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.