Libraries Day

It makes me bloody furious to hear that libraries are being closed.

But it’s Saturday, so I’ll chill out and remember the libraries that meant most to me.

First, a sunlit room at the edge of my memory, at my primary school in Lahore. I discovered Tintin there at six and began my lifelong love of graphic novels. 

No pupil in any class I teach will hear that their graphic novels are somehow not ‘proper reading’.

Secondly, the central library in Luton, where I continued my primary education. Here I found Tove Jansson and her pared-back prose. Visits to the library ranked closely alongside the Saturday matinees at the cinema. My only worry was when I lost a book at school: I thought the people who ran the library there would talk to the central librarian and I would be thrown out of the building. 

Note to self and to library staff: don’t persecute forgetful young readers.

The library in my prep school boarding house was a wonderful mixture of ageing paperback storybooks, tattered novels and – joy of all joys – National Geographics going back to the thirties. I found out about so many other times and other places. It was a copy of Hard Times I found there that most gripped me. I was twelve and had just come through the living Hell of the previous year (the housemaster, a former inmate at Changi who had allowed a boy-led regime of utter brutality, had died during the previous term). There was something about the lives of the children, and the awfulness of Gradgrind, that so gripped and angered me that I sat up all night, hidden in a toilet cubicle, reading it from cover to cover. 

Once again, I cannot criticise any pupil who yawns in class and can convince me that they were up late in the company of a good book.

Bedford School’s library was a memorial to the hundreds of boys who had briefly been men before they died in the service of their country.  I loved the gloomy recesses, the randomness of the knowledge available to me and the age of so many of the books. Here I found a book by Kingsley Amis: The Riverside Villas Murder and one by Virginia Woolf: Orlando. By no means clever or edifying, they spoke to me at a time when I was trying to understand myself. 

I have to think carefully about what is ‘appropriate’ for a pupil to read, as I cannot know all that is going on inside their head or outside the school gates.

Queen Mary College’s library was largely a place where I could find the books I needed for my frantic essays. Somewhat cynically, I chose to study medieval history because there were fewest books in that section (so I assumed it would be easier than the more book-laden modern subjects). The very randomness of the available books (there were never the ones that my tutors recommended so I had to be very creative when applying and citing what I was able to find) actually made me think harder about my essays than if I’d been better equipped, I think.

The glorious randomness of a visit to a library, knowing that you don’t have to pay for your exploration, is quite different to a bookshop, though the best shops allow ‘extended browsing’.

My great love as an undergraduate was for the Senate House library. I especially liked Saturday mornings there, quieter and more relaxed. Behind the bronze and limestone grandeur of this fascist stump of a building, the shelves were labrythine, the back staircases and creaking lifts were claustrophobic and the little nooks for reading were a welcome hiding place. One of the joys of an arts degree in the eighties was the lack of pressure on us. I was able to wander widely with my reading, and learnt about far more than the reading list.

Reading is a state of mind: I try wherever possible to associate it with warmth, safety and private comfort. Libraries may be the only place where that is possible.

As a graduate student, the echoing, cavernous reading room at the British Museum was exciting and distracting in equal measures. It was thrilling to think that Karl Marx had worked in the same space. I can’t say that I managed much research there, but the manuscript room was a different matter. When the librarian brought me my twelfth century cartulary, it was like handling a saint’s relic. Sometimes, the vellum still seemed as fresh as when the scribe had stroked his quill across its surface; sometimes it would be a shrivelled scrap from the Cottonian collection, so damaged by fire and water that I could only guess at its contents.

When I am recommending books, I treat them as precious objects, not because of their physical state but because of the exciting treasures they contain. Libraries offer these riches for nothing.

My relationship with libraries as a parent evokes memories of curling up in corners with my daughter and a pile of books, which I’d read and then we’d read and then she’d read. And memories of gathering armfuls of books to take home for bedtimes together.

Many adults ‘get’ this. Library visits with children shouldn’t be transactional, supervised expeditions: they should be the pursuit of a shared pleasure. Children, alert to what we think, say and do, will ‘get it’ if they see us joining in with reading.

Libraries have to fight hard for my attention now. I have the Internet, bookshops, ebooks and more tangible demands on my time. I still visit my local libraries to pillage their reference shelves for topic-related books (and ring up huge fines when I return them after they are due back). Until I have a grandchild, until I begin my next part-time programme of study and until I exchange time for money in retirement, I’ll probably see far less of libraries. 

I just hope libraries are still there when I need them.

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