Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Looking out for libraries: Sue Purkiss

This is a picture of the Carnegie Free Library in the town I come from, Ilkeston, in Derbyshire. It only shows a corner; the front of the building is half-hidden behind the line of trees.

Ilkeston was a mining town until the fifties, when the pits closed. When I was a child the main industries were lace and textiles, and the Stanton Iron and Steel Works, which were just outside the town. If you look down at the pavement almost anywhere in Britain, you will probably see a manhole cover from Stanton. The stamp bearing the name of the company always makes me feel a little bit at home, a little bit proud.

Ilkeston stands on a hill. When we said we were going 'up town', it meant just that. It was quite a climb. The market place was, and is, a large, rather bleak and draughty place, which comes to life twice a week when the market takes over, and in October when the Fair comes to town. The library dominates the marketplace, taking up the whole of one side: an elaborate brick and stone building, standing foursquare and proud.

Andrew Carnegie, who gave the town its library, was born in a cottage in Scotland. He moved to America as a child, and started work at 13 as a bobbin boy in a cotton mill, earning $1.20 for a twelve hour day. He was determined to educate himself, and was fortunate in that a local gentleman, Colonel James Anderson, opened his personal library to working boys each Saturday night. Carnegie worked his way up to become an immensely wealthy businessman, making several fortunes in railways and steel amongst other things - and then he gave the bulk of it away, building, amongst other things, thousands of libraries all over the English speaking world - including the one in Ilkeston. The Colonel would surely have been very proud.

I used to take the bus up town to the library every Saturday morning, and borrowed the maximum of books I was allowed, sometimes using my parents' tickets too, so that I could read adult books as well as children's. The library was where I first came across Tolkien: I'd never heard of The Lord of the Rings, and didn't even realise that The Two Towers was the second part of a trilogy at first. I was quickly hooked. When I was sixteen, I got a Saturday job in the library, and that was even better, because then I could take out as many books as I liked for as long as I liked.

That library was a fantastically important part of my education. No doubt I was particularly geeky - but it wasn't just me: the library was always busy. People streamed into the adult library to borrow westerns, romances and mysteries (a new librarian tried to integrate these onto the general shelves, but soon had to back down), a huge range of fiction and non-fiction, or to look at the pattern books: lots of people made their own clothes then. The reference library was a quieter, more serious place, where you could study or look things up for homework - or just come in to read a newspaper. The children's library had a boys' section and a girls'section - girls borrowed equally from both, but you didn't often see the boys perusing the girls' shelves. If you found a writer you liked, you could work your way through a whole series - the library had pretty much everything, or so it seemed.

Of course things have changed. The library as it was then would look very old fashioned now. I haven't been there for many years, but I would guess that now it looks brighter and more cheerful: there will be computers, and no need for Saturday girls to check books in and out: they probably have events and maybe exhibitions there - maybe there's even a coffee bar, to take the place of Doug's, which used to be just around the corner.

Libraries have changed and adapted to different circumstances, and they will continue to do so. But they are under a particular threat at the moment. We all know that money is short, and that there are just demands on what is available. Services to protect children and the elderly, for instance, are quite properly prioritised.

So we have to think what we want libraries to do and to be. We have to use our imaginations and our ingenuity. If we think that it's important to have a space where people can go to be educated, inspired, entertained and informed - at no cost to themselves - then we have to put our thinking caps on and we have to raise our voices to safeguard our libraries. They are at risk. Andrew Carnegie thought libraries were so important that he was prepared to give away a large part of his vast fortune to build more. We don't have to do that. But we do have to do something.

12 comments:

Lynda Waterhouse said...

Sue- I too went 'up town' to Oldham library. It was a lifesaver for me. Summer holidays were spent ploughing through books. I'll never forget the moment my brother pointed out to me that I didn't just have to look in the childrens'section - I could choose a book from anywhere. A great post!

Sue Barrow said...

I heartily endorse everything you've said Sue and I hope I'm not being naive but Cardiff libraries seem to be in a very healthy state indeed. The centre of the city has recently undergone a major refurb, part of which I'm delighted to say has included the building of a new five-storey library with fantastic facilities and research resources. Local branches are being updated too. But I will heed your warning and do a bit of digging around. Public spending cuts are almost certain to hit our libraries too.

