Birmingham 14-16/05/12

Well that was a busy 3 days.

I needed to visit Library Camps’ venue The Signing Tree to get a better idea of its’ layout. I was then invited to The Arts Council’s event “Envisioning the Library of the Future” also in Birmingham. After discussing this with John Dolan, also expected at the ACE event, he invited me to an RSA event on the same subject in the evening of the same day. Never one to look a serendipitous gift horse in the mouth, I readily agreed.

After booking a bed for the night at The Blue House, (Casa Musgrave) and John kindly offering a place at his Bournville residence, I was set for an epic journey of discovery and coincidence. Tickets booked and bags packed the night before (see Ma; I am organised) I was ready for anything. Except for the realisation the car needed to be booked in for its’ MOT that week, DOH! See Ma I still need you to remind me about the bleedin obvious.

The journey was as uneventful as it was comfortable, rule no 1 of public transport: avoid rush hours, where-ever possible.

The Musgrave’s met me from New St and immediately took me to a Japanese place they’d heard good things about. Following an excellent, light lunch (I’d been warned Phil’s Paella awaited us for tea) we went for a wander around Sandwell and had a look in Bleak House Library, with a dewey (NPI) eyed Coral. A plateful, or two, of Phil’s Paella and a glass, or three, of white followed. As there was a distinct lack of X-Factor or BGT I made my excuses and retired, to prepare for the next day.

Phil was up early and out, handing me a flagon of coffee and a round of toast. Coral rose later and after a brief chat she gave me bus instructions and bade me farewell. Thanks to a combination of: the traffic, traffic wardens, cheery Brummie engineers, Google’s navigation app and my appalling sense of direction, I managed to arrive at The Bond for the ACE event a half hour later than I’d expected, yet well in time.

If I was disappointed by the lack of library assistants (I wondered how many of the guests had shelved a book in the past week) I was heartened by the sight of familiar faces in the welcoming surroundings. I waved at a few, introduced my physical self to digital friends, said a quick “Hello” to Mr Dolan then plunked myself down by Sue Lawson and poured over the itinerary for the day.

I was a little concerned by the mornings’ talks, I’d been promised an opening to listen to my own voice not to put up with listening to other people! Fortunately all the speakers seemed to understand this and explained the morning was to be an introduction to the afternoon session where the hard work (of listening to me ramble on) would occur.

And ramble on I did. And hard work it was.

I was aware of a continual pattern emerging. The crowd was silent when the speakers: Phil Swann, Nicky Morgan, Ben Lee asked a question, or for questions. As soon as someone did speak, the atmosphere changed, hands were raised to disagree or continue the theme.

Open Space Technology lived up to its’ promise: coaxing conversation and opinion, often disagreeing, always interesting. As ever, the initially reticent soon opened up and revealed a plethora of imaginative ideas and pent-up passions waiting to be released. I wondered once more why it has taken so long for this methodology to come to the fore. I was in my element, forcing my opinion on anyone who’d listen and many who didn’t want to;)

Similar themes to other library un-conferences cropped up: the affection with which libraries are held by the public, the lack of use of libraries by these same members of the public, the ways different councils are tackling these issues, the continuing failure to engage with majority of the public not already using the service, the continuing engagement with the minority of public who are library users.

The pattern of silences continued after lunch. When asked who would host a session on a particular subject, the same difficult silence broached the crowd. They were as equally quiet when asked who was interested in discussing the subject. At this point I began thinking I really was going to listen to myself all afternoon.

This reticence seems to drive unconferences. Unfulfilled desire to be heard, to be taken seriously, powers’ the conversation. The first couple of minutes of the conversation, after splitting into smaller groups were awkward. Often filled by a sole loudmouth willing to be entertained by the sound of their own voice. *ahem*

Eventually, inevitably the wave of silence breaks. In its wake the debate lurches forward, accelerating towards the end of the session. Beyond which time, many will continue their conversation, caught in an undertow, only saved by the desire for coffee, tea, micturition or some combination, some smoked.

Again the group was asked for opinions about the topics to be debated in the last session. This time I was convinced I would be centre stage, as: “surely the crowd cannot still be coy”? I thought. The collective mind stared blankly at its shoelaces in an attempt to ignore the request. Yet once again the shy retiring spinster, quickly became a girl gone wild.

After prolonged goodbyes, mainly due to the astonishing downpour. I found Mr Dolan (O.B.E. as I never fail to remind my mum) and we set off for food and drink before the evenings’ presentation. Off we headed to a rather special bistro John knew of, which was unfortunately closed, so we went to Cafe Rouge instead:o The wine was fine, the food good, the company better. The 90 mins we’d allocated expired, as always, quickly and we ran across town to the library theatre for….

