In praise of libraries

I heard from an old colleague last week. While we were both still at what many of its staff called “the Mothership”, we occasionally used to pass a slow morning discussing what we intended to do in our next lives. I wanted to write and she wanted to read. ‘All day, on a chaise longue,’ she’d say. ‘A yellow velvet one, under an open window, with a tree right outside.’ Although we agreed that yellow, at least where velvet was concerned, probably wasn’t the most practical colour, she was immovable on the idea of the piece of furniture itself. We also agreed that I probably wouldn’t ever make a living as a creative writer just as she was unlikely to pay the bills from horizontal on a peculiarly decorative sofa. However, I hoped I might be able to supplement stewing over novels and poetry with freelance writing, while she thought that working in a library or bookshop were appealing ideas.

Some years later, after we’d both left, she emailed me a picture of a chaise longue in a sort of dark mustard colour (much more attractive than it sounds). ‘This is mine,’ she wrote. ‘I like to lie here and read when I get home from the library.’ Actually, I don’t suppose she did as much lying and reading as she’d planned; anyone who reckons small children are conducive to that sort of relaxation is either lying or delusional. Anyway, she loved that library.

She worked hard at it too. The hours varied over a fortnightly shift pattern – an all too common childcare challenge – and some nights she was still there long after her children’s bedtime. However the variety, she said, made it worth it. It wasn’t just book-shelving, issuing fines and checking out books; it was recommending titles, writing reviews for the library’s blog, running story time, dressing up for special events, organising computer classes, art classes, a writing workshop……a whole series of activities designed to help a community function as both a cohesive whole and a group of individuals.

Lonely people came to chat, new mothers turned up to drink coffee, to cry and to make new friends under the safe pretence that their six-week old needed to learn both words and actions to We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, students used the large, well-lit tables as a study base and job-seekers wrestled with the Sisyphean requirements of the DWP on the public computers. I’m sure they were all welcomed with a smile.

I’m a library-lover myself. I can’t remember my first visit (to the large stone Birkenhead Central Library, grand as any stately home – and now under on-going threat of closure) but I know the early years of story time soon segued into hours reading everything the children’s library had to offer. An omnivorous reader, I made little distinction between classic, contemporary and even, oh the horror, American high school stories (hello Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley High). The joy, though, of being given an adult library card! Suddenly I could take out eight books rather than four, and I did so every week. Even now, almost thirty years later, I can still remember some of the books and authors I first discovered in that huge curved room of other worlds. There was Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel, Dora Shafe’s Miss Read novels, Violette Szabo in Carve Her Name With Pride (which led me  on to read an entire shelf on the Special Operations Executive), David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest; the list, truly, is too long for a single blog post.

My library use at university was more utilitarian but, one day, breaking away from the law library, I went to the section of the Stacks used by the English department, and discovered that Sylvia Plath had written diaries – and they had actually been published! I read and I read.

Then came the ancient and beautiful library of the Inner Temple, the well-resourced libraries of a City law firm and, by now accompanied by a squirming, often screaming and always sleepless infant, the surprising spaces of the Barbican library. I loved them all in their own ways.

Nowadays I spend a good deal of my leisure time at my current local library: Winchester’s Discovery Centre. Note the name. Library is no longer good enough in this multi-purpose age of ours. Libraries have to be about more than books and, indeed, mine manages this with consummate skill.  Not only do my children and I read its books, we go to plays and concerts there, we attend workshops and exhibitions, and eat in its café. One of the highlights of my month is Winchester’s Loose Muse poetry night, run by the esteemable Sue Wrinch, where I’ve had the good fortune to hear Liz Berry, Jo Bell, Kim Moore and Sarah Howe amongst many equally talented others. There’s also the Winchester Poetry Festival, which makes good use of the library building. We would all be so much the poorer without our library.

And my friend, my old colleague, feels the same about her library, which now faces closure. The only way it seems some vestige of it can be saved for its community is for all the staff to lose their jobs and their positions to be replaced by volunteers. To say my friend is sad is too simplistic. She wants to keep her job – needs it – but she wants the library too.

I don’t want to get into the political side of this. I could say a lot about how I feel about the voluntary sector stepping in to cover what the State once assumed responsibility for but I shan’t. It’s not fair to my friend, to her library or her community. I hope they find a solution that works for as many people as possible. A library is too important to be lost.

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5 thoughts on “In praise of libraries

  1. No. book 2 – the one that includes Birkenhead library – is, um, resting and will continue to do so for a year or two while I decide how to rewrite it. Book 3 is going apace, or was until it came up against two children’s birthdays and a small slew of freelance commissions. However, it will get there!

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