long gone are the days when retailers, wholesalers and distributors would take everything a publisher produces.

Good relationships with customers, stock availability of key lines and fast, same day despatch are what count now.

The game has changed completely. Marketing and promotion remain the Holy Grail. Title discoverability is key. It is one thing getting a title into a warehouse; it’s another matter entirely to get that same title into the hands of the consumer. This point requires far more attention from all aspects of the trade; the Christian trade in particular has a way to go here. A total rethink to advertising and promotion is required.

I look forward to navigating the next set of rapids that lie ahead. Years ago, I particularly enjoyed canoeing through white water – which is just how the book trade feels at present.

Eddie Olliffe is Consulting Editor for Together Magazine.


Book Trade – New Foyles bookshop opens in London

June 13, 2014 2 comments

Wow @Foyles. A major new bookshop opened in London’s Charing Cross Road last Saturday.

Foyles at Charing Cross Road, London

Now this really is a bookshop! It was still a bit rough around the edges when I was there due to the earlier move and has no cafe yet (this will open shortly on an upper floor).

Foyles London

The range of titles is tremendous, as is the easy access to eight levels.


If you’ve seen this brilliant new Foyles shop, you’ll appreciate that good bookshops are not dead yet. The shop was heaving at 7pm in the evening with customers buying armfuls of books.


The Christianity section is good with a decent range of Bibles, but I’m not sure it’s quite as extensive a department as in the previous shop? Anyway, well worth a visit if you’re in the area.


A month long ‘Grand Opening Festival’ is due to start this weekend. ‪#‎Foyles107‬

Social History – Alfred Thomas King: Driver, Royal Field Artillery (RFA)

June 10, 2014 5 comments

My Grandmother, Ethel J. Kerry tragically lost her first husband, Alfred Thomas King in 1917 during the Great War. He was 32. My father was born in 1920 following Ethel’s later marriage to George Olliffe.

Alfred Thomas King RFA

The Coincidence

For three months in the spring of 1979, I lived in the Foyer de Jeunes Travailleurs in Arras, the Pas de Calais in Northern France. This is just two miles from the small British military cemetery at Ste. Catherine.

I never went there.

Unbeknown to me, grandmother’s first husband, Alfred King is buried there, a casualty of the fighting near the River Scarpe, north of Arras in the June of 1917.  He and I – separated by over 60 years – had lived for a while, in admittedly dramatically different circumstances, just a few miles apart in the same town in northern France. However, I came back to England; he did not.

2013-08-26 13.39.24

My family had kept his medals, a few postcards, a brass box and a photograph of Alfred from this era. Beyond that not much else was known. Maybe they wanted to forget. My father told me a story of Alfred having being killed in a rest area, but otherwise he too knew very little. I became absorbed in all this but it’s only recently that I’ve been able to piece together his story with the help of the National Archive at Kew and other sources via the internet.

Alfred Thomas King was an ordinary British soldier caught up in the terrible conflict of World War One in Flanders; the start of which in 2014 we commemorate in this, the centenary year.

I now know where Alfred King served, where he died (even down to the exact location) and where he is buried. Intriguingly, I also discovered that he had a rather chequered start to his army service and seems to have been in trouble for various misdemeanours.

Dvr Alfred T. King RFA

Alfred King’s Background

Born in Q1 1885 and from Harlesden in London, Alfred Thomas King went to sea on the S.S. Delphie. His three younger brothers (Harold, George and Henry) are listed as living in a Boy’s Home in Bristol, Gloucestershire. (I’d be intrigued to know if this was one of the Muller Homes). An elder brother, William, is recorded as living at 9 Hanley Road, Harlesden. On 29th April 1902, Alfred joined the Militia (3rd The Queen’s) at age 17, signing a 6-year attestation. He completed 49 days drill and went on to the Royal Fusiliers on 12th August.

From his army record, it seems he deserted 2 days later on 14th August. I wonder why? What was the cause? I guess we shall never know. On 16th August, he fraudulently enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery for a term of 12 years; 3 years active service and 9 years on reserve. On 24th September 1902, Alfred is awaiting trial. He does becomes a Driver with the RFA, but then faces four further trials and periods of imprisonment for ‘fresh offences’; in June (14 days), July (57 days), October (20 days) and November 1903 (1 day). His last entry is ‘returned to duty as a driver’ on 21st November 1904.