Sue Purkiss said...

I'm sure they will. I think there's something else here, too: from what I've heard, there are a number of exciting developmments in city libraries. But small rural libraries are much more at risk. And so maybe there needs to be a discussion about what libraries should be and can provide. They aren't going to be the same as they were when I was a kid, so I think we need to think about just what we want of them in future. What concerns me is that we shouldn't wake up in a few years and suddenly find they've dwindled or gone - not because they're not needed, but because they were an easy target for cuts.

adele said...

Good on you for highlighting the libraries, Sue. They are vitally important in every way and I fear will bear the brunt now of a lot of cuts. We all have to make sure that our loud pro-library voices are heard. I'm sure all ABBA readers know about Alan Gibbons's Campaign for the Book? It flies the flag for libraries and is worth looking into. Type Alan's name into Google...

Andrew said...

Well, I'm not a child anymore, and don't respond so easily to other people's exhortations.

How about if you make the effort and say what you want from a library...? Rather than eulogising Carnegie.

Sue Purkiss said...

I think I have reason to be grateful to Carnegie, and don't see why I shouldn't say so. As for what I want - I want a place where books are central, which draws people in and makes them welcome in whatever ways work. But I'm a writer: obviously these things are important to me. I'm interested in what other people think about libraries too.

catdownunder said...

Our local library is also a community hub. People meet there. They leave things for each other there. It has a gardening group, a knitting group, two computer groups, five reading groups, story telling for babies, for toddlers and activities of all sorts for the children. There are guest speakers from time to time. They have just run a workshop in digital photography and related it to the importance of photography in some books.
It is constantly busy. In football mad Australia more people still go to a library each week than go to a football match. I still get a thrill watching a toddler barely able to hold a clutch of books going up to the counter and borrowing their own selection!

Shirley Burnham said...

How we treat Libraries is a bellwether of our national attitude to literacy and learning. Trashing the public library service produces a society that is underpinned by no more than business interests, jobs for the boys and vacuous blathering.

Is it so politically incorrect to eulogise Carnegie? The "'world's elite," we are told today, have recently met (in secret) to arrange the planet in the best manner to protect their interests. Not many Carnegies among them ... nor anywhere else, it would seem.

And, pray, why do we have to reiterate a million times "what we want in a library," Andrew, as if it were likely that those seeking such enlightenment did not know already? If they have missed the message, people want books and paid front-line staff who are treated properly and whose role is given the respect it deserves.

Yes, elderly people and children and others who are vulnerable to council cuts are the priority, but it is they who find community libraries their lifeline.

A "tsunami of library closures" has been predicted by The Good Library Guide. "What do you want in your library?" we'll be asked. Come on, pull the other one.

Linda said...

Hurray for libraries! Sweet-shops for the mind! When I was a child, they were the only places in my world where reading was not only encouraged, but 'cool'. And seeing adults reading as avidly as I did was a huge inspiration. Now, my local little library in Walderslade is a haven. The life of a writer can be a lonely one, but there I will always find someone ready to chat about something I'm reading, or to recommend a similar book they've enjoyed. The librarians ask me how my writing is going (oh, how grateful I am for that kindness!) and nag me to keep going when my courage fails. Best library moment recently? Seeing a mum sigh with contentment as her little girl skips off to 'Chatterbooks' down one end of the room, while she settles down on the sofa for a whole hour with a book. A proper, grown-up book, just for her. Bliss.

Penny Dolan said...

My local library - one of the Carnegie buildings - is currently closed and in the last few months of being being refurbished. The temporary library is now awash with flyers inviting people to become Friends of the Library and also Library Volunteers. While this new mood of welcoming openness seems a good thing, I can't help wondering what effect it will have on staffing, especially librarians who know about books and people.

I loved Shirley & Linda's libraries!

hilary said...

Great post, and I too am very grateful to Carnegie. I was brought up with a wonderful small town library. I wish my daughter could have the same experience but our local (Matlock-not far from you) is beyond dire- no child could lose themselves among the shelves there. A great loss I think.

Sue Purkiss said...

Shirley - you put it so well! And Cat - I love the sound of your library and all that goes on there. It's got me thinking. Thanks, everyone.