In praise of libraries

Photo by Fallon Michael on Unsplash

Libraries gave us power. So wrote the Manic Street Preachers, and who am I to argue? Public libraries are such a British institution, up there with the NHS, the BBC and strawberries every rain-drenched Wimbledon, it feels as if they’ve been with us forever.

In actual fact Britain saw its first public libraries in the 1850s, thus outstripping those other venerable institutions by some distance. Perhaps that’s why libraries are so close to the hearts of every keen reader – and I’ll take the liberty of including you in that number, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this!

I remember my first experience of using a library as clearly as if it was yesterday. It was a little branch library some 200 yards (yes it was that long ago) from home. The floorboards smelled keenly of floor polish, giving it an old school feel, and in the late afternoons the sun streamed in through the windows, heating the whole building up to the extent that by 4pm the heat was stifling. But none of that mattered to me or my siblings because the place was full to the brim of hidden treasure: books – thousands of them!

I grew up in a traditional working-class environment. Our parents – Dad was a manual worker, while Mum brought us up, with the occasional part-time job squeezed in when time and circumstance allowed – were voracious readers, so the house always seemed to have books lying around. This being the case, it seemed natural that we were often packed off to this little library to explore. First the children’s section and then when we got a bit older, to the town’s Central Library – a grand, imposing building fully deserving of its capital letters!

I’m sure to many people the mention of libraries invokes that kind of imagery – old, forbidding, almost scary places where a grey-haired, cardiganed lady with glasses hanging on a lace around her neck will tell them off for breathing too loudly. This is such a pity, because the places can be absolutely transformative. More than anything else, what reading and using libraries taught me and my sisters, was that the world around us didn’t stop at the end of our street. While our parents couldn’t afford flash holidays or foreign travel, we knew about the wider world and about people who were different to us because we’d seen it in books. We’d read about social history and science and the natural world, not because we were some kind of wunderkinds, but because we had access to an extra-curricular education right on our doorstep – and it was free.

From the North East

Over fifty years on since that first trip to dusty bookshelves, my local library here at Cullercoats is one of my favourite places and its right at the end of my street, just like fifty years ago. The staff (bereft of spectacles on string last I looked) are the most friendly, helpful folk I know and are a mine of knowledge on anything you care to ask about. This being the case I visited last week to see how they are getting along, and also to find out what’s on offer these days, apart from traditional books. Are you ready for this?

At North Tyneside libraries (and I’m pretty certain in every other library service in the country) you can now learn IT Skills, apply for jobs, access the entire Encyclopaedia Brittanica, read hundreds of historical newspapers, trace your ancestry, take part in Mums & Toddlers sessions, borrow CDs and DVDs, learn crafts, take part in gaming sessions, join reading groups and attend regular live performances by professional writers. Some of our libraries have even hosted live theatre performances during the day! All this and Vera author Ann Cleeves, who lives locally, is sponsoring the employment of a reading coach to bring the joy of reading to people who may be struggling for one reason or another – what a wonderful idea!

And throughout the pandemic, who was there picking out and delivering books direct to the homes of the elderly and disabled? That’s right – your friendly local librarian, an unsung frontline hero. Not that they’d have wanted recognition or any kind of fuss, because….well, they’re librarians, after all.

In these straitened times when so much of our social fabric seems to be moving from under our feet, our libraries are a lifeline, and arguably one of the best things about living in the UK. On every shelf is a little key with your name on it. Why not pop along and unlock a few doors?

Harry Gallagher

This article first appeared in Up! magazine, May 2021

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