Most of my experience of my first London Book Fair as a MSc Publishing student this year was a dazed wander around the Olympia, trying to take as much in as possible and also not get overwhelmed. Publisher stalls were fit to burst, pathways were bustling with people, and panels were sometimes full to the brim. There were however two panels that weren’t as crowded but that I wish had been. Both explored the importance of literacy to the wider community, to society as a whole, and implored publishers to collaborate. I can’t begin to summarise the range of initiatives, expertise, and overall sense of hope that these panels gave me properly in this post but hopefully it communicates something of what I got out of those experiences.
Rebuilding the Libraries IS destroyed: How Publishers are Bringing Books Back To Mosul, Iraq
In 2015, IS fighters destroyed the University of Mosul’s library. In doing so, they harmed not only access to knowledge for academics but resources for the wider community. According to Dr. Alaa Hamdon, founder of Mosul Book Bridge, the library was ‘a lighthouse of learning’ and sat at the heart of the university as well as a cultural centre for the wider city of Mosul. Places of learning were targeted after Mosul fell to IS forces in 2014, and not only was the building itself left in ruins but thousands of books, some dating back centuries and irreplaceable, were also destroyed. Only a few survived.
The LBF panel followed the story of what happened afterwards. Moderated by Robert Sulley of Hodder Education, the panel featured Dr. Hamdon, Alison Tweed of Book Aid International, Dr Mehiyar Kathem of the Nahrein Network, and Rachel Goode from Oxford University Press. Dr. Hamdon spoke passionately about the work Mosul Book Bridge are doing to rebuild the library collections and eventually the library building itself in order for the university and the city to begin to a new life. Tweed discussed the partnership with Book Aid International and the points to consider when shipping thousands of books across to Mosul. All the books sent are requested by the library itself and are in English so far. Rachel Goode from Oxford University Press said she felt very strongly that the books sent should be useful and ‘not just extras from the warehouse’.
All spoke highly of the work done so far but stressed that there is a long way to go. More higher education books are needed. Because of the unrest in the area, electronic resources are not as useful as they may seem in the West. Most of the donations so far have been in the English language which is not ideal given that the original library was composed of 70% Arabic titles to 30% in English. There has been support from the German government for the physical rebuilding of the library but more money is needed for when it comes to things like cataloguing books and training staff.
Whilst building a library may sound small in other contexts, in Mosul, it is a question of hope and the chance to return to normality one day. As a student I felt keenly the privilege of sitting in that room, getting to hear this incredible story, and knowing that I would have access to not just one library but many back home in Edinburgh. I am even writing this post in my local library right now.
When the panel finished, there was a sense of hope I kept my fingers crossed that publishers with the ability to donate books in bulks or who felt sympathetic towards the cause would reach out in any way they could and was heartened to see that the panellists were surrounded by clusters of people wanting to chat more.
Sharing the Transformative Power of Reading for Pleasure in Disadvantaged Communities
This panel took place towards the end of the week and was moderated by Jake Hope, a librarian and chair of the Youth Libraries Group. Samantha Thomas-Chuula, Ali Mawle, and Gideon Coomey, respectively of Book Aid International, the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and the Royal Commonwealth Society, were the panellists.
The discussion explored the various literacy initiatives and campaigns organised by each panellist and their organisations. The main refrain returning throughout the panel was an emphasis on reading for pleasure, not just for education, as a tool that is beneficial for disadvantaged communities for financial and economic reasons as well as on an individual level. For Commey, the term ‘disadvantaged’ is importantly not homogenous and not just about economic indicators; communities can also be disadvantaged through a lack of strong social networks or, as Thomas-Chuula pointed out, a lack of resources, training or welcoming spaces. Mawle also referred to rural isolation, a lack of books at home, or children not being read to at home. All of these factors contribute to a reluctance or a lack of engagement with reading.
‘Access to the right books for the right child at the right time’ was a phrase that stuck with me from the panel. For me, as a bookseller who works in the children’s department, I know how important it is to give the right recommendations to children who are intimidated by reading or who think that books are boring.
The emphasis was on empowering the audience of publishing industry professionals to take initiative and do what they could to promote and encourage literacy within their own communities. Ideas like volunteer reader organisations, publishers donating books, publishing the works of young people in anthologies, engaging parents so that they can also advocate for reading too, and putting reading for pleasure on the curriculum floated around during the Q&A session, all excellent ideas which can be adapted and shaped for the environment in which they are implemented.
A general plea came for more support for libraries across the UK as budgets are slashed across the board. The panellists continued to advocate for localised, visible work within communities as the best way forward. By proving the inherent social value of libraries, there is a real chance to make change in policy.
Without spaces to access books, reading can become elitist and exclusionary. When freely available, accessible, and inclusionary, reading empowers. These two panels, coincidentally bookending the week, grounded me through that chaotic, exciting time, reminding me of the reason that books are published in the first place: so that somebody can read them. It is clear that publishers have a responsibility to continue to advocate for literacy by working with and supporting libraries as well as organisations and initiatives that protect space for reading so that there is a future where books are valued and also valuable to the communities that read them.