TV soaps, libraries and public debate – guest post

Street sign saying Coronation StreetCan 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.

(Ed: this is a guest post from Dr Anoush Simon, lecturer in the Department of Information Studies at Aberystwyth University. I’m afraid to say I haven’t watched Corrie myself.)

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.

1960 television

Image CC by James Vaughan on Flickr. TV from 1960. Coronation St started in the same year.

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.)

About alysontyler

Civil servant, yoga teacher and former librarian.
This entry was posted in Challenges, Communication, England, Libraries, Media, UK, Wales and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to TV soaps, libraries and public debate – guest post

  1. Great post. I’ve not watched the latest Corrie episodes, but will do so. I have, however, watched some of them and I think the message is neither clear nor strong enough.

    In reality the librarian or member of library staff in the affected service is not the vocal one. Staff cannot speak out for fear of their jobs and in order to abide by the terms of their contract. In this respect Corrie has misrepresented the real situation. It is the library user or library campaigner who is left to plead the case for libraries, and the vital role played by staff that deliver that service. Some do so more successfully than others.

    I fear that this Corrie theme may also just serve to demonstrate and reinforce how easily and rapidly communities can be persuaded to accept ‘the next best thing’ aka volunteer run libraries, or glorified book swaps in a local cafe like ‘Roy’s Rolls’, completely overlooking the vital role played by qualified as well as trained and experienced staff in delivering the service we so value. The role of librarian is a whole lot more than just wielding a date stamp or flicking a few books at shelves but if you speak with volunteers they are often completely unaware of this. And libraries are so much more than just books in any case. Will the Corrie story serve to reinforce misconceptions?

    An example of volunteers in real life:

    A volunteer said to me that she is able to assess the suitability of a book just by looking at a child.

    How?, I enquired.

    Simple; as she volunteers to hear Reception class readers in a local school so could apply this skill to her library work.

    I’m a qualified and experienced teacher, the mother of two avid early readers, but I still do not possess the same insight as an unqualified and relatively inexperienced volunteer. I’ve clearly much to learn.

    But then I remind myself. I’ve taught four and five year olds who can read quite complex novels, in classes alongside those that cannot recognise their own name, and those who can read basic print or slightly more advanced and those who can read age-appropriate text. I’ve also taught a 12 year old who struggled to blend a basic C-V-C word, like cat or dog, or recognise high frequency sight words such as ‘the’, ‘please’ or ‘school’.

    As a teacher I’ve relied on advice from librarians for age-appropriate texts, for guidance and recommendations.

    I just hope that the story on Corrie fleshes out the issues rather than serves to just dumb them down.

    • alysontyler says:

      Hi Elizabeth, thanks for your comments and views. Not being a Corrie watcher myself I don’t know if their handling of this topic is similar to how they handle other topics (ie do they reduce complexity and make stereotypes?). Your points are valid and everyone will react differently to the story line and how things are presented. Remaining optimistic, if just a handful of the 6.5m Corrie viewers decide to look up their local library and use it as a result of this, I think it will be good. I take your points on volunteers and community run libraries. How all this will play out in the next couple of years remains to be seen but, as soaps tend to cover topical and relevant subjects, it just shows that the issues facing libraries is now maninstream.

  2. Aine Lovedy says:

    I’m a library campaigner and screen writer who wants to keep libraries as a professionally run and staffed public service. I’m trying to get complacent commissioners interested in my a sitcom I wrote two years ago, which is based around a library and its threatened closure.

  3. I fear the theme will not be dealt with in sufficient depth for people to really understand the issues. This could do more harm than good.

    We often seem to get into simplistic arguments such as open doors being better than closed ones or a library run by volunteers is better than no library at all, and so on. Let’s hope Corrie does not reinforce some misconceptions by treating the subject too lightly.

  4. David Owen says:

    I do not wish to correct Anoush Simon’s excellent article but to add that this is not the first time Coronation Street has addressed the role of the public library.Some 20 plus years ago Manchester Central Library featured in several episodes as Hilda Ogden’s lodger was visiting the library every day to hide the fact that he had been made redundant. Eventually she tracked him down in the Library Cafe. The scenes not only demonstrated the quality of the building but the relevance of the library as a place for all people, especially those down on their luck.Bob Usherwood found it so useful he asked me to get him a copy of the episodes for use with his students at Sheffield. Aware of copyright, I advised him to ask Granada TV for permission!
    The location fees paid by Granada were very useful and would be even more useful in these more difficult financial times.

    • alysontyler says:

      David, this is excellent information! Thank you. I shall pass it on to Anoush and I’m sure she won’t mind at all that additional information is provided. By the way, here in Wales, my local library moved location and the old building was used as one of the settings in the (very popular) TV programme Hinterland (Y Gwyll in Welsh), which I think aired outside of Wales. Don’t know if there were any location fees to the council!

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  7. Marianne says:

    Well going by the following episodes, in which story time in the café/library was not a total success, the writers seem to be exploiting some of the tensions in setting up a community library. Is this a library or a café? … as at least two characters said. Meanwhile here is another commentator on how Corrie has raised the public library debate for UK soap fans and a blog comment from the Canadian perspective.
    http://www.digitalspy.co.uk/soaps/s3/coronation-street/feature/a586478/soap-spy-the-battle-of-weatherfield-community-library.html#~oMIdwFIYCPxy12
    http://librariesarentjustbooksanymore.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/coronation-street-supports-libraries.html

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