I’m very lucky that I can afford to buy books, so I don’t use public libraries often. On the other hand I am a voracious reader with catholic tastes and this was largely as a result of spending time in austere old-fashioned libraries when I was young.
I grew up in a home with very few books and those were generally non-fiction books such as encyclopaedias. As an aside, I remember how much I used to love flicking through Collier’s encyclopaedias, especially the acetate sheets that let you explore the layers of a human body or a car. Like many young people, I could easily consume a book in a single sitting or a day (my daughters still manage to do this), easily exceeding my parents’ ability to buy Puffin books through school catalogues.
I can still see the library in my home town in my mind’s eye. The children’s section immediately in front of where the librarians sat (presumably to keep an eye on them) behind a high desk, books for ‘grown-ups’ after that and then the strange world of non-fiction books through an archway. This section had heavy wooden desks with fold-out holders for heavy books to sit on while propped open.
I just about remember the excitement of getting my first library card allowing me to borrow a small number of books, initially up to three children’s books and then an increasing number of books from the adult section. I was fascinated by the ritual of the librarian taking a small card from each book and stamping the return date onto a sheet glued inside the front cover. On that sheet of paper one could learn whether your book was a popular one or not — some books appeared to have sat on the shelves for years!
Those visits to the library introduced me to many books and writers that I still treasure. I particularly remember the excitement with which I read through the complete Sherlock Holmes canon after bringing home a volume of short stories. I still nurse a particular childhood grudge against A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of The Four for the second half of each of those books...
Back then libraries were a hallowed place, silent and reverential, with no computers or multimedia facilities, and certainly never bright and open plan! Visitors talked in whispers, students sat silently taking notes and old men in for a warm slept quietly at those out-of-the-way non-fiction desks. Where I grew up, many public libraries were originally provided by the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, a man who despite many failings, understood the benefit of a public library:
“A library outranks any one other thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.”
As a parent I’ve seen how much more welcoming and less intimidating libraries are now. The problems of homes without books or how to feed a child who eats books are still around. Librarians (and book shop owners) can encourage children to stretch themselves in their reading. Wonderful schemes such as the Summer Reading Challenge encourage children to read more and engage with people who are passionate about books. Of course the best way to encourage a child to read is read to them; read with your children; let your children see you sitting quietly reading — they will follow your example.
Libraries still have a place and should be protected from cuts and closure when budgets become tight and austerity is the norm. Libraries stretch people, support them and, as Andrew Carnegie said, benefit those who are in most need and most vulnerable.