Why I love libraries


Today is National Libraries Day, a fairly new annual celebration of the UK’s many public libraries.  Though the future of many libraries is in doubt at the moment, they are definitely worth supporting and celebrating as an important part of life both locally and nationally.  Of course, it would be very easy to note that I’m biased, being a librarian, though from a different sector of the library world.  I should point out that I loved libraries long before I even considered working in one.  But why?

First and foremost, the books.  As I grew up, the library was able to feed my voracious appetite for reading, something which my parents would never have been able to afford to cope with had they had to pay for all the books I got through.  I read the lot.  The complete works of authors such as Roald Dahl, Arthur Ransome and Enid Blyton (yes, even the stories set in girls’ schools!).  The Mary Poppins books.  The Jennings books.  Classic books like Kidnapped, Treasure Island and The Swiss Family Robinson.  And once I’d exhausted the area of the library dedicated to children, I started to raid the main shelves.  Agatha Christie.  Terry Pratchett.  Ngaio Marsh.  Plus the non-fiction, of course.  I had to learn about the world, and the resources that the library provided enabled me to read about the natural world, the arts and more.  These days, I buy a lot more books than I could ever have conceived of as a child, and have discovered many more authors and works which inspire me, but I still borrow from libraries.

Then there are librarians.  Generally not like the scary Madam Pince from the Harry Potter novels, though also not derring-doers like Buffy’s mentor Rupert Giles, I nonetheless respected and appreciated librarians in my youth.  They seemed to know so much, and were always helpful.  I now know that librarians do indeed know a lot of things, but their (our) greatest skill is the ability to find things out.  To know where to look to find the answer.  And no, even in the brave new world of information technology the answer isn’t always “look on Wikipedia” or “just Google it”.

Public libraries also offer a whole range of activities and services which I don’t make use of, but am glad exist.  They can be a major part of the social life of more vulnerable members of society – services like the mobile library allow books and perhaps more importantly people to reach members of the community who can’t get into the town centre.  Young children and their parents can socialise through storytimes or the intriguingly-named bounce and rhyme.  Then there are reading groups, the collections of talking books, the sessions for help with IT skills and much more.  All of these should be treasured and fostered.

Some people say libraries are irrelevant because everything’s online now.  Well, that’s not true.  Not everything is online, and even when it is, not everyone is able or willing to access it.  Even if you’re a believer in the idea that only the online is relevant, public libraries offer their members an increasing range of online resources, quality sources of information which they would otherwise have to pay for.  My local library service, for instance, provides access to biographical resources, sites for researching family history, an archive of classical music and selected services intended to help with homework.  Who, exactly, would provide all of this if it didn’t come from the library service.

I love libraries because they helped foster my love of the written word and encourage my curiosity.  I love libraries because they have wonderful staff.  I love libraries because their activities brighten the lives of many people in need.  And I love libraries because they have moved with the times, providing computing facilities, e-books and online reference resources.

Love them, visit them, support them – every day, but particularly today.

Books of the month – January 2012


I read a lot.  On the train, last thing at night, in lunch breaks or just when the opportunity arises, you will often find me with my head in a book.  It sometimes seems inconceivable that there are any books on my shelves which have not yet been read, but somehow there are.  Their ranks get topped up from time to time due to eye-catching titles in charity shops, exciting new publications or just general moments of weakness.  And then there are library books, whether from my place of employment or the public library (using the latter a lot more now, as they need the circulation statistics a lot more than university libraries do).  One of my goals for the year (in addition to sticking to my church’s scheme to read the Bible in a year) is to finish all those unread books, including one or two which were shamefully abandoned part way through.  However, of the books I finished during January, only two can claim to be from the “to be read” backlog.  So, what have I read?  Why did I read it?  And what did I think?

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Bible in a year – on the train!


During 2012, a number of people from my church are reading through the Bible.  Each day, there are three or four chapters to read, and the idea is that with quite a number of us reading it at the same time, we will have plenty of people to share encouragements with or to ask about the confusing bits (and let’s face it, there are quite a few of those!).  There is no obligation on anyone to do it, and nobody will be frowned upon for slipping behind or doing anything differently.

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Looking back on 2011


Looking back, it turns out that 2011 was quite an eventful year in the world of the Singing Librarian.  At work, on stage, backstage and in miscellaneous other places, quite a bit happened.

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In the library on 11th September 2001


Some time ago (i.e several years), I mentioned the experience of working in the library at the time of the 9/11 attacks.  The library serves the main campus of a new university (at the time it was still a “university college” of around 10,000 students, and this would have been just before the start of term.  I had been in post for a year, and it was the day of the annual library staff meeting (a tradition which we no longer maintain due to the perceived need to keep absolutely full service going all year round).  Three staff were left behind in the library foyer to attend to any students or academic who happened to wander in and the rest of us went off to the meeting which was as exciting as such meetings generally are.

