Friday 3 December 2010

Libraries: nostalgia may soon not be what it used to be: Gillian Philip

Better and more dedicated bloggers have blogged about the crisis facing our libraries, including Lucy Coats, Keren David and Candy Gourlay. Please read their posts from yesterday, because I can't put it better than they can.

I can, though, tell you what my local library meant to me as a child, because I'll never forget standing at my bedroom window one night, with my parents and my brother, watching the glow light up the sky as it burned to the ground. I remember being heartbroken, because it was the place I loved to be: the place that brought me Paddington Bear and the Famous Five and so many other worlds of wild excitement.

All I could think of that night, and the next day as we went to look at the ruins, was all those worlds, all those words, all those books going up in smoke. At eight I could think of no greater tragedy. I fantasised that the local press would interview me, as the library's most fanatical client. I even practised what I'd say.

I'd discovered Snoggle in that library, an odd little egg-shaped alien created by JB Priestley. He was as alone and far from home as ET, and even more heart-tugging. Obsessed, I'd taken the book with me into the garden, then left it lying there to be rained on. I had only recently returned it, terrified and guilty, to the librarian (who was very kind and forgiving, and who didn't have me arrested as I assumed she would). That night I remember wishing I'd kept it. More than thirty years later I had to track down a copy for my own kids, but I'm still afraid to read it, afraid to shatter the memory of one of the best-loved books of my childhood.

They rebuilt Wishaw Library: that's it in the photo above. It will have changed with the times, adapted, modernised. It must offer so much more now than it used to. I'd love to visit some time (hint hint). My nostalgic memories of the old library won't be any stronger than the memories the new one is creating right now for its thousands of visitors.

But looking for images of the beautiful old library, or even of the fire that destroyed it, I can't find any. Not one. It's as if that library never existed. Maybe I dreamed it.

Horrible, horrible thought. Let's not let it happen to all the others.


catdownunder said...

Reading this I was reminded sharply of the old "Children's Library" in the city. My father used to borrow and return books for me on his way to university lectures in the buildings a little further along. Occasionally I would be taken along in school holidays. He would leave me - aged about five - for several hours and I would read and,joy, choose my own books.
That library was tucked in with an old army barracks and it had atmosphere. The Country Lending Service my brother and I relied on later was attached to it.
When they closed both those things the bottom dropped out of the world for me - and for a lot of other children.

Kathryn Evans said...

A moving dedication Gillian, I know plenty of kids who still feel like this about their libraries. Let's hope we can save them from the Tory Flame-thrower.

Bill Kirton said...

Poignant stuff, Gillian. The really annoying thing about what the bean counters and our political masters are saying about libraries is that none of them recognise that, for a long time, they've been progressive places. Not progressive in the way that politicians are using the word now to mask the iniquities of their ideologies, but genuinely progressive. They've encouraged reading initiatives, created special environments, especially for children and, just by being there, they've reminded us that magic, concern, compassion, creative engagement and many other positives are as much a part of being human as all the greed and negatives that seem to predominate.

Unknown said...

Totally agree with everything that's being said about saving our libraries, but one thought: we (the great unwashed) have a part to play in these decisions. You don't use it, you lose it. Ask yourself when was the last time you borrowed a book from your local library or used any of its other services?

We not only have to raise our voices, we have to walk through the library doors.

Lucy Coats said...

Fantastic, Gillian. Will post on Twitter right away. And Michael--you make an important point. We do have to USE them. There's a new #CFTB (Campaign for the Book) hashtag on Twitter for those who'd like to use it to publicise the iniquity of library closures even more.

Ian Anstice said...

I remember sitting in Salisbury Library in the 1970s discovering Asterix and Tintin for the first time. Magical.

For the users of the 246 public libraries and 17 mobile libraries currently under threat in the UK, the opportunity to have such memories are at risk.

Full list and map at

Gary Green said...

Gillian, I really enjoyed this post. I wondered if you'd consider adding it to the stories section of Voices For The Library site?
This site is part of a national campaign defending the value of UK public libraries and we are looking for library users stories explaining why libraries are so important to them.
Thank you - Gary

Stroppy Author said...

Thank you, Gillian, for that lovely insight into your childhood library. I had a mobile library and an old library building through a magical archway. Eventually that closed down and we got a nasty new concrete building, but the library inside was as precious regardless of the hideous architecture.

Thankyou, too, Gary for that link - going right there now!

Gillian Philip said...

Thank you for all the comments - it's amazing how when you start to scratch the surface of memory, so many of us have vivid recollections of our libraries. The #cftb hashtag on Twitter seems to be gathering momentum, which is great.
And yes, Gary - I'd be glad to!

Leslie Wilson said...

I used the Carnegie library in Kendal, in those days the kids books were upstairs, and I can visualise the room quite clearly in my mind, the shelves, the sense of such riches, the agony of choice.. yes, we do have to use libraries and recently I have begun to do so again, annoying though it is to have only 3 weeks to read the book in before someone might demand it next. It gives one the opportunity to try out authors one doesn't necessarily want to commit to, and which - if I like them enough - I might later buy too.
Our Caversham library is a Carnegie library, too, and its eccentric and charming design gives distinction to the whole of the street.

I remember going past the British library in a bus with grandson Max. I told him what it was, and his immediate response was: 'Can we go there?' He was 2 and a half at the time. Yay!!!

Brill post, Gillian


Sue Purkiss said...

I blogged here a while ago about how important our town library was to me as a child. But you're absolutely right, Michael - if we want to keep them, we need to use them!

Craig said...

I've just came across this post and I know I'm about six years behind the times but hey ho!! Anyway my story of the old Wishaw Library was being asked to research the place as a project for the Cub Scouts. I visited the library with my dad and can remember "interviewing" the librarian. Armed with my knowledge I must have written about 30 words on my project and was all set to produce this fine document to the Cub leader when I was told of the fire which had burnt it down. To me this will always be "The Great Fire of Wishy!!"