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The tiny library payment office authors fought to save

By Francesca Williams
BBC News

image captionAuthor Jilly Cooper and Joanne Gayford, who said authors made them "feel appreciated"

In a small room overlooking the River Tees, a dozen staff are getting on with a job most people have never heard of.

The Public Lending Rights (PLR) office is responsible for paying authors when their books are lent by libraries.

It was born out of a campaign that started in 1950, lasted 29 years and saw nine bills defeated in Parliament before the tenth finally became law.

"The final bill got through in the dying days of the Callaghan administration, thanks to a famous politician called Michael Foot," registrar Jim Parker said.

"It was a huge achievement and, once it was there in the form of a statute, then there was nothing the new government could do about it."

When Margaret Thatcher won her first general election shortly after, she was reportedly less than keen on the idea and the search for a base was moved out of London.

A Department for Education office in Darlington was briefly considered, because it had a computer, but finally an empty office was found in Stockton.

Employees rarely leave the job. Mr Parker - only the second to run it - has been there for 22 years.

Largely unknown

Likewise Joanne Gayford, who arrived in 1991, a 16-year-old on the Youth Training Scheme.

"It was the very first job I applied for," she said.

"I didn't know anything about the place. I didn't really learn what PLR was until I started working for them."

"I've never met anybody yet who's actually heard of us," she added.

More than 20,000 authors are paid each year, mostly a few hundred pounds.

"We get lots of nice letters from people saying, 'Ah, thanks Jim, that was brilliant, I used it to pay the gas bill'," Mr Parker said.

"A children's illustrator used it to repair the roof in her studio to stop the rain coming in when she was doing her artwork."

A quarter of libraries are sampled each year and it is no secret which they are, should authors be interested.

"A lot of them don't bother going along and borrowing their own books, it's just not worth it at six pence a loan," Mr Parker laughs.

"But there's nothing to stop you doing it. It's not illegal."

There is little regional borrowing variation - the American crime writer James Patterson is popular across the country, Mr Parker said.

A decade ago borrowers favoured South Shields author Catherine Cookson. Danielle Steel is the only one to have been in the top ten every year for the past three decades.

Quango cull

In October 2010 the new coalition government announced a cull of quangos and the PLR staff held their collective breath.

Their office was difficult to scrap, being enshrined in law.

Stockton South's conservative MP James Wharton lobbied the government and the British Library to keep it open - and on Teesside.

image captionThere have only ever been two registrars - John Sumsion (r) and Jim Parker, here receiving the keys

"Many people will not even have heard of the PLR but it is an important service for authors, quietly getting on with the job in a small office in Stockton," he said.

Those authors rallied in support.

"They fought for 30 years to get this right and they don't want to give it up easily," Mr Parker said.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has finally announced the British Library will take over the service but keep the Stockton office.

The next problem, Mr Parker says, is public library closures and the move towards community-run libraries.

The legislation requires data to be collected from councils and voluntary groups do not qualify.

Having already started fighting for libraries to remain open, authors might now find who runs them is just as significant if they want their money.

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