Half way through the meeting, there was a change of shift, with a few people disappearing back to the library while those who had been on duty came back up.  Or should have come back up.  Only one of the three made it to the meeting venue, and she looked rather shaken.  When asked what was wrong, she simply said that there had been a plane crash in New York and I’m afraid we thought nothing more of it – plane crashes are unusual and tragic, of course, but not extraordinary enough to interrupt a staff meeting, surely?

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Time to train


Sometimes people ask me why I’ve never tried to take up performing arts as a career.  There are many reasons for this: I already have a career as a librarian; I’m scared; I don’t know that I’m good enough; even if I am good enough, I know that being good enough doesn’t guarantee success…  I could go on.  Generally the reason that I give is that I know very well that I need training, and I can’t afford it.   It is still true that I simply cannot afford full-time training, but I have finally managed to make myself take a first step and join a part-time training course.

So tomorrow morning, I will start a course at the London School of Musical Theatre (a.k.a. LSMT).  One term’s worth of Saturdays which will involve acting, singing and the ever-scary dancing.  I am both very excited and rather scared (but then, I am scared of pretty much everything, so that’s hardly news).  I want to do this course, because I want to get better at performing, particularly the dance aspect of musical theatre.  Whether it leads to more or different opportunities is essentially irrelevant – I want to improve.  My involvement in musical theatre is much more than a hobby, and I take doing well on stage as seriously as I take doing well at work – that is, very seriously indeed.  But regular readers already know this.

This course is important to me.  I will have to get an earlier train every Saturday than I do during the week to get to work, and a day on the course is the same length as a work day (and probably more tiring).  But those things don’t put me off.  I’ve re-arranged much of the rest of life to make the space and time to do this.  It’s too good an opportunity to squander – training at a highly respected institution, a chance to improve my skills and my confidence, to meet new people (also scary) and to get better at something I love.  I have no illusions – this is going to be hard work.  If it’s to have any value, I will have to push and challenge myself (or be pushed and challenged), and I will probably experience more than  a few moments of frustration when I struggle to pick things up.  I am probably going to have to unlearn bad habits I’ve picked up along the way.  My dictaphone may well wear itself out from overuse.  But I know it will be more than worth it.

Tomorrow morning at 9.30, my stomach will be tied in knots.  But while it’s true that I’m scared, I’m very excited.  This term is going to be exhausting, but it’s going to be absolutely fantastic!

Suppose you was a little cat…


I have performed many songs, but if there’s one I’ve performed more than any other, it has to be ‘Mr Cellophane’ from Chicago.  It’s my party piece, the number that gets pulled out when I’m asked to sing outside the context of a musical, and as such has had outings in Darley Dale, Bakewell, Elham, Postling, Canterbury, Whitstable, Newport Pagnell, Dover and possibly other places I’ve forgotten about.  Each time is different, as the circumstances change.  Sometimes it’s a capella, sometimes there is musical accompaniment ; sometimes the audience is largely friends (or at least friends of friends), sometimes they’re complete strangers.  And each time is different because I’ll put a slightly different spin on things, bring out different aspects of the song.

Needless to say, I love this number (music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb).  It strikes a difficult balance between being funny, being sweet and being terribly sad.  It is the lament of an ‘invisible’ man, who gets passed by in life, feeling that even those people he sees every day don’t notice him.  When I first performed the song (over 10 years ago now), I felt very much like him and I found that singing his story was cathartic.  These days, when I take on the properties of cellophane it is out of choice – there are times when it can be quite useful to fade into the background.  As a performer, part of the song’s appeal is that is builds gradually from a tentative start, taking on more force and power as the character gets more frustrated with the way people see (or rather don’t see) him.  Then, in a stroke of songwriting genius, it drops off again sharply, half way through the final line, ending with a completely appropriate moment of bathos as the man’s normal state of quiet transparency returns.

A little cat

Last week, Mister Cellophane made his most recent appearance in my repertoire. Bearing in mind how many times I’ve sung the song, it ought to be possible for me to perform it in my sleep. However, this was not to be. Having completed the first verse and chorus, I began the second verse. “Suppose you was a little cat…” Then…nothing. A complete blank. My thought process ran something like :

  • “Suppose you was a little cat,”
  • Oh. Oh no.
  • What on earth comes next?
  • It must rhyme with “cat” and…there’s something about scratching ears, but that’s not yet.
  • Don’t look panicked – look sad, look meek.
  • It’s very quiet…
  • Oh, that’s because P won’t carry on playing until I sing something.
  • I am so embarrassed. What happens if I never remember the line?
  • I ought to make something up.  Something about what the cat does.
  • What do cats do, anyway?
  • !!!  Got it!
  • “Residing in a person’s flat.”

The whole thing can only have taken moments, but it felt like forever. I’m told that it was barely noticeable (the musical director thought I was simply ‘acting’ and other members of the company either didn’t notice or said it was a second or two at most, though that’s still an age in performance time), but those moments were absolutely terrifying.  I’d like to think I’m never complacent when performing, but this was an excellent reminder – no matter how well you think you know what you’re doing on stage, you could know it better and you still need 100% concentration, every single second.

