Tuesday, 11 March 2014

World Book Day in Northern Ireland and Saving Endangered Species

I’d like to say a HUGE thank you to all the lovely and amazing librarians of the Northern Ireland Libraries for a very warm welcome and making my World Book Day two-day visit of Northern Ireland so memorable.

My whistle-stop tour took in four libraries, ten librarians, eight schools, about two hundred and fifty brilliant children, an RSPB ranger, a harris hawk, a cocker spaniel called Rufus and an Ireland road trip over the mountains of Mourne and a very tasty sandwich at the Carrickfergus library.  At the end of the tour, as my plane was leaving the runway of Belfast International, I was already thinking up excuses for another return trip.

In the nerve centre, organizing all these shenanigans (one of my favourite words) for World Book Day, were the librarians.

There are many misconceptions about librarians. They are often viewed by the general public as tea drinking, book stampers who scowl at anyone who raises the ambient noise level above 5 decibels.

So…what else to these librarians actually do? 

Well, for a start, the whole book stamping thing is being taken over by robots…there are machines to check books in and out of libraries. But as one visitor to the library said to me…the technology is very clever, but machines can’t recommend a good book and have a friendly smile as well.

So, like librarians across the world, these are only some of the things the lovely librarians of Northern Ireland get up to…..

Rhythm and rhyme for tots and toddlers introducing young children and their parents to books at a very early ages…so important for developing language and an early love of words and stories. 

Schools involvement…recommending books, getting books around to schools, keeping up with changes and new books in the publishing world as well as recommending the classics, organizing book awards where the children choose the winning books, arranging author tours around schools…etc...etc..etc. Importantly, children feel safe choosing books from librarians. They do not feel judged or tested on their choice of book and this allows the skills of reading to develop in a non-pressured environment...reading for the love of reading. 

Libraries provide a space in the community for art exhibitions and venues for lectures on the arts or the latest technological advances in science.

Many libraries have mobile libraries, going to inner city areas and also to remote island communities.

Many librarians take their work into prisons and connect prisoners with their families by giving the opportunity record stories for children to hear a story read or told to them by their absent parent.

Libraries provide a community centre for access to computers for those who do not have access at home.

Librarians are human search engines able to redirect queries about references, magazines, other publications, articles, music, plays…. the list goes on…and on….

Librarians wear many, many hats…(some of them very silly on world book day) and they do all this with an unconditional love of books and unbounded enthusiasm to connect books to readers…especially children.

And yet, I feel, librarians are at risk of becoming an endangered species. In Northern Ireland I was reassured to see that many libraries have had funding to refurbish old libraries and build new ones. The library at Kilkeel is a brilliant example; built to resemble a fishing boat (Kilkeel is an active fishing port), the library is bright and light and busy! with an endless to and fro of people though the doors. It really is a centre for the community.

In England the picture is grimmer, with library closures and staff redundancies becoming ever more common. The problem is, that with government cuts and local authorities trying to save money, cutting back on libraries seems the easy option. In the short term…yep, it seems a great idea; free up a whole load of money…libraries are only roomfuls of books, right?

But in the long term? We will have severed links within communities. People will be denied access to books and information and that is a very dangerous thing…and may have serious repercussions in the future akin to the effects of book burning by repressive regimes. Knowledge is power. It gives us as individuals the ability to think for ourselves, to reason between right and wrong and not follow each other like sheep to the slaughter. We need libraries. We need books. We need stories. Stories allow us to share experiences, to live in someone else’s shoes, to understand lives other than our own, and in doing so, it makes us better people for it.

Some authorities are introducing volunteers…individuals with enthusiasm and love of books but no specialist training…which sounds great doesn’t it? But just imagine if we applied that principle to other professions….

“So, Mrs Smith, you’re all set for your triple bypass surgery today. I’m sorry but we had to cut back on surgeons, but this is Mike. He’s a volunteer. He’s ever so keen. He’s seen nearly every episode of Casualty and he’s even dissected a pig’s heart. What he might lack in skill, he makes up for in enthusiasm…. good luck!”

Doesn’t really bear thinking about, does it!?

So..there we go…

We need libraries and librarians and must make sure they never become an endangered species….which brings me back to my book tour of Northern Ireland.
For my talks, I would be focusing quite a bit about Sky Hawk, my book that features an osprey as one of the main characters.

Birds of prey in Northern Ireland suffered the same fate as those in Scotland, England and Wales, in that most have been persecuted to extinction. The osprey has returned to nest in Scotland, Wales and England (the latter after reintroduction program at Rutland) but to date, no ospreys have nested in Ireland. There have been attempts to attract them with nesting platforms. The landscape would suit ospreys perfectly and I really hope it is only a matter of time before passing ospreys (and the do pass over on their way to Scotland) decide to make their homes there.