There are records of two marriages. The first wedding took place in Q2 1907 in Greenwich to Caroline Harriet Sophia Jenkins. After 4 years and in the 1911 Census, a Daisy Ivy King aged 9 months is also recorded. By then, Alfred is aged 27, living at 57 Chubworthy Street, New Cross, (Deptford/Greenwich) London, and his occupation listed as ‘Stoker’. What happened to that marriage or the baby, I do not know but Alfred went on to marry my Grandmother in Q3 1913 in Essex, just one short year before he went away to the war as a British soldier.

I have not been able to match up all the records to fully get to the bottom of quite all that happened. It must, however, have been the reserve term of his 12 year enlistment that led him to go to war with the BEF in August 1914. Suffice it to say, Alfred served there for almost 3 years, dying in France in June 1917. There is some moving artwork and poems from that era depicting the work of the RFA.

The Ammunition Column (w/c, gouache & chalk on paper)

War Diaries – First Impressions

In order to be able to read the original documents at the National Archives – the war diaries and the trench maps – I registered for a reader’s ticket. I was able to pre-order the appropriate files and then spent a couple of days going through the various boxes and files. Tracking down all the information would take up another blog post, so I will not cover that process here. Suffice it to say that it was an accessible process, the NA staff are very helpful and it’s fortunate in that I live relatively close to Kew.

The WW1 war diaries and the huge trench maps – obviously all original – are thrilling to the touch.

As I opened the boxes, I had this immense sense of excitement and anticipation as to their contents. What would they tell me about my unknown relative? What detail would it add to our limited knowledge of what had happened? Opening the brown boxes, I soon realised that I may be the very first person in 100 years to handle these papers, possibly since the end of the war in 1918. The sense of history was palpable. As a longstanding personal diarist, it underlined clearly to me just how important it is to record events and to write in detail for posterity.

The WW1 war diaries are archived in heavy brown card document boxes with original war office stickers on the edges. Inside each box, carefully stored, are the brown paper files containing the individual war diaries, often with rust marks marking the spine. Each month of the war is collated within a separate paper folder. These files contain the original handwritten documents – all written in pencil – with each place name printed in CAPS, Sometimes the papers are annotated in blue official pencil. The header sheets are invariably written in ink; beautifully handwritten and frequently printed in block letters. I discovered some fascinating appendices, many marked ‘secret’ and typed (often) with a blue ribbon on original typing paper. It’s almost worth ordering these boxes from the archive simply to experience this frisson!

National Archives WO 95


The Western Front trench maps are quite simply huge documents – in size, scale and number – and printed in various versions. I was interested in Map 51B NW and so ordered that particular folder. It came packed full of many, many maps of this one area in Northern France. Before I had arrived at Kew, I knew exactly the area on which to concentrate my search. This proved just as well as there were so many sheets to look through. The documents ranged from large maps on heavy card to smaller maps printed on flimsy paper. Many maps had been written on in coloured ink and some were annotated for a specific campaign battle. The trench lines depicted were colossal; like a sweeping and impenetrable spider’s web. The cartographic effort that went into the fighting on the Western Front was quite simply enormous.

Maps - Arras - Red trenches 2

Maps - WW1 portfolio

Maps - Trench Maps numbering

The BEF: in at the start

Alfred Thomas King was a Driver in the Royal Field Artillery (of the 32nd Brigade, 4th Division, Ammunition Column). The most numerous arm of the artillery, the horse-drawn RFA was responsible for the medium calibre guns and howitzers deployed close to the front line and were reasonably mobile. Albert deployed with the BEF at the outset, leaving for France in August 1914, at the outbreak of the war.

I found the actual record of the day the brigade left for France from barracks in London. The numbers are staggering and note how many horses the brigade took with them to the front.

DAC War Diary 22 Aug 1914

Extracts from War Diaries 1914

32nd Brigade, 4th Divisional Ammunition Column

Source: WO 95 / 1468 – Closed until 1965 

August 22  

Eight trains conveyed IV Div. Am. from Park Royal Station to Southampton

15 Officers, 557 other ranks, 728 horses, 110 four wheel vehicles, 6 two wheel vehicles and 6 bicycles

August 23

Embarked on S.S. Rowanmore – delayed by fog off IOW – on to Le Havre,

Then Rouen – Amiens – St Quentin – Route Nationale 44 – Ham – Noyen – Emeville

The Great War (1914-1918)

‘The experience of the Somme caused the Germans to reconsider their strategy on the Western Front. They constructed a formidably strong defensive position many miles in the rear, and withdrew to it in early 1917. The British called the part that they faced the Hindenburg Line. A large French offensive, supported by a British attack at Arras, withered against the new German defence and many French units had had enough. Many of them mutinied. From this moment in May 1917 the British army had no choice but to take the lead role while the French stood on the defensive. The main British effort of the year was the costly and depressing Third Ypres, while at Cambrai a significant new tactical approach pointed the way to ultimate victory. The Great War was finally to end in November 1918’.

