The Changing Face of Libraries

Maggie’s a wonderfully evocative writer and poet; if you’ve never read any of her work, then DO IT! If you have, then do it again. Her grasp of language is natural and beautiful. Here, Maggie talks about her relationship with libraries and words; an honour to have her on my site.

I’m honoured to be invited to share some words on Matthew Munson’s website, thank you for inviting me Matthew! Matthew was kind enough to interview me recently for the Thanet Writers page, and on meeting I thought he looked familiar. It turned out we had both worked for Kent Libraries. I thought I’d share a few words about this common link then, as libraries have always been vitally important to me. I was born and grew up in a small town called New Amsterdam, in Guyana, South America, and most of my teenage years were spent going up and down the stairs to New Amsterdam’s library, which sadly, as I discovered on a recent visit to Guyana, is no more. From the Bobbsey Twins to Enid Blyton, from Mills and Boon to Thomas Hardy, the world of books took me travelling far away from my small town and I soon began to scribble my own bits of poetry and prose. Many moons later, in the late 80s, after Creative Writing classes and an Access Course at Thanet College, and during my degrees at Kent, I began to organise Poetry Events at Broadstairs and other Libraries in Thanet. In those before-Internet days you were allowed to put posters up in the Library advertising your event, and the most friendly and welcoming librarian at Broadstairs was Sheila Jones, who hosted many events for us. From National Poetry Day to Black History month, Valentine’s Day, and collaborative writing events in response to Art Exhibitions at Margate Library, it was a thriving and productive time not least in connection with the then Arts Officer for Kent, John Rice, who booked many writers to appear at several of Kent’s libraries. His Celts in Kent festival also placed writers with musicians, and one of my ‘gigs’ included Broadstairs own Tim Edey. My first professional reading was at the invitation of John Rice, to appear with John Agard and Bill Lewis at Cranbrook Library, where a buffet was laid out by the generous Claire Hamilton/Rice, accompanied by glasses of wine. That was a fine start for a fledgling poet! And I got paid as well! I remember this when I travel miles at own expense now, and no-one wants to pay you, and you’re lucky if you get 50 quid.

A new post, Reader Development Worker, created between the Arts Council and Kent Arts and Libraries, came up: I applied, was interviewed, and was fortunate in being appointed in the early 2000s, a wonderful opportunity which ran for two years and through which I was able to set up Reading Groups across the County, work with refugees, invite writers to Kent, and in collaboration with Thanet Council and their then Arts Officer, Christina McQuaid, devise several events in Thanet, which led to the first Live Literature Festival in Thanet, Inscribing the Island, which saw many top writers including Adrian Mitchell, Brian Patten, Anthony Browne, Jackie Kay, Crisis, Zena Edwards and Valerie Bloom, storyteller Sandra Agard and musician Keith Waithe, perform in the specially purchased tipi at Quex Park, (courtesy of Saga), in librarians and museums including The Tudor House, and the balcony of the Oak Hotel in Ramsgate. There were walks and collaborations, residences and performances including targeted groups like Age Concern, Mencap, and Special Schools.

However, in came the changes. Cuts. Hardened budgets. Job losses, (including mine), the internet, changes at Saga – a whole list of reasons. Suddenly you had to kiss ass to use the library for events, the staff had their hands tied with what they could and couldn’t do. No more posters – your event had to be put in a book, ha ha. Job cuts hardened attitudes. The Arts Council itself changed and it became difficult to secure funding without becoming very businesslike. As a writer, developing Literature had become very difficult for me, and I had to choose what road I would walk. I moved to Wales in 2006, and since then have written a memoir, Kiskadee Girl, two more collections of poetry, two collections of short stories, the latest – In Margate by Lunchtime – is available in Thanet Libraries – my gift to an institution which had cradled, uplifted and inspired me for many many years. The world has changed of course, the internet now provides almost everything a library once did. Research is at your fingertips, computers line spaces that once held discussions, and readings, and sometimes wine. But these changes can never replace the physical sensation of walking into a library like an explorer, seeing those books arrayed before you like little treasure chests with maps that took you travelling – the smell of dust and moths, mysterious stains, and the feel of the paper under your fingers, the words appearing as if by magic. Ok I admit it, I’m a romantic. That’s my story.

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