So, I was driven down the gorgeous coastline to Kilkeel a working fishing town on the south east coast.
The new library was built to resemble a ship. It’s light and airy inside with a fab reading area for children made out of little boats.

Two schools came to hear me talk about my books and I was very honoured that two children from Kilkeel primary school presented me an amazing painting, they had done themselves.

The children were grandchildren of a famous local artist, Pearson who painted some of the art work in the library. The two girls have obviously inherited their grandfather’s talent

Their connection with Antarctica interested me too. The children of Kilkeel have a special relationship with an owl that resides on a research ship in the Antarctica. 

The Wise Owl sends regular blogs to the students about life in the Antarctica and the work the ship does. The Wise Owl even conducted an experiment for the children by lowering a polystyrene cup thousands of feet below the surface of the sea and bringing it back up to see the pressure of the water at that depth had squashed it to a small fraction of its previous size.

Connections with research stations and conservation groups around the world are so important, and with technology, it makes it potentially very easy.  It would be amazing if every school could have such a long-term connection to a project to give pupils of a school a sense of ownership of it too…another point I will come onto soon.

Sadly I had to say goodbye to Kilkeel and then my lovely librarian, (now removed school organiser and IT hat and put on chauffer hat) and drove me over the Mountains of Mourne (mountains I have always wanted to visit since signing the Mountains of Mourne rather drunkenly after passing my vet school finals). The mountains were very atmospheric with the trails of clouds skimming across their peaks, and yes, they really do come down to the sea, like in the song.

And then Banbridge, to another lovely library and another great set of pupils.

We were very lucky to be joined by Adam McClure of the RSPB who came to tell us all abut his work reintroducing red kites into Northern Ireland. 

One of the schools had adopted a red kite. Adam told us how the reintroduction has been successful but there are still many problems with poisoning often due to the birds ingesting poisoned rats. Part of his job is to educate about indiscriminate pest poisons. The one thing that struck me was how he connected with the pupils. He also showed the pupils the really grim photos of poisoned red kites…one, a female dead on her nest. This provoked a feeling of sadness and outrage with the pupils.

The children really felt that this was wrong, they cared about the fate other the other birds.

60 children in that room cared.

And that is something to ponder upon.

*please take a moment to ponder*

60 children cared.

What if people like Adam could connect the natural world to every pupil in every school!?

The children at the school which had sponsored a red kite felt a greater sense of responsibility over their bird; they cared about what happens to her. If every school had a connection with species within a local habitat and also with that habitat then we would have a generation of children who feel a sense of ownership towards the wildlife and the habitat. This is possible in cities and rural communities. Many cities have wildlife areas within them, and there should be more wildlife spaces, providing people with access to wild areas and giving wildlife home and green corridors through our cities.

We desperately need this. On the same day as I left for home, I heard from Adam that one of the white tailed sea eagles reintroduced to Ireland had been shot. This is such a blow, considering last year was the first year for 100 years that white tailed sea eagles have successfully reared chicks.

It only makes Adam’s work more urgent and important to connect the next generation to the wildlife and habitats we are at risk of losing forever.

So, after a night’s sleep, I was taken to two more great libraries in Belfast. At Ballyhackamore (added this to my favourite words list)  library we were lucky to be joined by the Northern Ireland School of Falconry and their Harris hawk. For many of the pupils, it was the first time they had seen a bird of prey close up before. The pupils had loads of questions about the bird and falconry too.
Many of the children were in World Book Day costume and it was a strange sight to see a four-foot white rabbit holding onto a bird of prey. Even the bird looked confused.

After Ballyhackamore, and onto Carrickfergus library to meet the last two schools.  Thanks to the pupils who came out and did a great piece of acting to the first chapter of Sky Hawk…I think your futures may well lie on the stage!

I loved my visit to Northern Ireland…and was made to feel very welcome by all. The librarians had gone beyond the call of duty organizing the connection with the RSPB and the falconers. They brought us all together and they made it a great event for all and for that I cannot thank them enough. I wanted to stay longer but the plane was revving its engines as I ran into the airport.

On my flight home, I thought about libraries, birds of prey and wild habitats. They all need protecting and maybe the best way for this to happen is through a sense of ownership, for individuals and communities to really care for them and to know the consequences if they are gone. As individuals we need to unite and be able to say, ‘we won’t let you take that from us…not on our watch!’ because if we don’t care, these precious things will be long gone and it may be too late to do anything about it at all.


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