Today is National Libraries Day. Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ll no doubt be aware that public libraries in the UK are under threat. As a voracious reader, book lover and regular library user, I’ve come to the radical conclusion that closing down public libraries is a Bad Thing. I’ve already been down to my public library today to show my support (and pick up a big stack of books to read!). Now that I’m safely home, warming up with a cup of tea and watching the snow fall outside, I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts here about what libraries mean to me.
I’ve always been a big reader. One of my earliest memories is of weekly trips to the library with my sisters – as my parents at the time were struggling to raise four of us on very limited income, there was no way they’d have been able to afford books for all of us. Through the local library, we were able to read to our hearts’ content, all for free. As I got older, I continued to make regular use of both my local libraries and school libraries.
Going into my teens, libraries took on another meaning for me, beyond simply a place to get books. Like many quiet, bookish teenagers, I was badly bullied at school. The school library became my sanctuary: somewhere I could go that was quiet and peaceful, had all the reading material I could possibly want, and sympathetic adults who didn’t make me feel like there was something odd about reading books I didn’t have to. As an aside, quite apart from the threats to public libraries, I’m also heartbroken at the thought of school libraries also under threat. I honestly don’t know how I’d have got through secondary school without my school library to retreat to. The library and librarian at my school made me feel less alone, guided me to fantastic new books and authors that opened my eyes to a wider world, and made my teenage years bearable. If you’re concerned about the plight of school libraries, I’d recommend having a look at the Heart of the School blog, as well as CILIP’s Shout About campaign.
Of course, I still used my public library in those days too! Although I was fortunate to grow up in a house full of books, the library let me discover new authors and books I wouldn’t have picked up at home. I discovered several of my favourite authors at the library. I remember once seeing a boy I had a crush on, browsing the SF & Fantasy shelves in our local library. At the time, this was a genre I had completely neglected. I wandered over, casually, and picked up a book by the same author he was looking at – some chap I’d never heard of, called Terry Pratchett. The book was Maskerade, and I started reading the first couple of pages, looking out of the corner of my eye to see if the boy had noticed. The more I read, the less I was aware of my surroundings – until I finally looked up, blinking, and realised that the boy was long gone and I’d read nearly a quarter of the book while standing there. Nothing ever happened with the boy, but that was the beginning of my lifelong love-affair with Terry Pratchett! Pratchett’s Discworld was my gateway drug to SFF fiction – once I’d read my way through all the Discworld books at the library, I’d lost my fear of the SFF section and went on to discover, there in the library, authors as varied as Tom Holt, Anne McCaffrey, Philip K Dick and Isaac Asimov.
As an adult, libraries are essential to me for feeding my book habit without bankrupting myself! Today, the stack of books I took home from the library would have set me back more than £60 if I’d had to buy them all instead. And without the library, would I be able to sample as many different books as I do, or would I be tempted to stick to only what I already knew? Books aren’t cheap – I’m much happier to take a risk on a book I don’t know if I’ll like if I’ve borrowed it from the library, than if I’ve had to part with actual cash in order to read it.
I started this post by saying that I’d made a trip to the library today in support of National Libraries Day. To tell the truth, National Libraries Day had little to do with it – I’m in the library most weekends anyway. Even if I’m not really looking for anything to read, there’s something about the presence of lots of books that I find oddly soothing. And while I am well aware that libraries offer more than just books, that is still what they’re about for me. There is nothing I enjoy more than wandering around stacks of books, picking the odd one up and wondering what kind of world it might transport me to. Would I still read if there were no libraries? Well, of course, but I can’t help but think how much poorer the experience would be. And besides, this isn’t just about me. I was incredibly lucky to grow up in a literate household and to have my love of reading encouraged, but many millions of children don’t have that luxury: according to the National Literacy Trust, a massive 1 in 3 children do not own a book. That figure absolutely staggers me. And if we don’t have well-stocked, well-funded and staffed public and school libraries, how are these children ever going to discover the simple pleasures of reading?