Saturday, 12 March 2016

Libraries, Libraries, Libraries... by Ruth Hatfield

I know the subject of libraries has been talked and talked about, but whenever I think about them, it seems urgent to talk even more. My guts tell me that closing down libraries is a Bad Thing, but if anyone quizzed me about my library use, I’d probably say I don’t use them all that often.

I thought about this when I went in to the Cambridge Central Library this week and borrowed a book, then discovered that I owed 25p in fines from a book I may or may not have taken out in 2013. The fact that I hadn’t paid it must mean that I last borrowed a book over three years ago. Clearly I’m not doing my bit to convince those who hold the purse strings that the library is of much benefit to me.

But as I sat on this guilty realisation, I began to think about when and what I had used libraries for. And the thought went on and on and on.

There was a library bus that used to come to our primary school. It was a disorderly cave crammed full of books, and the steps were steep. I lost one of the borrowed books, once. It was terrible. 

Cambridgeshire Mobile Library, now axed: copyright Wisbech Standard

At secondary school, the librarian asked me what I liked reading. I said, pony books. She took me to the Dick Francis section, and handed me a book with a picture of a bloodstained man on the cover. There weren’t many ponies in it, but it began a fervent love affair between me and Dick Francis (his books, not him). At the time, I thought it was because his books were mostly about horses. Later on, I realised it was because he told a cracking good story, and he wasted no words at all, and, thanks to his amazing researching wife Mary, you learned something new with every book.

I can’t begin to remember how many lunchtimes I sat in the library at school, reading. When I was having teenage girl arguments with my friends, I could be alone there and unnoticed, and happy.

Through my teenage years, I spent a fair bit of time on Saturdays at the Cambridge Central library, reading endless sagas. E.V. Thompson, Helen Forrester, horse-related crime, Saddle Club… sometimes I used to catch the bus from my village into Cambridge, then just sit at the library and read. Or I went there when my parents were shopping. I can walk around the old library (it’s been demolished and rebuilt now) in my head as clearly as if it were still there. I definitely used my library card, then.

A levels, 3 different universities – the libraries were a constant. The books at my 6th form still had labels in them from when it had been a boy’s grammar school. Lists of names, decades old. Glasgow University had a library with at least 11 floors. I used to walk all the way up to the top, just to slow my life down.

The towers of Glasgow University Library: copyright Glasgow University

Reading University library only had 3 floors. I applied to be on a TV programme where the contestants had to live for a year on a Victorian farm and sat down one afternoon to read my way through a wedge of books on historic farming methods. I didn’t get to be on the programme. Instead, I discovered William Cobbett.

I’m pretty sure half the reason I applied to do a Masters at Cambridge was because I’d been told that if you did a degree there, you got lifetime use of the university library afterwards. It’s true – you even get borrowing rights as well. I had to wear blinkers to study in there. One afternoon I lapsed and read a brilliant collection of letters called Red and The Devil. I saw the strength of the bond that can exist between two people, and how sometimes, it can be expressed perfectly through the written word.

Then the Cambridge Central library, again. I went on an Arvon course then fell off my bike and broke my left thumb, and I couldn’t work. Time stretched before me, and it was the right time, exactly the right time – I had a story, burning to be written. Every day, I walked down to the library, found myself a seat, and sat and wrote. The book crawled, rushed, danced and stormed onto the paper. It was the right time, the right story – and the right place. Exactly the right place. 

The Stargate: copyright Friends of Cambridge Library

And last week? Last week I took my small baby to Rhyme Time, which is on several times a week, every week, completely free. It’s incredibly popular. They give out Bookstart tokens. They encourage us to get our children library cards. Afterwards, most people sit around, grab books, and read them to their kids. I discovered a brilliant one there last week, called Shh! We have a plan! By Chris Haughton. My baby tried to eat it.

But one day, I hope she’ll be more interested in the words and pictures than the taste of the paper. And I hope so much that all these libraries will still be around for her. I know that many of the libraries that I’ve loved have been private ones, and they’ll stay. But it just isn’t right that libraries should only be available to the fortunate few. Libraries are sanctuaries, playgrounds and places of discovery. Each one of us might not need them all the time, but what will we do when we do need them, and they aren’t there anymore?

Libraries libraries libraries – a subject that’s been done to death. Except it hasn’t. I don’t think we can talk about libraries enough. We have to talk and talk and talk about them, so they can’t just quietly be taken from us. People might not borrow so many books anymore, but libraries are so much more than just places from which we borrow books.


Penny Dolan said...

A good history of libraries, Ruth. Lots of good points there!

However, one aspect of the cuts in libraries - and the hidden cuts in library stock & purchasing - is that not everyone is studying for degrees or higher degrees, i.e. has access to university libraries. That whole level of book provision is kept locked into academia, and remains outside the non-student library experience - especially as public libraries have no funds now to pay for inter-library requests & loans, and no money to pay for academic (ie non-popular) books for their own library group/authority.

Sue Bursztynski said...

It's school libraries that are being cut here rather than public ones. At least, school libraries in the kind of school I work for, the disadvantaged state school; private school libraries and middle-class state school libraries continue to flourish. It's so unfair! But there's something classist about it, as if only those who have money are entitled to that joy of reading.

Likewise, public libraries are open to everyone. They're a comfort to the retired, a place where kids with noisy homes and not much in the way of resources can go to do their homework, where young children can play and get the taste of book love for free. Maybe the politicians who grew up in wealthy homes want to keep the lower classes in their place!

Ruth Hatfield said...

Thanks for both those comments... seems the situation just gets worse and worse. I think that 'classist' describes what's happening very well. It's so unfair. But no matter how many campaigns go on, nothing seems to make much difference - I wonder whether realistically anything can stop the demise of libraries, now. Better keep shouting...