Geraint Lewis recalls the early days

D. Geraint Lewis was the Education and Children’s Librarian for Dyfed before being appointed Area Librarian for Ceredigion. Following the reorganisation of 1996 he was until his retirement the Assistant Director of Education in charge of Ceredigion’s Cultural Services. He has been the Honorary Secretary of the Welsh Books Council since 1986 and was the winner in 1996 of the Tir na n-Og award for his dictionary Geiriadur Gomer yr Ifanc.

Geraint Lewis

In 1967 I was a post-graduate student whose grant had dried up and who managed to get a job as a library assistant at Aberystwyth town library. ‘Culture shock’ is not too strong a term for what I experienced there. I was a Welsh learner from a South Wales mining village many of whose evenings were now to be spent as quizmaster in Welsh book quizzes held in the tiny rural villages throughout the county. I was aware of teachers and heads being cajoled or harangued into writing material for children’s book publishing competitions, and saw the Vale of Rheidol steam engine delivering books up the line. Everywhere there were poets. Poets being celebrated for their national significance or poets writing in celebration of other peoples’ achievements and the driving force behind all this was the somewhat fearsome county librarian Alun R. Edwards.

Alun Edwards (following the tragically early death of the first County Librarian) on his appointment became the youngest County Librarian in Wales and was steadfastly determined to prove himself to be the best. He continued the innovations of his predecessor which included a service to all of the 90 or more primary schools scattered throughout the county. That is, until he was stopped in his tracks by the headmistress of one of these schools who accused him of destroying any interest that children might have in Welsh by flooding the county’s schools with English books.

This was Alun Edwards’s Damascene experience. From this point on, while not neglecting his professional commitments, these became increasingly channeled into ensuring the provision of Welsh-language books for children and popular reading for adults.

He harnessed the support of his fellow librarians (not all of them of course, for when did that ever happen?), their respective committees and more importantly their county councilors. On the education front he established a series of competitions to discover new authors and he helped support the publication of their work by means of a scheme of guaranteed sales. This scheme spread from county to county to be taken over eventually by the Welsh Joint Education Committee. On the adult front he set up a series of book societies to promote and help publish popular books for adults. However, the powers in Whitehall were suspicious of this demagogue from the wild West and despite the most carefully prepared plans of the counties, opted to support the University of Wales Press Board as the means of distributing a new government publishing grant to support books for adults. However the societies continued to flourish and with the support of some heavyweight councilors eventually combined to become in 1961 The Welsh Books Council.

The single most important act of the new Books Council was to appoint a Cardiganshire headmaster Alun Creunant Davies as its Director. He was a towering figure who could, when necessary impose his presence on a meeting and when necessary proceed there as delicately as a cat. His vision, which remains at the heart of the Council, was the establishment of a book distribution centre. From the humblest of beginnings it has now developed into the modern commercial, internet linked centre at Llanbadarn.

During Alun Creunant Davies’s directorship were established the key services of the Council: the Editorial, Design, Publicity and Marketing Departments. Tribute must be be paid here to the vision of the Arts Council’s Literature director, Meic Stephens, who succeeded in finding funding to establish and sustain these departments. In successive reviews of Welsh-language reading needs the role of the Books Council became increasingly important. It was charged with administering a new government grant for providing recreational reading materials for children. The transfer of the government grant for books for adults (from the University of Wales Press) soon followed. If Alun Creunant Davies’s first priority was to provide a modern book distribution centre, then his final act was to find an appropriate home for the Council at Castell Brychan.

With his vision and commitment, Alun Creunant Davies succeeded in attracting to the Council extremely able members of staff , and it was one such member who succeeded him as Director in 1987. Gwerfyl Pierce Jones had been head of the Editorial and Publicity Departments, latterly combining this post with that of deputy Director of the Council.

Amongst the various County Treasurers who acted as the Council’s honorary Treasurer, Alun Creunant Davies’s fame rested on what must be deemed the Welsh version of creative accounting to keep the Council’s financial head above water. Gwerfyl Pierce Jones’s first task was to clear this Augean stable and establish the Council on a firm financial footing with the Book Distribution Centre as its self-sustaining core. The Council’s funding was derived from a number of sources, Local Government, the Welsh Office, the Welsh Arts Council and latterly the Welsh Language Board. Gwerfyl Pierce Jones's lasting legacy was the rationalisation of these complicated and piecemeal funding arrangements and the establishment of the Books Council as a highly respected national organisation directly funded by central government. Needless to say, this did not happen overnight and the situation became

Increasingly difficult in the 1990s following local government reorganisation, when the eight large Councils became 22 Councils, each of which had to be approached separately with regard to funding, and even more significantly when the Welsh Office decided to channel the government (publishing) grants through the newly established Welsh Language Board. With so many other needs to be met, books and reading did not feature large within the Welsh Language Board priorities and grant aid for books languished and declined. In a bold move, Gwerfyl Pierce Jones brought together the publishers, the booksellers, authors and librarians to set out a joint strategy for the future of writing and publishing in Welsh, and the new Welsh Assembly Government was persuaded to put this strategy under scrutiny. The result was a very challenging review, but one which concluded that for economic, cultural and organisational reasons, the Books Council must receive independent grant in aid from the Assembly Government to support and develop the very important SME publishing industry in Wales. This brought a new lease of life and injection of funding, perhaps best exemplified in the magnificent Gwales book site on the Internet. Following this decision the Arts Council of Wales soon recommended the cessation of its own responsibilities for publishing and the Welsh Books Council was given additional responsibilities, including for the first time, responsibility for administering grants for English -language publishing. The Arts Council was unique in its support for English- language writing in Wales and the transfer of its grant gave the Welsh Books Council the responsibility for developing the publishing industry in Wales in its entirety, in both Welsh and English. Soon after, the National Assembly's Culture Committee undertook a review of the much neglected field of English-language writing in Wales.

With the help of the sure guiding hand of Professor M.Wynn Thomas of Swansea University, the Culture Committee came to a similar conclusion as that reached with regard to Welsh-language publishing and a glance at any of the national papers of Wales will reveal the burgeoning developments of books in Wales in both languages.

The shift in funding resulted in a shift in function with publishers now taking a far greater responsibility for the books they produce. The Books Council through its grants panels conscientiously monitors and feeds back on the quality of this production.

Elwyn Jones succeeded Gwerfyl Pierce Jones as Director in 2009. The high ground had been won by his predecessor and he was taking charge during a period of serious economic recession. However the authority and competence demonstrated by the Council during the good years have borne fruit during these troubled times. Grants have not been reduced to the extent that they could have been, a new role with regard to encouraging the promotion of literacy is being supported by the Welsh Government and the Council is actively pursuing developments in the field of electronic publishing.

I succeeded Alun Edwards as Honorary Secretary of the Welsh Books Council in 1986, as I succeeded him as Librarian of Ceredigion in 1979. The burning conviction of the importance of books in Welsh and in English for Wales remains. The Welsh Books Council is one of the few, if not the only, institution that relies on unpaid, voluntary, book people who are as dedicated to this view as were the original founders of the Council. Panel members read, review, report and recommend on everything that the Council supports publishers to produce.

This is the cultural imperative upon which the Welsh Books Council is based, and because of it, the tensions that arise between the differing priorities of publishers, bookshops, authors and librarians become a source of strength not of contention. Given such a base, this body, I believe, will continue to survive those external vicissitudes that will inevitably beset it.


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