Extracts from War Diaries 1917

32nd Brigade, 4th Divisional Ammunition Column

Source: WO 95 / 1468 – Closed until 1965 

March 1917

Bray-sur-Somme, Vaux-sur-Somme, Coissy, Talmas, Aubrometz


Laressset, then to a previously occupied camp at Maroeuil (Sheet 51C, F27, C42)

April 10

Marched to a new camp in a snowstorm, 3 kms NW of ARRAS on the ARRAS – SOUCHEZ road

June 2

Came under control of 9th Division Artillery at noon.


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The weather on the Western Front in June 1917 was ‘fine and warm’.  This period of the war was known as the Arras offensive and ran from early April to Mid-June. In mid-May, a particular action on the River Scarpe had been fought leading up to the attacks on the Hindenburg Line. Driver King would have been part of this offensive.

Following a bombing attack by the German air force, Alfred died of his wounds in a Main Dressing Station (MDS) run by 104th Field Ambulance on 4th June 1917, aged 32 years, He’d come the whole way through the war, only to be killed some way behind the lines. The date was particularly noted by my father, as it was later on the same date in 1941, that the German architect of WW1, ‘Kaiser Bill’ died in Holland!


Extracts from War Diaries 1917

32nd Brigade, 4th Divisional Ammunition Column

Source: WO 95 / 1468 – Closed until 1965

June 3

At 11-12pm an enemy bomb exploded on the ARRAS-SOUCHEZ road at G8 b8b (Ref Map France 51B 1/40,000) causing the following casualties: 2 dead, 10 wounded including 36857 Dvr. A. King.

All the wounded were admitted to the 104th Field Ambulance with the exception of Capt. JWJ Knight, who was only slightly wounded and remained with the unit.

June 4   

No 36857 Dvr. A King died in the 104th Field Ambulance shortly after admission.

Capt GH Belas, 2Lt JB Craik and 36857 Dvr. A King buried at 2pm at G14 b95 (Map 51B NW)


German Air Power

Wikipedia’s entry on the Royal Flying Corps is interesting for this period:

As 1917 dawned the Allied Air Forces felt the effect of the German Air Force’s increasing superiority in both organisation and equipment (if not numbers). The recently formed Jastas, equipped with the Albatros fighter, inflicted very heavy losses on the RFC’s obsolescent aircraft, culminating in Bloody April, the nadir of the RFC’s fortunes in World War I.

To support the Battle of Arras beginning on 9 April 1917, the RFC deployed 25 squadrons, totalling 365 aircraft, a third of which were fighters (scouts). The British lost 245 aircraft with 211 aircrew killed or missing & 108 as prisoners of war. The German Air Services lost just 66 aircraft from all causes.

By the summer of 1917, the introduction of the next generation of technically advanced combat aircraft (such as the SE5, Sopwith Camel and Bristol Fighter) ensured losses fell and damage inflicted on the enemy increased’.

The war diaries of the Field Ambulance corps bears out the German air attack on this date and record the subsequent arrival of the casualties.

Extracts from War Diaries June 1917

104th Field Ambulance / 34th Division

Stamped: Committee for the medical history of the war (7 August 1917)

Source: WO 95 / 2453 – Closed until 1965


Jan 16                    SUTTON VENY, WILTSHIRE

No 104 Field Ambulance marched out of camp just after midnight.



Summary sheet

Western Front – Battle of Arras 1917

April – attack on Vimy Ridge

May – capture of Siegfried Line


Title page marked Confidential

War Diary of 104th Field Ambulance RAMC

By Lieut. Col E. Beverley-Bird RAMC (TF)

From 1st June 1917 to 30th June 1917 (Volume XVII)


May 27  

Fine weather continues …. Proceeded to ARRAS to take over Main Dressing Station (MDS) at HOSPICE DES VIEILLARDS from 52nd Field Ambulance

May 28    

Fine weather continues. Remainder of Unit embussed at 9am at crossroads north of N in BERNEOIL (Sheet Lens 11) and proceeded to ARRAS where they disembussed and marched to HOSPICE DES VIEILLARDS

 June 1  

Fine day. Very hot. Work on cleaning up and preparing HOSPICE DES VIEILLARDS as a MDS continued. Rev Hinchclille C.F. attached for temporary duty.

