One of my early career goals was to be a librarian. I was probably six or seven when I set upon this dream, and it didn’t last long. I think I simply enjoyed the way libraries made me feel: calm and safe and full of possibility.
I took my first trip to the library, aged five, accompanied by my dad. Getting my first library card felt like an important rite of passage. If my memory serves me correctly, the card was a small pink envelope thing with a slip of paper that the librarian recorded all the borrowed books on. Or something like that.
The best thing about going to the library as a child was having the power to choose your own books. This was one time you could read books that hadn’t been selected for you by a teacher or parent. It’s a crucial opportunity for a child to understand and express their own identity and interests.
With a vast selection of books to choose from, free from cost and free from the market forces of the publishing world, children have the freedom to experiment with new authors, styles and topics. You pick a book, you take it home, and if you don’t like it, you bring it back and choose something else instead.
My methods of selecting books, however, weren’t particularly scientific. Faced with so much choice I took a pot luck approach, choosing books by “eeny meeny miny mo” or working my way through the alphabet. I enjoyed the element of discovery and surprise. I’d max out my card with the full three books allotted to it and enjoy working through them all, uncertain of exactly what experience they might pull me into.
I also found the atmosphere in the library to be something magical. The tranquillity would be disturbed only by the gentle thud of the librarian’s stamp, or the occasional voice of someone making an enquiry. It is a place where people can disappear into themselves and escape from the world for an hour or two.
More than 20 years later I have returned to community libraries as a parent. Much has changed but so much feels exactly the same. The paper membership card has been replaced by a computerised piece of plastic. Lending services have extended beyond books, offering DVDs, music, toys and computer games, and access to a PC and the internet. You no longer feel bad about speaking or making a noise inside a library; the atmosphere has relaxed somewhat. But you still get your books stamped, and you still feel like the world outside stops for a moment once you’re inside a library.
When I was alone with a baby in a small flat, our local library was more than a place that offered books, it was also a haven, a solace, a link with other adults. Unsure what I was supposed to do with a small baby, I attended the local rhyme time sessions with my infant, awkwardly singing along to nursery rhymes. When the rain tumbled and cash or energy was in short supply we could stroll two minutes round the corner and sit there for a bit, play with some different toys, chat to some other parents, and help ourselves to some new picture books while we were there.
Several years later we still make a point to visit the local library. I try to hold on to that feeling of childhood independence I once felt and let Toby loose with the books. I watch as he pulls them off shelves, compares them, and even does “eeny meeny miny mo” as I once did. The library came in handy for working our way through the Horrid Henry series, and we also discovered books and authors we would never have found in our bookshop because they have long gone out of print. As he works through the school years, we will head to our library to find resources for school projects. Google is great but we should not lose our ability to carry out research using books.
As I eye up my future as an empty nester I hope sincerely libraries will still be a part of our communities. I will hopefully no longer rely on a library as a source for books or internet access but I may be looking to connect with my community through shared interests. Libraries in their current form offer that through hosting a range of events such as author talks, reading and writing groups, and also store and display important material and resources about local history. Without a library at its heart, a local area cannot truly be called community, so let’s treasure and preserve our libraries for all that they bring us.