Mass Lobby

BEHIND THE SCENES OF THE LOBBY …

In 2009, shortly after Alan Gibbons started the Campaign for the Book, I went on a school visit to the Houses of Parliament where I discovered that the beekeepers had successfully lobbied their MPs. I mooted this idea around but there was so much else happening, it got buried. Fast forward to 2012. In the intervening years there had been research about the benefits of school libraries, the Government were talking about “reading for pleasure” and the new Ofsted Guidelines looked at “reading across the curriculum”. Suddenly, it seemed as though reading was the new buzzword. Then Kristen Meredith Galley brought up the idea of a lobby again on SLN and it was seriously discussed this time around. October 29th was decided as a good date and, by coincidence, I found myself on another visit to Parliament where, much to the amusement of our Politics teacher, I asked all and sundry how we could go about organising a Mass Lobby. Armed with a couple of phone numbers, I rang the appropriate office for information but found myself actually booking in the date and time, together with my details as lobby organiser. This was probably my first mistake because if I’m actually “the person” organising something then I tend to get slightly obsessed with it!

However, I didn’t want people to feel it was “my” Lobby. I wanted it to be “our” Lobby because I knew that if people took ownership then they would be more likely to get involved and I wasn’t lobbying for myself but for all school libraries and librarians. So a meeting was held at the SLA/SLG/YLG conference where we discussed what to lobby for, and came up with a few ideas for strategies and publicity. I started approaching people. My first tactic was to use the speakers list from the Festival of Education at Wellington College, Berkshire. I also carried around a notebook and every time I read an article in CILIP’s Update, the newspaper, professional journals, the TES, etc. and it mentioned a person or organisation that I thought would be supportive of the Lobby, I noted down their details and contacted them. Suffice to say, I communicated with far more people than actually replied and was quite surprised at some of those I got no response from, people that I thought might be behind us.

I created template letters, a Facebook page and put together some evidence that could be used for arguments. I began to get people emailing me to say they were coming to the Lobby or that they would publicise it on their websites. School librarians throughout the country were using their social networking skills and slowly, word got around. The Mass Lobby was beginning to take on a life of its own. Each step of this has been done with the help of others and could not have been done without that support: from creating the slogan for the T shirt, to ideas for a march route, to arranging lifts from far-flung parts of the country. I am especially grateful to Elizabeth Bentley who let me run everything past her before I went public because this was all new to me and I needed someone to double-check things. A meeting was held with Mark Taylor (CILIP), Aaron Hussey (CILIP ) and Tricia Adams (SLA) where we discussed a possible meeting with the Minister for Schools (at that time, Nick Gibb). Other things were also happening: Microlibrarian Systems Ltd offered to sponsor the T shirts; a librarian’s husband offered to make placards for us; the Scottish librarians decided to have their own Lobby on the previous Saturday – things were beginning to take shape.

Then, all too soon, it was October and the Lobby was almost upon us! I’d been liaising with Mark and he’d been fantastic at offering support and advice. I checked everything with Westminster, informed the local police of the march route, took out public liability insurance, bought steward armbands and created some flyers to give out on the day. The T shirts and placards were ready. Every day, I had emails about the Lobby – queries about meeting MPs, where we would be marching, people asking me to check their letters and still I was finding more people to contact! The press release was sent out and I was asked to write a blog for The Day, the TES English also wanted me to write something and participate in a live webchat after the event (still to happen so at the moment have no idea how this is going to go!), local newspapers were ringing me up to get quotes and check details. And BBC Radio Berkshire wanted me to do an interview on the morning of the Lobby. This was definitely moving outside my comfort zone yet I’ve always been ready to try something new and take on a challenge. The only problem was, this wasn’t about me; it was about all children having access to a library at school so I wanted to get it right and not let anyone down. As any organiser of an event knows, you are never really sure if it is going to be successful until it actually occurs (my main worry was that only about ten of us would turn up) though people were still asking to join the Facebook page and mailing me to say they would be coming on the day. And suddenly we had all these authors supporting us too! Fantastic!!! As the day approached I grew rather excited and apprehensive. You always ask yourself “could I have done more?” but there comes a point when you have to let it go.

When I got to Victoria Embankment Gardens, there was already a small crowd and, as more and more people arrived and put on Lobby T shirts, we went from being a minor gathering to a large group of about 120. And what a wonderful mix we were – librarians, authors, teachers, students, not to mention random partners and children of lobbyists. It was time to set off; the atmosphere was almost party-like with all of us proudly marching along Victoria Embankment, carrying our placards, giving out flyers to passers-by. We generated a lot of interest and everyone we spoke to was incredulous of the fact that school libraries were not statutory and that they were being closed. The police outside Parliament were lovely and arranged for us to go inside Westminster Hall once it looked like it was going to start raining. Several people had pre-arranged meetings with MPs but many didn’t. These, however, “green carded” their MP – a system where you can fill in a card and ask to see them – and I was surprised at how many MPs came out to meet constituents, it was a much better response than I anticipated.

And what a wonderful outcome. Far better than any of us anticipated. At the last count, we had 22 MPs who responded positively to our cause and want to support us. One MP has already tabled an Early Day Motion in support of school libraries. A meeting was held with Liz Truss (Minister for Schools), CILIP, the APPG for Libraries and lobby representatives at which the Minister commissioned the APPG to lead an investigation into the benefits of school libraries; she also wants to know why some Headteachers don’t recognise the value of libraries and therefore close them. I have no idea what the ultimate outcome will be, only time will tell, but I’m sure that we have taken a step forward and raised public awareness about school libraries.

When I first started organising the Lobby, I didn’t think it would grow to this extent and I’ve never done anything remotely like this before so it’s been a very steep learning curve. It’s also been an exceedingly busy few months. I’ve been asked why I’m so passionate about this and my response has been that I see the impact school libraries have every day, I see the results of children becoming readers, the difference a library makes to so many of them and I feel that every child should have these opportunities. And what is my one image of the day? Walking into Central Lobby where every seat was filled with someone wearing a “Best App” T shirt, waiting to see their MP. It really was a remarkable sight, the atmosphere was buzzing and there was no way anyone could miss us! But, as I said previously, this hasn’t been “my” lobby; it belongs to everyone who was involved in whatever way – from the beginning, I’ve had help, support and advice from too many people to mention and without them the Lobby would not have happened.

Barbara Band.

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