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In Praise of Libraries

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Today (February 6th) is National Libraries Day, and the internet has been full of articles about the importance of libraries, and information about events that are being held to celebrate this special day. Which got me thinking about my own experience of libraries, and also made me realise that my relationship with them has changed dramatically. And not in a good way.

My first experience of a library – that I can remember, anyway – was when I was around four or five years old. Having sat through an assembly at school and hearing the Nativity story for the first time in my life, I was so enamoured of this miraculous tale that I wanted to know more about it. My dad simply said, ‘Well, let’s go to the library and you can get a book about it.’

Now, I may or may not have visited the library before this, but I really don’t remember any previous visits. So off we went, me and my dad, to the local library, which was above the town hall. I well remember my dad pushing open that door at the side of the building, and the creaking of the stairs as we made our way up to the first floor. Opening the library door, I was faced with a large counter, where solemn looking librarians stamped books with silent authority. The stamping of books fascinated me. I wanted to be a librarian for years, just so I could stamp books.

The main room of the library was, unsurprisingly, given over to adult books, but there was a small room that was purely for children, and, oh! What heaven lay behind that door. On that particular visit I found a Ladybird Book of Baby Jesus and fell upon it in delight. Later visits yielded treasures such as Paddington, the Wombles, Stig of the Dump, Babar and Milly-Molly-Mandy.

Library – portal to other worlds.

I was lucky. My mum and dad were avid readers, and my dad would often take me to the library where I was allowed to choose two or three books. As I got a bit older, I was allowed to go alone, and would spend hours in there, choosing books and sitting at the little table by the window, browsing through them and deciding which ones I would take home with me that day.

As I got even older and could venture into the city on my own on the bus, I would take my pocket money each week and head to WH Smith to choose a new pony book every Saturday. But before I reached that age, the library was essential to me. Our little town had only one bookshop, and it wasn’t a particularly large one. Often, books had to be ordered and there would be an agonising wait for weeks until the stock arrived. I remember having The Cat that Walked a Week, by Meindert Dejong, read to me at school, and deciding that there was nothing that I wanted in my life more than that book. I begged my mum to buy me a copy. She was reluctant. It was a hardback book and quite expensive, but eventually she agreed and placed an order. I had to wait for ages until we got a call from the shop to say it had arrived. It wasn’t that easy to get new books. They weren’t cheap. There were no Kindles, no Amazon. The library kept me sane.

Bought this again as an adult. I loved Milly-Molly-Mandy!

I only really got new books at Christmas. They were my favourite presents. Invariably, they were Enid Blyton books, all hardbacks, and usually I would get at least three from my parents, who recognised my addiction to reading and, thankfully, encouraged it.  But three books a year would never have been enough for me. Those visits to the library were essential.

School libraries were a wonderful discovery, too. Packed to the rafters with books I couldn’t wait to get my hands on. I could never have afforded to buy them all. With a library at school and a library round the corner from my home, I never had to worry about running out of reading material.

When my own children were little, I took them all to the local library and they soon had their own little tickets. After school, I would take them there and let them choose books, while I browsed for yet more myself.

With the advent of the IT age, spaces were cleared so that computers could be set up in the libraries. My childhood library closed and a new one opened, modern and spacious with lots of glass and no creaky stairs. I realised that librarians didn’t just specialise in stamping books – not that they ever had, of course. But now, it wasn’t just books they had to know about. They had to understand the world wide web and information technology. Reference books were less in demand. We had Google, after all. Paperbacks were on sale in supermarkets. I could download a book I wanted to read in seconds to my brand new Kindle.

My rather battered copy of Hello, Mr Twiddle!

To my shame, I haven’t been to a library for some years now. Thinking about them today, I realise how vital they were to me and to my own children. There must be many people who still rely on them. Not everyone has access to technology at home. Not everyone has money to spare for books. Libraries have changed and adapted, holding events to help and encourage youngsters to read, classes to teach information technology, “meet-the-author” evenings and talks…Libraries are having to fight back, because so many have closed. It’s easy to blame the authorities for the closure of the libraries, but we have to look to ourselves, too. How many of us use them regularly? How many of us use them at all?

I am so thankful that I had access to a good library, and that I was lucky enough to have parents who recognised the importance of reading, and were happy to take me there. I hope that libraries will be around for a long, long time, revealing new worlds to young children, opening doors for all those eager to learn and discover. It would be a sadder world without them.

Have a great week xx

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