Can soap operas tell us anything meaningful about ourselves and the way we live? Do they document our times? I imagine they aim to, although many of us will dismiss them as fluff. Nevertheless even a casual viewer would note, over the years, their engagement with a range of issues from drug addiction and terminal illness to religious fanaticism. In EastEnders, Dot Cotton’s journey from prejudice to understanding, via her friendships with Colin and especially Mark Fowler is an obvious example. It told us something about how attitudes were changing in the post-HIV world of the 1980s and 90s, and maybe (for some people) helped to change them. I’m not a media critic so I don’t dare go further than that; but I am a librarian, and (ssh) a watcher of soaps, so I have been very interested in the latest story development on Coronation Street.
The geography of Weatherfield has been extended. It transpires that they have a local library. I admit I’ve only been watching Coronation Street since my student days in Manchester, but I don’t think the library has been mentioned very much before, or if so, only obliquely. No matter – the council want to close it down and it’s time for a campaign! This is facilitated by the recent arrival of a new character, tough-talking librarian Yasmeen Nazir. She quickly puts paid to Roy Cropper’s well-meaning petition, arguing that the council will only respond to direct action – in this case, a sit-in at the library on the day it closes. I won’t digress here on the glory of the interactions between Roy, Yasmeen, Emily, Mary and young Craig as they struggle to get comfortable on the wooden seats and worry about the overnight security of Mary’s motor home (Corrie fans will already know this), but the upshot is that emails to a local councillor and the threat of a social media campaign secures the library a stay of execution. The celebrations are short-lived however as our heroes soon hear that the library is on fire, no doubt an act of revenge against their campaigning.
The admittedly unlikely torching of the public library following Roy and Yasmeen’s victory (they earned the right to appeal the closure) means that I’ve been deprived of a courtroom-style drama involving people quoting from the 1964 Act. But it was clearly a device to get us to the story’s mother-lode, which is that the café Roy’s Rolls is to double up as a community library! This is fantastic on many levels. It’s a testament to the much-missed character Hayley Cropper and her campaigning spirit. It’s a reflection of what is actually happening in many communities right now. And it gives an opportunity for one of the best characters that any soap has ever created, to meditate on the joy of reading, the value of free access to information, the power that comes from knowledge and (fingers crossed), CILIP’s Statement on Intellectual Freedom, Access to Information and Censorship… Okay, maybe not that last bit. But Roy has, I think, met his intellectual match in Yasmeen, whose cries of “[I am] an experienced, fully qualified Librarian” and “it was a vocation!” must have warmed the heart of at least a few qualified, graduate, chartered, passionate and committed librarians. I’m looking forward to more banter as the community library/café/Salon develops. Maintaining a voluntary library is a huge and legally-complex challenge, and if any characters can carry off an extended discussion on copyright and the PLR, it’s these two.
As a lecturer, one of the subjects I am interested in is the idea of information ‘poverty’ and the digital divide: the impact on individuals, communities and indeed countries of not having easy access to high quality information (and ideally, a support structure to help us in our information-seeking). These days, this inevitably includes access to the Internet and the burgeoning range of information sources available there. A case in point is government information. This is increasingly available primarily online, and the UK Government’s Digital Strategy aspires to ‘digital by default’ i.e. everyone who needs to apply for welfare benefits or other types of support, does so online. This is fine if you have fast and easy access to the Internet and already use it all the time; it’s very easy to think that everyone has this. But research from Citizen’s Advice Scotland indicates that their clients, the very people who may need to access these benefits, are also those most likely to have restricted or low levels of Internet access, experience and confidence – certainly lower than the general population. And as our fictional librarian in Coronation Street points out, “families with no money are being punished!”
The UK Government has identified libraries as one source of support for those who are having trouble navigating the job seeking and benefits application form jungle; how realistic this is in the context of the cuts and closures highlighted on the Public Libraries News website, remains to be seen – although we know that libraries are already doing good work in this regard (and have been for many years). There are many such examples in Wales, where I’m based, where libraries are engaged with Communities 2.0 and other partners to offer digital days, ICT training, information and digital skills training, literacy skills and many other types of support.
My main point is this: the huge problems facing our public libraries (and indeed the local authorities who have to make these difficult decisions), the potential threat to, or actual closure of, small community libraries, and the devastating impact on communities or individuals that may result, is actually being talked about in a prime-time TV soap – still one of the most watched programmes on UK television. I’m pretty sure this hasn’t happened before (but will be happy to stand corrected).
It brings the issue into popular focus, and helps to underline the value of libraries to communities for a whole range of reasons. In the course of 4 or 5 episodes we’ve had reference to the library as a safe space, a community space, a place to do homework, provider of books and information for the socially excluded, a bridge for the digital divide, a repository of social history, and memories of a lifetime of use. I do know it’s just a story, and it’s not going to change the world – but it’s there, it’s being acknowledged (and being so, acknowledges all those who are fighting for libraries), and it gives me heart.
(If you missed the episodes, or have never watched Corrie, you can catch up online on ITVplayer, for 30 days. The best episodes are the 30th July and 1st Aug – but there’s mention of it for the week before that too.)