In praise of libraries and librarians

As I have mentioned before, I cannot remember learning to read. But libraries played an early part in my life and continued to be hugely important.

I can remember the huge pleasure of being allowed to go to the library van when it visited school (one of my children once called it the motabile library) and being able to choose books for the school library.

Our local library was more important to me. It was housed in a non-conformist (probably United Reform) church hall. The children’s section consisted of a folding bookcase; in my memory it measured about 2m by 1m. I was a quick reader, and I devoured what seems now like everything in the bookcase, kneeling (appropriately for the location) in front of it every Friday afternoon. I even read a book on judo, I was so desperate for material.

Then, one amazing day, a librarian made a suggestion. “You can use the adult shelves if you want to, you know.”

I turned to the opposite wall. It was just that: a long wall of books. I have a tear in my eye as I write this. It was just wonderful. It was a world opening up, which somehow I hadn’t realised existed. I can still feel the excitement as I remember it.

I don’t know who the librarian was, but I wish she could know how she literally changed my life.

Giddy with the new vistas opening up, at one point I even started to work through authors from A to Z. The library moved to a new building in the car park behind the Post Office. My Friday night pilgrimage continued, often being repeated on a week day. I got to know one of the librarians quite well through my regular visits. I discovered science fiction. I ordered the collected works of ee cummings, inspired by my English teacher. And so on.

I went away to college (returning to the local library in the holidays.) The college library was rambling: it had grown rather organically, adding on rooms. Here I spent rather too much time just browsing, now increasingly non-fiction: poetry, drama, mathematics, education, film, photography, art and more. Again the library moved to a new block and I discovered obscure pamphlets and books in the stack. I also was able to use the Southampton University library and discovered fresh wonders. Thirty years later I was using it again, finding it completely modernised.

I enjoyed the labyrinthine nature of some of the old libraries I used to frequent. Terry Pratchett describes this as L-space; how in large quantities books warp time and space around them.

It all gets a bit more vague through my working life. Certainly I used libraries. I just can’t remember anything noteworthy. That changed with my children. Regular visits happened again. I used to wear a pair of brown brogues; apparently these were known as Dad’s ‘library shoes’.

Now libraries are under threat. To my shame, I haven’t visited one, except for academic purposes, for some time. One of my three grown-up children is an avid reader. My fourth and youngest was, the last time we went, distracted by the toys. I could have a rant here: do libraries need to be ‘information hubs’ or ‘discovery centres’? Couldn’t they just be collections of books to borrow? I suspect, however, I’m way off the pace with this one.

School libraries vary enormously in size, importance and quality. Hovering over all this of course is the shadow of the internet. I am sure that somebody has researched the differences in learning between the web and books. I have a gut feeling that books give a more concentrated experience, but perhaps this is just an old-fashioned view.

So I finish with praise for libraries and librarians; especially for that lady who, all those years ago, opened up my world.



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