June 2   

Fine weather continues – very warm. Enemy shelled ARRAS in the morning. None fell near MDS. About 11pm, enemy aeroplanes passed over ARRAS dropping bombs, some of which fell near the MDS. No damage done to MDS.

June 3

Fine warm day. Brilliant sunshine. AM: ADMS 34th Division visited MDS, inspected the work that had been done on the buildings and surroundings. PM: DDMS and DADMS XVII Corps visited MDS.  6pm: attended conference at SDMS office when arrangements for dealing with the wounded during the coming offensive were discussed. A number of hostile aeroplanes came over the town about 10.20pm and dropped a number of bombs. After passing over, they returned and dropped more.

June 4 

Fine day. Very warm. Brilliant sunshine all day. Work on dressing rooms completed. A large hall on the ground floor has been divided into receiving room, dressing room and evacuation room by screening off the middle portion. The whole place has been cleaned and whitewashed and the dressing room is fitted up to deal with 4 stretcher cases and a similar number of sitting cases at one time. Commenced to build stretcher shoot down to car stand. Town again bombed by hostile aeroplanes about 11pm.

June 5  

Fine weather continues. Bearer party left at 8.30am to report to OC ADS (102nd F. Amb) at BLANGY. Bearer party left at 9am to report to OC WWP (103rd F. Amb) at ST NICHOLAS.

104 FA June 1917 Deaths 3

Admissions and evacuations sheet

104 Field Ambulance – for June 1917

Total wounded 589

CCS                        558         (Casualty Clearing Station)

CRDS                     4              (Corps Dressing Station)

Return to Duty 12

Died                      16 (including Dvr. A. T. King) – my italics.



Extracts from War Diaries June 1917

103rd Field Ambulance / 34th Division

Stamped: Committee for the medical history of the war (10 July 1917)

Source: WO 95 / 2453 – Closed until 1965

In the Field

June 1                   Bright sunshine and warm

June 2                   Continued bright sunshine

June 3                   Continued bright sunshine

June 4                   Warm, sunny weather continues

June 5                   Continued brilliant sunshine

03 Cemetery 7

ATK’s War Grave

Driver A. T. King is buried in Ste Catherine British Cemetery (Grave Ref No E7) in the Pas de Calais alongside 334 other BEF Old Contemptible casualties. The white CWG stone is engraved enigmatically with some words from the Bible, ‘All seek their own’. His Commonwealth War Graves Commission website record also notes: Husband of Mrs. E. J. Olliffe (formerly King), of 54, Denbigh Rd., Church Rd., Willesden, London.

03 Cemetery 8

03 Cemetery 2

Ste. Catherine is a village in the Department of the Pas-de-Calais, adjoining the city of Arras on the north side. Ste. Catherine British Cemetery is on the left of the road to Therouanne (the Chaussee Brunehaut [D341]), not far beyond the Church, then along a side street. Ste Catherine British Cemetery contains 339 First World War burials and was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield’.

‘From March 1916 to the Armistice, Ste. Catherine was occupied by Commonwealth forces and for much of that time it was within the range of German artillery fire. The cemetery was started in March 1916 and used by the divisions and field ambulances stationed on that side of Arras until the autumn of 1917. The cemetery was enlarged after the Armistice when graves were brought in from the surrounding area.

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Medals and Memorabilia

Driver Alfred Thomas King was awarded the three British WW1 Campaign Medals, affectionately known as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred. These were the 1914 or Mons Star (Pip), The British War Medal (Squeak) and The Victory Medal (Wilfred). These medals clearly demonstrate that Alfred served in France from the very start of the Great War through until his untimely death there in 1917.

02 Medal 2

02 Medal 7

The August to November 1914 Star Medal (Pip) was awarded only to those who were in action during those dates. Alfred’s details are clearly engraved on the back: 36857, DVR: A.T. KING. R.F.A.  The recipients of this medal were responsible for assisting the French to hold back the German army while new recruits could be trained and equipped. Collectively, they fully deserve a great deal of honour for their part in the first sixteen weeks of the Great War. This included the battle of Mons, the retreat to the Seine, the battles of Le Cateau, the Marne, the Aisne and the first battle of Ypres.


