‘This house believes …’

Yesterday I confronted a childhood terror: I took part in a debate and – to my great relief and even greater surprise – emerged unscathed. I’ve always been anxious about confrontational situations and fearful of verbal dexterity, so when I was invited to take part in a debate organised by CILIP it took me a whole week to get up enough courage to agree.

Far from being some kind of Perry Mason-style ripping-the-witness-to-bleeding-shreds affair, however, it was actually great fun and very friendly! For a start, the topic was ‘This house believes that the role of the librarian should be that of teacher‘, and I was speaking for the motion. Since I spend my time running round saying basically exactly this to everyone I meet professionally (to what is probably a monotonous degree), coming up with a passionate argument in favour of the motion wasn’t going to be a problem : ) I also knew that my partner in advocacy, Geoff Walton, would be able to provide convincing evidence to back up my airy-fairy theoretical wibbling.

Our co-debators, speaking against the motion, were Darren Smart and Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, who were both a joy to listen to: thoughtful, enlightened, and insightful. Alka’s background is in school teaching and her research is in the philosophy of education, so her perceptions of how libraries and information collections fit the educational and academic spheres were very interesting. Darren’s passionate belief in public libraries, and his understanding of issues facing them, was totally convincing – as well as deeply poignant given that we were in the stunning, and threatened, Library of Birmingham.

Here’s my bit of talking – partly for the record, and partly because I think it’s interesting to read something that’s been designed to be spoken. I’m accustomed to building my arguments in the measured, circuitous, densely-evidenced manner of academic writing, and it was quite a challenge to work more polemically: I had to really cut down my sentence and clause length and relentlessly rip out all the hedging that’s so dear to the academic mind. I also ended up doing very odd things to the punctuation so that it would give me signals for spoken emphasis (more pregnant pauses than a Pinter play). So when I read this it feels hideously full of unsupported assertions and lousy grammar, although declaiming it to an audience felt fine! Just for fun, too, I’ve left in all my last-minute annotations and the timings from my practice runs.

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