Tuesday, January 18, 2011


My earliest memory of a library is a stereotypical one, but it is clear enough in my mind for me to be sure it is my own and not some confabulation. The Taylor Trust Library was at the top of East High Street, a small, dark, drab, old building curiously positioned between some tenements and a block of terraced houses. Immediately at the entrance there was a towering issue desk and behind it stood a formidable old woman. I suppose the issue desk wasn’t really so high, and I doubt the librarian was especially fierce, either, but I was of a generation and a class and a religion which was brought up not only to respect elders, but to fear them. 1960s working class Calvinism: it’s taken me half a lifetime and I haven’t escaped it yet.

I suspect I can only have used the old building a few times before it was closed and the library was moved into the centre of town, in a lovely, spacious, light building with a separate children’s area. I can distinctly remember visiting this library as a very young child, looking at picture books, sitting on the floor and reading them with my mother. There is one series in particular that entranced me, and I would love to be able to find it now. The first one I borrowed was so exciting I remember insisting my mother take me back up to the library immediately to find another. Fortunately, there were another couple in the series, stories about a boy and a group of animals, in one story on a boat, in another in the jungle, one in the desert. That’s all I remember, but I know I adored those stories. And from that a love affair was beginning.

I never went through the usual boyhood phase of wanting to be a policeman or a fireman or something adventurous and exciting. No, for as long as I remember I wanted to be a librarian. I’ve always joked that the reason was that our town librarian, the man who came after the fierce old woman, wore a kilt to work and I wanted a job where I could dress like that, but I suspect the real reason is something deeper. It’s about books. It’s about order. It’s information. Learning. Knowing that, whatever you need to find out, the answer is there somewhere, and you’ve got the key to locating it. I watched the library staff rifle through the old Browne tickets in the issue tray, walk round the shelves with books in their hands, look after the knowledge and words in their possession, and I knew it was what I wanted to do.

As a child I would stop off at the library on the way home from schooI. I went through the easy readers, one a night, sometimes more. Bobby Brewster was my friend. And Flat Stanley. PC Goon was my favourite enemy. Vikings with Henry Treece, Romans with Rosemary Sutcliff, football with Michael Hardcastle. I sailed on the Dawn Treader. I was in wartime Otterbury, at school with Bunter, running wild with the Gorbals Die Hards. I lived down in the dump, I roamed with Tom Sawyer, I misbehaved when the Wind was On The Moon, hoping, just hoping, to be turned into a kangaroo and be swept off to live in a zoo and escape and have fabulous adventures. I asked the librarian for books on ancient Egypt, on sharks, on Scottish football, this year’s new enthusiasm, and he would take me to the shelves and quietly feed my curiosity. A love affair blossomed. Libraries, words.

Learning. My father was an autodidact. We have more in common than I care to recognise, since I didn’t speak to him for half my life. He would sit in the evenings with his library books, mainlining facts. He would learn. He was a man of no education, left school at eleven, lied about his age to fight in the war at fifteen. He knew stuff. He learned it. He just wanted to know. He tried to write books but he didn’t have the patience. There was always something else to do, to learn, to absorb, no time for writing about it. The man was a dreamer, a foolish dreamer, a selfish dreamer, an outsider with no discipline who couldn’t be educated, couldn’t be straitjacketed like that, but who knew how to learn, who did it by himself, for himself, in the only university that would have him and the only university he could stand, his library, his local library.

Roll on. His father’s son, restless in the search for something, another dreamer, with all that entails. A librarian, once, qualified and practicing. In the early days, the brutalising Thatcherite philistine days, it was hard, but you lived on your successes. Jenny, a young girl from a rough family – somehow making a connection with her during a school visit, watching her come in every week for the next three years, read, grow up, move on. Researchers who would sit in Local Studies day after day and finally get their books of local history published. The children reading their picture books, early readers, Harry Potters, Tracey Beakers, playing their computer games, talking to friends over the internet.

Because by the time I became a librarian – wearing neither kilt nor wellies, alas – the Browne trays had been replaced by computers, books were making way for videos, CDs, online packages, but the point remained. Libraries – learning, inclusion, regeneration. There were exciting times in the first heady rush of New Labour, with money and profile and promises: the People’s Network, New Opportunities Fund, digitisation, community access to community learning, librarians not only as gatekeepers, but providers, creators of content, too. Whole new opportunties emerged for spreading learning and the capacity to learn, for getting involved, for reaching out to those it is most difficult to reach. Teenage mums with teenage stories for other teenage girls, a thousand times more effective than dry old textbooks. Excluded kids making movies, proving they had attention spans longer than a goldfish, if you could just inspire them. Technology offered such wonderful opportunities.That old dreamer, my father, he would have loved it. A whole new world of informal learning was emerging, and libraries were at the centre of it.

Somehow, in the past few years, it’s all gone wrong. Librarians have lost their way. Up to 400 libraries are threatened with closure and campaigns are erupting all over the country in order to save them. Nearly all of them are being led by readers and authors, not librarians, who seem to lack a coherent vision or any notion of what to do other than bemoan a lack of leadership within their own ranks. Wonderful acts of cultural insurrection are springing up, such as the library where the residents borrowed every single book from its shelves to stop it being closed.

It’s all very worthy, very well-intentioned, but I’m fearful that in trying to preserve a thing they love, these campaigners may unwittingly hasten its demise. The Taylor Trust Library that both frightened and excited me as a pre-school child was not the same as the library I visited every night when I was growing up. The library I started working in after I qualified was different from that. The library I worked in when I left the profession was different again.

Libraries are not buildings with books in them.

Libraries are the link between learners and what they didn’t know they wanted to know. Libraries are the information and the key that releases that information. Libraries are the place where such a thing can happen. Libraries are the resources that allow it to happen, they are the information that makes it happen. Libraries are the result of what happens. Libraries are not passive. Nobody who enters a library does nothing. A conversation isn’t nothing. Reading a book isn’t nothing. Listening to music isn’t nothing. Watching a film, talking on a webcam, ferreting out a long-lost piece of information, feeling free and safe and warm, all of that is something, is part of the human fabric, all of that is what a library is.

Libraries are traps cunningly – lovingly – set to catch the autodidact, the shy young boy whose friends are mostly in his head, the girl who feels different but doesn’t know why, the person reacting against a stereotype – age or class or religion – in which they have been placed, the young mothers who write up their experiences in a language that other young mothers will understand, the retired researchers who regain their self-esteem, the children excluded from school but capable of creating a sustained piece of work, the pensioners who come in to chat because it’s the only conversation they’ll have all day, the people like you, with your own reasons, your own passions, your own values.

Libraries are a love affair.

400 of those things may be lost in the next year.

Libraries, Maggie May of my youth – who is looking after you now?

Voices of the Library

Public Libraries News

Alan Gibbons


Anthony said...

Interesting post. But gentle nudge - Rosemary Sutcliff has no E! (By the way, re your content: she was a great user of libraries - see www.rosemarysutcliff.wordpress.com)

Tom Conoboy said...

Oh dear, you're absolutely right, of course. I'll change it immediately...

Thanks for pointing it out, and thanks for dropping by.

Ian Anstice said...

For the full list of library closures and handy map see http://publiclibrariesnews.blogspot.com/
For reasons to defend libraries, please see http://www.voicesforthelibrary.org.uk/wordpress/