If you’re in the UK, you’re probably aware that the government is making serious cuts to library funding. In my local area, several libraries are being threatened with closure and others are facing reductions in staff, opening times and services. Along with the rest of the right-minded population, I think this is horrific, for all the obvious reasons: libraries provide opportunities to read to people who might not otherwise be able to; libraries are a hub in a community and a place for isolated people to find companionship; libraries provide a wealth of services, including access to computers and the internet, which some people would otherwise lack. And, obviously, books. Beautiful, life-changing, comforting books.
Libraries are really important to me, probably not for most of the reasons mentioned above. I’m lucky; I can afford to buy a lot of the books I want to read, and I can access the internet at home. But there’s something really special about just being in a library – something about the wealth of opportunity involved in being surrounded by so many ideas – that can’t be matched anywhere else.
I’ve been a devoted library user from a very early age. In my home town in Essex, the library used to be housed in a deconsecrated church, lending an appropriately reverential mood to my bookish browsing. This library, for some reason, had multiple copies of The Wizard of Oz, all with different covers; in my innocent youth, I checked out every one of these to see if the story was different. Newsflash: it wasn’t. It was in this library that I first began arguing with librarians about my access to the full range of books; denied an adult ticket when I had read all the books in the children’s section, I had to ask my dad to come in with me and bully the powers-that-be to give me the holy grail: an access-all-areas, no restrictions adult ticket. Perhaps the librarians were merely worried about my immortal soul. Or maybe they were just mean.
Soon after this, the library relocated to a purpose-built, shiny building over the road, and I graduated to being old enough to be left there while my mum did boring mum-stuff like going to Iceland (NB the shop, not the country). On one occasion, we had misread the closing time and I was forcibly removed from the library before my mum came back. This was a time before mobile phones; I had to stand and wait outside, like the bookish outcast that I was. Around this time, a controversy erupted: The Man was trying to force the library to open on a Sunday and the librarians were up in arms. “Sign our petition!” they cried. “Ooh, you’re going to be open on a Sunday?” I gleefully replied. It’s weird how they kicked me out into the cold, isn’t it?
Every summer, I eagerly participated in the library’s summer reading scheme. On the first day of the holidays, I’d be there brandishing my card, desperate to snap up one of the new releases; once finished, I’d return, ready to be quizzed on the story and waving the sheet the librarians would stamp to confirm that I had read the book. I think you had to read four books to complete the challenge; obviously, being the sociable child of many varied activities that I was, this took me about two days. And they accused me of cheating! It was the greatest outrage of my life. Once again, I was forced to enlist the help of a parent to fight my corner and point out that I just hadn’t spoken to anyone for the time it took me to read all the books. Sadly, the damage was done; being presented with my certificate at the first school assembly of the new term was irreparably tarnished.
In case you’re thinking I probably developed social skills when I got to uni, stop being silly; I just spent all my time in the library there too. And what a library it was. I was always pretty convinced I could have moved in there and been perfectly happy. Hungry, but happy. On more than one occasion, I was bullied into going for a beer on a Friday night, but only conceded defeat having already been to the library. True bookworms take a pile of books about Shakespeare to the pub.
These days, my library trips consist primarily of sitting on a seat that is ever-so-slightly too small for my backside, reading books about talking animals to my little girl. And it’s brilliant. At home, she’s got a bazillion toys, and Paw Patrol on the TV, and biscuits to eat; at the library, she’s 100% focused on finding stories for us to read together. I want to bottle those moments and keep them forever.
At school, I look forward every fortnight to my library duty. Partly this is because, this year, my library duty is first thing in the morning and all the sixth formers are still in bed rather than pretending to revise in the library. Even the most boring piece of marking is made brighter when you’re marking it in a library.
All this explains, hopefully, why I’m so saddened by the news that the government have decided that libraries are superfluous in this age in which we can find whatever we want online. Firstly, that isn’t even true; to suggest you can read every book in PDF form is ridiculous. Secondly, that isn’t even the point of libraries; nobody can deny the value of reading and, to suggest that this is best done sitting in front of a screen is more than reductive – it’s insulting.
I’d love to hear your library stories in the comments. I know it’s not just me whose heart does a little flutter every time I walk past a place where they let you take away books for free.