It’s not been a good few years for the humble local library, so on the eve of National Libraries Day, four Standard Issue writers wax lyrical about the joys they offer.
Knightswood Library. Picture by Mhari Mackintosh
“A perfect sanctuary for every disaster”
There are few worse combinations in life than being skint, cold and wet. You can’t nip into Costa for long because they rumble you when you nurse a glass of tap water for longer than two minutes. Most places want your money before they want you, but during my soggiest and poorest periods there was always one building that seemed pleased to see me – the library.
Libraries are like lovely, wise Trappist monks that never judge – just ask you to sit quietly, contemplate, entertain yourself or learn. I can’t tell you how many times my childhood public library in Stamford saved me. When I had no money for books but was ravenous for knowledge I could stuff myself silly with no bill at the end. They’ve always been about more than education though. When entering my home meant the immediate kickoff of hostilities between my mum and me, I could go to the reference section, pretend to read a Yellow Pages and hide (rather than commit murder).
My library was a perfect sanctuary for every disaster – a place to recoup energies. After a particularly nasty incident with cheap hair dye I read Maurice Gee’s children’s classic Under the Mountain in one sitting. It was one of the best afternoons of my life. I was nearly 16 at the time and three feet taller than most other people in the junior Book Den but no-one blinked an eyelid while I skulked in the corner on a cushion. Not even the woman conducted a Hungry Caterpillar interactive storytelling session with 20 under fives.
Libraries grow with you too. When I got older (only a bit older – 17) I could borrow Becoming Orgasmic in my quest for sexual ecstasy without forking out pocket money on self-help erotica. Sadly the book assumed I was in a relationship but my library didn’t care. It let, and lets me, borrow what I like.
Wherever I’ve lived and worked I’ve used the local library. It’s one of the few places you can be solitary but effectively with other people at the same time. Writing can be a lonely business. Libraries let you be near other humans without any social pressure to interact with them (except when there’s a fire alarm). Also in no other environment these days is the very act of being quiet so rigorously policed. A break from all the noise – whether it be from the phone or the general hum of life is a wondrous thing.
Yet so many of these divine places are under threat. Local councils are closing libraries or cutting their hours like never before – including in my native Lincolnshire where a group of inspirational people started the @savelincslibs campaign that forced the local authority to reconsider their slashing of services. Libraries need protecting – they are timeless and classless. They say no matter where you come from or what your parents earn it’s your right to read, it’s your right to be educated and it’s your right to be informed. None of those things should be a privilege. When we say libraries matter we are confirming that social mobility is important to us and it should be. We should never ration inquisitiveness or the desire for improvement. That’s what makes us better as individuals and as a society. When we save a library we save a brain and in many cases (including mine) someone’s sanity too.
“Not all kids like libraries but everyone should have the chance to find out if they do”
I spend a lot of time on the Internet these days. It’s easy to access information and, more importantly, to find amusing clips of cats in the blink of an eye. But, despite embracing new-fangled technology, I still have a shelves and shelves of books and I still delight in getting a book token for Christmas. Little compares to the excitement of a few hours spent in a well-stocked bookshop and a £10 voucher burning a hole in my wallet.
Knightswood Library. Picture by Mhari Mackintosh
At a more fundamental level, and I don’t mean to over share at this point, when books surround me, I feel safe. And that’s because of one brilliant place – Knightswood Public Library.
My granny looked after me a lot when I was younger and she loved to read. I mean LOVED to read. She would devour romance novels like digestive biscuits and her voracious appetite meant regular trips to the library, which was situated at the end of her street as part of the Community Centre.
The building seemed huge and full of life, especially in the summer holidays, when it was bustling with activity. The library, by contrast, was silent, and calm. It was the place where my Gran seemed at her happiest and, in order to make the visits enjoyable for her, she taught me proper library etiquette. Like maintaining absolute silence apart from the occasional question – asked quietly. She taught me to fear the librarians, who I genuinely thought were the guardians of all knowledge. They must be! You could ask them for any book and they would sweep away only to retrieve it within minutes.
We would arrive, my Gran would disappear to the Mills and Boon section (which was very well stocked as many elderly ladies in Knightswood appeared to enjoy a heaving bosom) and I would seek out what I wanted. It was in those days that I found my love of fiction. I read everything but had a particular obsession with Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, a series of adventure stories about, well, Alfred Hitchcock and three investigators. It did what it said on the tin. I loved those books and remember jumping up and down and trying not to scream with excitement when I saw a new one had appeared.