++++++++++

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Reasons to be fearful?


Crocodiles, speeding cars, noises in the dark.
Thunderstorms, ghosts and ghouls, shadows in the park.
Things unseen, facts unknown. Lions! Tigers! Bears!
Everywhere in life, fears can catch me unawares.

Supermarkets, aeroplanes, being underground.
Fireworks, bubble wrap – unexpected sound!
Do they like me? Am I mad? Have I broken laws?
All around, so much to fear. Thoughts to give me pause.

Making calls, networking, trying out a song.
On the job, on the stage, have I done it wrong?
Making friends, each new step, panic hard to shake.
A simple fix, so hard to do – give myself a break!

Concert season


It’s the summer, so the population of Great Britain has both umbrellas and barbecues at the ready, anxiously peering at the sky.  In addition to outdoor meals and disappointing weather, the summer tends to bring a whole bunch of concerts with it.  The Proms are on in London, and the prospect of warm weather seems to get music makers and music lovers going.  Over the last two weekends, I’ve taken part in two very different concerts.

The first was with Reach Out Gospel Choir, a group which was formed in January.  I started going because it’s organised by a good friend, and I carried on going because it was so enjoyable.  We’ve been having fun singing a mixture of traditional gospel music and pop songs, with this being our first public performance.  The choir performed diverse material from ‘Steal Away’ to ‘Can You Feel It?’, all in 3-part harmony and mostly with broad smiles on our faces.  My personal favourites to sing were ‘Magnify the Lord’ and ‘I’ll Be There’, encompassing the range of our repertoire.  The first is very simple, a short and catchy piece which shifts up a key after every chorus, and the second is just a joy to sing thanks to my friend’s fantastic arrangement.  I also sang a solo, stepping out of the musical theatre world to have a go at Michael Buble’s ‘Haven’t Met You Yet’, which was brilliant fun to sing.  I may have to delve into his songbook again!

Next was West Side Story From Scratch, which was (as the name implies) put together with a minimum of rehearsals.  In an outdoor venue, we got the audience to join with us as the Jets, the Sharks and their girls as we sang through the score with the help of two very accomplished pianists.  My part in the concert was pretty mad, even by the standards of a year where I’ve been a wolf and sung a song in my underwear!  For the ‘Tonight Quintet’, I sang the part of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks.  I then got to play the Jets (all of them!) in ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’, a feat that involved four different accents and a workout for my falsetto range.  I think I can safely say that it was a unique version of the song, and it certainly got a very warm reception from the audience.  The Quintet, on the other hand…  well, let’s just say that it could definitely have gone better.  But I suppose that’s a “From Scratch” performance for you.

I have the possibility of one more concert before the summer ends.  In many ways, I prefer doing a fully staged show, partly because I do like to have a character to hide behind, but concerts are a lot of fun and I think the audiences generally feel more a part of proceedings, even if they aren’t being asked to join in with some of the songs.

Belonging


A short while ago, I had a dream with a surprisingly complex plot, a dream which surprised me, when I reflected upon it, with what it revealed about me.  I am now a few months into my new job, and this was the second work-related dream I can remember during this period.  The first thing that transpired in the dream in question was that there was to be a protest – in the current climate of cuts to higher education, rising tuition fees and changes to pensions, this is not exactly unusual on university campuses, but this one would involve both staff and students.

In my dream, I said I couldn’t join the protest because I’m not a union member, so would be continuing to work in the library (which the protest was right outside) for the benefit of those students not protesting.  However, things soon escalated and the protest grew volatile.  I had to ensure that some students on the roof didn’t cause damage to the building, and I had to quell some violence in the car park, where some cars were being attacked.  My dream self confronted rioting students and persuaded them not to vandalise the staff cars there, as they may well belong to their fellow protesters.  Things continued in this stressful and frightening vein for quite some time, until the protest was finally over.

For slightly unclear reasons, I felt terrible about what had happened, and when the other staff members were returning to the library, I went and hid.  However, when I came out of hiding, a group of them (including more senior members of staff) were waiting for me to say that it didn’t matter.  I was presented with some sort of membership card which proved I was now truly a part of the team there – they had even brailled it, so that I could show it to both of my housemates.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that my subconscious mind was/is clearly wrestling with the question of belonging, and whether I fit in at the new library – it appears that my mind is telling me that yes, I do belong there. However, it has struck me since that the dream has wider application than the obvious one, as I have a tendency to worry and wonder whether I belong in other environments. In some of my performing contexts, my awareness of my lack of training makes me doubt whether I fit with the others in the cast. In some social situations, I feel on the sidelines and wonder whether that’s OK or not. Recently, I’ve been in this position more frequently than usual, so it is no surprise that the issue of belonging has been bubbling away in my subconscious. Perhaps I need to take my lead from the dream’s conclusion and start telling myself that I am not an outsider. I belong.

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