WW1 War Medal Roll 1

Alfred was also the recipient of 17 year old Princess Mary’s Christmas 1914 Brass gift tin to the troops which remains in the family.

01 Tin

WW1 Postcards

I also have four beautifully embroidered postcards sent by Alfred from France to my Gran. He writes in pencil, in a formal style with a flowery hand. Unsurprisingly, hints of issues in their marriage come through in the text. Family events are alluded to that, frustratingly, I will know nothing about. There’s no one to ask now, so I guess this aspect of his life will always remain a mystery?

Earlier records in the NA point to an earlier marriage (and of a child?), but it’s been hard to match these up conclusively. The thought passes my mind that he may well have preferred army service to marital life, hence the strain clearly present in this correspondence.

Whatever the truth of Alfred’s early years, here is a man who left England to do his duty to his country, and like so many others of his generation, did not return. My own Grandfather also had an army career, but his was in India, sandwiched between the Boer War and the Great War and so he did not see hostile action but lived until the 1960’s. I’m not sure that my Grandmother said much about Alfred to my brothers (all of whom are older than me), but to my knowledge not much else is known of him or of their marriage.


On the day I finally completed this research, the army’s guns at Longmore Camp in Hampshire (near to where I live) were firing with a deep ‘boom, boom, boom’; a fitting artillery tribute to my Grandmother’s first husband.


Book Trade: Literacy matters – and Libraries matter too

June 4, 2014 1 comment

Libraries are once again in the news, and not for the most encouraging of reasons. Closures, cuts and low staff morale seem to be the order of the day. Austerity has taken its toll. In that sense, libraries and bookshops have much in common. Both are fighting for the attention of the reading public, both are under pressure, feeling under-appreciated and threatened in a fast-paced and increasingly digital reading environment.

Closure statistics are salutary. 100 libraries are slated for closure this year, plus 200-300 others to be taken over by volunteers, with the inevitable loss of a professional service. One library campaigner was reported in The Bookseller in February as saying, ‘We are in a state of emergency’. Local authorities will see cuts to their budget this year of 2.9%. One library assistant from British Columbia posted, ‘Cutting libraries during a recession is like cutting hospitals during a plague’. That quote obviously resonated as it’s now all over the Internet.

The authoritative Public Library News website states that, since April 2013, 489 libraries (including 81 mobile libraries) have been closed, or are likely to be closed or have already been passed over to volunteers. This disturbing figure is almost 12% of the total library estate of approximately 4,134 libraries around the country. It is just possible that local campaigning may halt a small number of these closures.

Yet this is not the whole story. There is another aspect to this particular soundtrack. The fight back has started. Central government is being forced to listen to a growing chorus of concern. The many thousands of employed librarians and their libraries are an irreplaceable national treasure. Most agree that libraries are vital centres for literature and reading. Libraries – along with most well run bookshops – emphatically have a future, albeit one that may be somewhat different from that which has gone before.

In September 2013, against these current trends, Birmingham City Council opened their flagship 31,000 sq. feet, 10-floor ‘Library of Birmingham’; one of the largest libraries in the world, and built at a cost of £189m. This library houses over one million books, the Quaker Cadbury family’s ‘Bournville Village Trust Archive’, and one of the two most important Shakespeare collections in the world. Manchester and Liverpool have also opened revamped libraries very recently, both projects costing many millions of pounds.

Birmingham library pic

What are the actual facts about libraries in the UK today?

  • There are 4,134 public libraries in the UK (including mobiles)
  • 40 new libraries opened in 2012 and 2013
  • There are 288 million visits to public libraries each year
  • This represents 4,522 visits per 1,000 of the population
  • There are 42,914 computer terminals in libraries, all with library catalogue and public internet access
  • Public libraries lend 262.7 million books a year
  • This breaks down into: 91.6 million children’s books; 116 million adult fiction; 54.6 million adult non-fiction
  • There are 10.3 million active borrowers

(Source: The Reading Agency – accessed 20 March 2014)

The Bookseller noted in a recent editorial, ‘there were 10 times as many library visits last year as there were votes cast at the last General Election!’ These statistics are impressive. Closures are obviously a real concern but these numbers are evidence of very considerable traffic flow in and out of the public library service every day.

