Thursday 13 June 2019

The Magic of the Library by Sheena Wilkinson

I loved Emma Pass's recent post about falling in love with books, and it made me think about the origins of my own lifelong love affair with stories. It started with the library. 

Libraries made me. It’s as simple as that. They made me a reader, and being a reader made me a writer.
the estate where I grew up 
I grew up in the middle of the Northern Irish Troubles in an estate in east Belfast. I was a feisty, mouthy little thing with a tendency to get myself into bother in the street. I remember one neighbour biting me when I broke his Lego gun. In an effort to keep me from such charmers my parents encouraged the local library, where only nice children went, as an alternative playground.

But I didn’t need encouragement. In Cregagh Library, in the mid-seventies, I fell in love. The world of stories was wider and richer than the world of the street. I wandered the prairies with Laura Ingalls Wilder and shivered with her through the Long Winter; I longed to go to the Austrian Chalet School and be best friends with Jo Bettany, or to Malory Towers with Darrell; I fell into adventure with the Famous Five and solved clues with the Five Find Outers. I was a Borrower.

the local library -- where it all began  
Library books were fat hardbacks with shiny covers. You could borrow three at once and that made a good armful. They bore their borrowing histories on the page of return dates. I thrilled to be part of that history every time the librarian took my card and stamped my book. The most popular books – and I was not a child of especially esoteric tastes – often had a second or even third page glued on top. Occasionally I would borrow a book with few other stamps and wonder which other girl (I scorned boys) in the greater Cregagh area also liked Daddy-Long-Legs or Peter’s Room. If only I could find her, I was sure she would be a kindred spirit and not the sort to bite in the street. 


I used to stay in the library until closing time and walk home in the dusk, often snatching a read on the way home, leaping from lamppost to lamppost. I couldn’t wait to get safely indoors to find out if Harriet the Spy would be unmasked, or if Pa would make it home through the blizzard. (He always did.) 

Harriet was the first fictional character I met who wanted to be a writer, closely followed by Jo March, though Jo wasn’t a library friend, Mummy having bought me a copy of Little Womenas soon as I could read. (What are daughters for, after all?) Home friends were solid and dependable, library friends sometimes elusive. Oh, the pain of needing Harriet or Laura or the Fossil sisters on a particular day and not finding them on the shelves! In vain did I hide my favourites (I was not a public-spirited child); the librarians always dug them out and returned them to the right places on the right shelves.

Or perhaps they found their way home by magic. The library, after all, was that sort of place. 


Mystica said...

My first library foray was a private one when I was 15 years old just a few hundred metres from home. No public library during my growing up years and even today the focus in libraries here is educational texts.
I was an only child social interaction not approved!! So books were important.

Nick Garlick said...

Wonderful post! And the memories it brings back. Library cards and dates being stamped...

Sue Purkiss said...

Brings back memories for me too. I used to go on the bus on a Saturday morning to our wonderful local library - and later I got a Saturday job there, so then I could take as many books out as I wanted!

Susan Price said...

My local library was in a nearby town. First I went there while parents did the weekly shop. Later I walked there and back. I used to stand amongst the shelves and look round for the bright yellow books, because they were Gollansz and it was a fair bet they would be sci-fi.
Also learned to investigate the 'just returned' shelf. Picked up one book with a bright cartoony cover. It was called 'Mort.' Had never heard of the author, but borrowed it, read it, loved it. Shared it with my Dad and he loved it too. So began a serious Terry Pratchett habit.
Sadly the library has changed a lot. Now it's more computers, cds, dvds and fewer books.

Lynne Benton said...

Oh yes, Sheena, this certainly brings back many memories of my favourite place when I was a child. I remember my dad took me the first time, and let me choose one book. Of course, I'd finished it by that afternoon and wanted to go straight back and get another one, so was devastated to discover I couldn't go back until two days later! (The library closed on Wednesdays, and this was a Tuesday.)