Which is why the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) and members like bestselling Scottish author Peter May have no hesitation in speaking up in support of Scotland on Sunday’s campaign to safeguard libraries and their highly skilled staff.
Peter, author of The Lewis Trilogy, is this year’s recipient of the CWA’s Dagger in the Library award. Previous winners include household names such as Alexander McCall Smith, Christopher Fowler, Elly Griffiths, Christopher Brookmyre and Mo Hayder, all of them equally passionate about libraries and the work they do.
Which is why I, as the son of a librarian, had no hesitation when I was asked to be the Crime Writers’ Association Libraries Champion in Scotland a couple of years ago. My colleague, the fellow crime writer Priscilla Masters, is my counterpart south of the border.
Key elements of our role includes linking libraries who want crime writers as speakers, or to feature in events, with authors in their area, encouraging libraries and their users to become part of the Crime Readers’ Association (CRA) which brings readers closer to authors as well as speaking out in support of libraries that are threatened by closure or cutbacks, whichever political persuasion runs the local authority.
The ability to speak out is needed. Many writers have watched with dismay over recent years as too many libraries appear to be increasingly viewed as ‘easy targets’ when it comes to cutting budgets, almost as if they are not as important as other aspects of community life.
It is a short-sighted approach because communities value libraries and not just for the books they provide to people who cannot afford to buy new ones and the educational role that they perform for children whose reading habits they support. They realise that libraries fulfil a social role as well, somewhere to go for some people and a place to access the internet for others. It all means that libraries should be viewed as precious and worthy of protection.
As the 2021 CWA Dagger in the Library recipient, Peter May agrees. The Crime Writers’ Association makes the annual award to a crime writer whose books are frequently borrowed and enjoyed in libraries UK-wide, and who works to support libraries. Only library staff can nominate authors for the CWA Dagger in the Library.
Peter said: “I was delighted to win the Dagger in the Library this year, not least because of my long and fruitful association with libraries as a borrower. When I was a child the whole family went to the library every Friday night, returning laden with books for the week’s reading ahead.
“As a young, aspiring writer in my late teens and early twenties, I haunted my local library, devouring the books I could not afford to buy. Back then we took it as a given that we would always have free access to books and learning and it is only now, as government cuts force libraries to close down all over the country, do we realise what a precious social resource is being squandered.
“What the great philanthropist Andrew Carnegie realised more than a century ago when he funded the creation of more than 2,500 libraries worldwide, was that free access to books for all is one of the fundamental cornerstones of a civilised society. To remove, or even chip away at that, is to fatally undermine our society, depriving the next generation of the resources it will require to build the future.”
CWA members the length and breadth of the land stage events at libraries. I myself work closely with my library service in Dumfries and Galloway, including in Kirkcudbright where I help co-ordinate the town’s annual book week, which includes author events at the library.
And every summer, the CWA and the CRA jointly stage National Crime Reading Month, many of whose events happen at libraries (oh, how we missed them during pandemic lockdowns).
CWA Libraries Champion Priscilla Masters, who lives in Staffordshire, is another writer who believes that libraries are worth fighting for.
She said: “Like many other CWA members, my relationship with libraries goes back a long, long way. Right back to when I was a seven-year-old and was issued with a red card for fiction and a blue card for non-fiction.
“The real change came in 1994 when I had my first book contract with Pan Macmillan. It took me a few years to understand a few things about libraries. I hadn’t understood how significant Public Lending Right is to the income of many authors. I also hadn’t realised how their support can sustain a long series or how they can get behind a new series particularly when it set in their area. And I hadn’t realised just how knowledgeable many librarians are about book borrowings, popularity and an important source of feedback.”
That acknowledgment of the role of libraries all adds up to powerful reasons to support the Scotland on Sunday campaign. As Maxim Jakubowski, Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association, says: “Libraries are the mainstay of culture and I fully endorse all who campaign against their closures and cutbacks regardless of their political leanings, and would personally encourage any efforts to help sustain this vital sector of our society.”
I know from first-hand experience of campaigning how important that fight can be. Some years ago, before I moved from North East England to Dumfries and Galloway, my local council tried to close our only neighbourhood library and move our main town centre one into what protestors saw as an unsuitable sports centre. The public reaction, including from a number of writers, crime authors among them, was furious and, thankfully, the protracted protest campaign eventually saw the two libraries retained in their existing locations amid a powerful outpouring of community anger, although, sadly, the mobile library was lost.
In Scotland, the threat is just as real and, for every council that has taken note of public disquiet and rowed back on plans to cut back on library services, there are others that have ploughed on with closures and cuts.
That’s why the Scotland on Sunday campaign is so important and why the CWA supports it.
John Dean is the Crime Writers Association’s Libraries Champion in Scotland