Re-imagining the Library in the 21st Century. A talk by John Blewitt with obvious similarities to the days’ investigations. The speaker took us through some of the work with libraries and lifelong learners, he’s involved with.  While his obvious interest in sustainability came through in his work, some great community veg gardens similar to the garden shown to me by Coral at Bleak House library. It was John’s experiences with the RSA Catalyst grants that caused my library camping ears to prick up. Alex Watson from the RSA was there to provide an insight into the grants.

A senior member of the libraries management, Brian Gambles, had less than 10 mins in which to cram a short speech and some choice questions from the audience about the new library building. I was surprised as to how quickly the Q&A session was seemingly rushed through. Fresh from the afternoons ACE event I was familiar with many of the ideas and designs the speakers had brought forward. I had a couple of queries I didn’t have the chance to ask. We found ourselves back in the lobby of the theatre, before being asked to vacate the building. It was only when we got out side I realised the apparent rush, was to get to the pub.

It was at the rather special Post Office Vaults in the city centre, all my earlier queries, and plenty of others, were answered. The venue, encouraged, conversation by squashing most of the group round a single table. Across the table a stranger said “Coral says Hi!” John introduced me to Lorna Prescott earlier in the theatre, it was only at the pub when our connection became apparent.

The other connection I made was Tony. I didn’t know anything about him other than he was the only person there more pissed than I was. Turns out Tony was involved in MISociety, with another artist Steve, Steven Mclean. As MISociety their provocative, honest approach has won over fans and brought them into contact with local and national bodies. And this conversation happened between us whilst we were discussing, life, the universe and well you know the rest. Yet another contact to add to our invites for the October Library Camp.

John and I trundled, yes trundled, not staggered, definitely not staggered, our way to his wonderful home somewhere in the Bournville area of town. Forgive me Mr Dolan for not being fully aware of our destination:/ As the hours grew later and the wine glass empties, we made the dedicated and mature, pphhhht, decision to abandon of epic conversation, (mainly me saying “Fucking hell John that’s a lot of books”) and head to bed for the early morning wake up. I had a meeting at Signing Tree and John had a pretend parachute jump, his lovely neighbours had bought him. I did ask exactly what a pretend parachute jump involved, I was under the impression jumping out of a plane was a digital, on or off, activity. I’ll leave it to him to explain.

Fortunately our relatively, early night decision led to only a hint of a hangover. A perfect recovery breakfast followed, provided by a sympathetic chef. We made arrangements to talk soon and meet again. John dropped me off at the station and made certain I got the right train, before heading off to, well I’ll let him explain. Five Ways station was only a couple of stops, I barely had time to check the emails.

I’d wanted to walk to The Signing Tree from Five Ways, to get an idea of the distance. Fortunately for me and my poor sense of direction, it was on the same road as the station and very easy to find. I’d arranged to meet up with Jen Bakewell for more breakfast and coffee there. I arrived at the venue early enough to surprise Sam Berrow, my contact. We chatted a while before bumping into Jen who’d already found the cafe. Sam guided us round, to help us get an idea of how the rooms could be set out.

We ended up back in the cafe, where over coffee, Jen and I filled in Sam on what the day would entail and what we’d need and wouldn’t need. Unconferences being as organised as they are, the menu took up the majority of the conversation. I asked Sam if the catering team would be happy to have free rein, within a budget and dietary guidelines. Unlimited coffee, juice and fruit were mentioned as was an entirely veggie buffet. With the difficult decisions (pphhhht) made. Sam left us to our beans on toast.

Jen and myself passed a sunny hour in the cafe, catching up and making plans,. Last year we’d had a camp poet;) this year; a writers group in residence. Eventually we said and signed our goodbyes, before walking back into town. Less than half an hour later I’d left Jen and was looking round her office Birmingham Central Library.

As a librarian I noticed the staff, trying to hold back the entropic advance of disorder, in much the same way I do. As a member of the public, I noticed plenty of relaxed readers, amongst the anarchy, making themselves comfortable among the shelving. As at the libraries I work, in it pains me to see a single book out-of-order. As at the libraries I work, it was painful. The answer to the question; do we care enough how our libraries are maintained and staffed, is evidenced at home and abroad.

I dragged myself away from the foreign language DVDs and headed for the station. As with every other visit to Birmingham, it had served me well and I will try to return the favour, to the best of my abilities, in October.



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