My love affair with public libraries

My mother taught us all to read before we were three. It caused no end of problems at school because teachers couldn’t cope with children who didn’t fit in. I dimly remember sitting at the back of the class while teacher was waving flashcards at everybody being very bored.

But I read. We had lots of books at home. I remember my first ‘proper’ book was Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs. It was in a purple cover on the bookcase in the upstairs landing. The colour and the title together caught my eye and I picked it off the shelf to read. I was 6. I went through all her books and to this day cannot pick up an Agatha Christie without remembering the story instantly and being completely unenthused by the idea of reading one of her books yet again.

My mother did take me to the library then, at Golders Green. I can barely remember it but it was a regular ritual.

At the age of 7 we moved to Brussels, which did not have an English library. It only had one English bookshop which charged extortionate rates, and still does to this day. However there was an ex-pat community and they had an English library that was housed in someone’s unused double garage. We went round and chose the books and paid a token amount per book. It was all written down laboriously by hand but I devoured the books. As Americans flew home and sold up their possessions they left their books to the library so I grew up with far more Nancy Drew and Hardy boys mysteries than I would have otherwise.

Returning to London aged 13 we were in the borough of Westminster; lots of lovely libraries with lots of lovely books. I used to go regularly and would travel to the other libraries to pick through their bookshelves as it cost to have them transferred whereas the bus fare then was a mere 10p (thanks Ken!) if the library was too far away. I did request books not held within the borough and they used to get them for me, frequently arriving with the stamp of the university they belonged to and interesting labelling.

But the highlight of my very happy relationship with libraries was when I requested the autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, the original muckraker. It was not to be found in the library, nor in any university. Eventually I got a letter telling me to present myself at the British Library and I could read it there. It was a routine letter and I thought nothing of it, beyond a certain amount of pleasure at the idea of visiting such a special place. Well the librarians at the British Library were not impressed. The lower age limit for passing through the doors was 21. Occasionally they made exceptions for special young adults but a 15 year old? Not likely. But I waved the letter at them which stated that I could read a book there and probably looked miserable. So they granted me a two week membership of the British Library and luckily I had gone in at the beginning of a holiday.

So for two weeks solid I got up early and was waiting outside when they unlocked the gates and let us library users and staff in ahead of the general public. I read. And I read. Solidly, from 8.30am I think, to 5 o’clock or thereabouts with a quick half hour for lunch. I still have the notes that I made from the books that I read. I started reading the book I originally wanted, then others that I hadn’t been able to find. Eventually I just rambled through almost reading books at random, glorying in the idea of being able to order any book I wanted.

I’ve moved libraries several time since. I have always signed up for the library within a week of moving into the area. I have so many books on my shelves stamped withdrawn from one library or another that I picked up for a paltry sum. When each of my children was born we went and got a library card very early on so they could borrow board books from the library. My 10 year old just recently learned how to order books from the library online all by himself. Now they can visit on their own. At least for the moment.

Libraries are at risk. Philip Pullman has put itfar more eloquently than I ever could but books have saved me throughout my life. They’ve informed me, made me think, taught me facts, explained things, entertained me, made me laugh, cry, sigh and above all made me think. They have posed questions that I was unable to answer as a child or teenager; they’ve sent me on quests for knowledge and understanding. They’ve made me dream and escape reality, transformed me to a place where the real world couldn’t impinge, where I couldn’t even hear it. A library, big or small, is a place of knowledge, of value to be imparted, and stuff and nonsense to be enjoyed. It’s part of what makes us civilised and it’s certainly part of what make life worth living.

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