I was so happy, comfortable and safe, sitting in the library with my Gran, that now I have hundreds of books myself. It reminds me of the time I spent with her, the brilliance of those frightening women behind the counter when they hastily recommended a book to me and the importance of having the resource available to everyone. Not all kids like libraries but everyone should have the chance to find out if they do.
As a footnote, half way through writing this article, I took a break and bought a load of Three Investigators books. You see you can take the girl out of Knightswood Public library, but you can’t take the library out of the girl.
“It’s never been easier and more convenient to use a library.”
I’m a lazy so-and-so. We seem to be a load of lazy so-and-sos. I want my super powerful smartphone’s artificial intelligence to use 4G internet and a massive server farm in North Carolina to tell me the time instead of glancing at my watch. The idea of having to get up, get dressed, go to a building, fill in forms, get a card to take out a book which I then have to read in a set amount of time and then trail back to hand it in. Pfff. Not happening in the 21st Century. I can get it on the same phone, in fact I can get it to read the book to me. I mean, look at Blockbuster. The number one name in home entertainment across the world. Everyone gets broadband, Netflix switches to streaming and within a couple of years Blockbuster is GONE!
So how does the humble public library keep itself relevant in this want it, buy it, stream it future? Well, I took a book out of the library this morning, happily browsing around the sci-fi section with a mug of tea in my hand, relaxed in my Incredible Hulk PJs and fluffy pink slippers. My library hasn’t relaxed its dress code, nor am I that confident. My local public library is online.
Many are now, as the smartphone, kindle and tablet take the book world by storm. Walton on Thames still has a library, a physical, bricks and mortar building, a lovely one in fact but you don’t HAVE to go there to use it. Along with the rest of Surrey’s libraries, you get yourself a library card and you can take out eBooks and audiobooks straight from your phone or tablet. If you want the real thing you can browse the collection on your laptop and reserve any titles you fancy. It’ll email you when they’re in. You can even make the effort to get dressed and go in. Pick a book or graphic novel or audiobook on CD or DVD or Blu-ray movie. Scan it yourself and off you go. You’ll get a reminder when it’s due back and you can pop it back through the scanner or renew it online.
Is the building necessary then? If it’s all online why do we need the library? Because it’s not just a book shop like Waterstones. It’s a resource centre for the community. Need to get online, book yourself some computer time. A lecture by an author? Check. Special educational events for kids. Check. Help getting online for OAPs. Check.
Our libraries are doing their best in keeping themselves relevant in this lazy techno age. It’s never been easier and more convenient to use them and so we should. Even if you never set foot in the place, using the service keeps it alive for those that need it. So, support your local library, check out the myriad of services they deliver flawlessly and don’t let them go the way of the rest of the high street.
“On Thursday morning my local library is filled with small people and singing.”
“Don’t let the pigeon drive the bus!” A gaggle of excited toddlers crowd around the librarian who is impersonating a very cheeky pigeon: “Can I drive the bus?” “NO,” they shout.
Libraries these days are not the quiet place I was familiar with as a child. Come Thursday morning my local one is filled with small people. Even noisier than that – small people with rattles, singing. Oh yes.
My local library sits at the end of a parade of shops. It’s quite small and a third of it is taken up with a children’s library. If you imagine yourself at toddler height it’s wondrous: there’s a wooden train to sit on, a huge crocodile rug and some colourful little pouffes which energetic children enjoy rolling around the room as their parents frantically try to get them to sit still and listen to the stories. And, of course, there are the stories themselves, which fill the air with tales of super hero ducks, cats who sing, dance and fly aeroplanes (but my cat likes to hide in boxes), elephants galore and underpant-loving aliens.
Before I had a child I was bemused when a friend with two said she was going to see Aliens Love Underpants at the theatre. A whole book about pants, let alone a show? Now, we talk a lot about pants at home, mainly the need for my son to put them on, and suddenly it all makes sense.
Going to storytime has introduced me to a number of children’s books which weren’t around when I was the target audience and there are some brilliant children’s writers and illustrators out there. We’re loving Julia Donaldson, Nick Sharratt and Oliver Jeffers.
A few years ago the storytime sessions were under threat. A Friends group did some fundraising to keep it going. Thankfully the funding wasn’t cut after all, so they could spend the money on other things for the library, including the great big crocodile.
Cambridgeshire County Council is having to cut £150 million from its budget over the next five years. I don’t know what that will mean for libraries but I’d be surprised if their cash escapes scrutiny. The Council Tax bill will rise this year by a whole £22 and the council is planning to ask residents for voluntary donations to help pay for services. I know not everyone can afford to put their hand in their pocket and money which may sound like a pittance to me will be a big deal for others. But I would happily pay for storytime. I’ll start by paying off my son’s overdue library book fines.