The reinvention of the public library – as with the local bookshop – is underway. The coalition government has just reconvened the Sieghart Commission (chaired by a Publisher) to report independently on the English library service, and report back to Parliament later this year. Its remit is to investigate how our public libraries should adapt for 21st century use. The importance of this commission is that its members are widely respected across all parts of our industry. This same group published a report on E-lending via libraries last year; the conclusions of which have been broadly supported, although the Booksellers Association has since expressed well-argued concerns and is requesting certain safeguards for bookshops. One of the newer members of the commission, Luke Johnson, suggests that future library services may well include computer training, childcare and career advice. However, the core activity of promoting literacy and reading must surely continue.

Anyway, why am I writing about libraries in an esteemed journal dedicated to retailing and publishing? Well, for one thing, we each share a common vocation and the deep conviction that books are vital to the health of society, and need to be made available as widely as possible. Speak to anyone, and most will be able to recall their own childhood library. I visited my own local library in the Cotswolds on a weekly basis, taking out a pile of books every time. I came to know exactly what was on each of the shelves, and I was given special dispensation to take out more books than was normally allowed! There is no way that my parents could have supported my reading habit financially were it not for this library. As I write, in my mind’s eye, the whereabouts of those books and layout of the shelves remain a clear memory. My two-year-old grandson has taken up the mantle, delighting in a large pile of children’s picture books on a regular basis. I too have discovered the capers of Elmer the Elephant.

We should all care about the future fate of our local libraries. The library continues to form part of that vital chain in introducing books and learning to future readers. In other words, the future customers of all good bookshops! We have tended to take our libraries for granted. I realise that there are those who see them as an anachronism in an age of the god, Amazon. Governments dislike the expense. The 152 separate local authorities responsible for the UK’s library estate are caught between ‘a rock and a hard place’ in trying to balance their books, so the easiest option is their closure. This is short-termism at its very worse.

Thankfully, councils have a statutory duty under a 1964 Act of Parliament to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient library service’ for their local communities. Anyone living in the UK is legally entitled to borrow a book free-of-charge from the public library. Oddly, whilst prisons have the same duty to provide a prison library, this is not the case for schools.

We sometimes fail to realise that for some people, books remain expensive, particularly for the vociferous reader. Affordability of books remains a real issue, especially for young families and other sections of society. Not everyone has sufficient disposable income to spend on books. Why then are we closing so many libraries in the UK and removing this hard won social resource? Like bookshops, once they are gone, it’s next to impossible to bring them back again. Does anyone actually care? Well, yes – many people do, and the Internet is full of campaigning websites indicating significant grass-roots support around the country.

Among these websites are:      Click on ‘library facts’

One of the more concerning aspects of this unfolding story is the sheer loss of library staff from the profession. Figures collated by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy show that employed staff numbers dropped 6.8% in the year 2012-13 to 20,302 professionals. Yet library volunteers in the same period shot up 45% to 33,808. For a vital public service this represents a double whammy: the closure of library buildings, and the loss of books and professional staff. The six million dollar question within the profession is whether volunteers are really in any position to run an efficient library service? That particular jury will remain out for some while yet. Readers of this magazine will keep these closures and redundancies in their prayers, especially as many Christians work within the library world. Their profession is hurting in much the same way as in the publishing and retailing world, with the attendant impact of uncertainty and unsettledness on so many families.

I remain as passionate about the future of libraries as I do the future of bookshops. I fully expect both to remain part of our literary landscape. This is one reason why I am involved with Speaking Volumes, a growing charity that exists ‘to help libraries stock good-quality Christian books for all readers to enjoy’.  We work with public libraries, and also libraries in schools, prisons, hospices, playgroups and churches – anywhere, in fact, that books are lent or made available to a wide readership, and we assist by providing 50% of the full price of the books and DVDs.

In April, the ‘Librarians’ Christian Fellowship’, recently re-branded as ‘Christians in Library and Information Services’ (CLIS), appointed me as their next President. I am the first non-Librarian to hold this post, so feel something of a fraud! No matter, I’m a bookman at heart and anyway, I’d always harboured an ambition (unfulfilled) to train as a librarian.

This appointment signals CLIS’s desire to bring those of us involved in books – whether authors, booksellers, librarians or publishers – closer together. To quote ‘The Christian Librarian’ journal, this change of name:

‘Signals to the wider professional world that CLIS is responding to changing times; to the way jobs and work places may be nothing like the work patterns and careers of the past. We have come to this point out of a deep conviction about our calling as a Christian voice in an increasingly secular world’.

This is absolutely a platform upon which I am proud to stand.

This article was written in March for publication in Together Magazine (May to June 2014).

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