With all of the debate about the future of libraries going on after huge service cuts in Britain, (though Ed Vaizey says it’s not as bad as we think it is!) I have been casting my mind back to my own experiences of public libraries. First as a child and later, as a parent, I have always taken libraries for granted. I cannot remember a time when I did not have a library ticket for a library, often for more if you count academic libraries. As any reader of this blog knows, I regularly sneak library reads into my TBR Pile schedule. At present, I hold tickets for Dublin City and DLR County Council libraries, which gives me oodles of possibilities. I also often take advantage of the new (ish) online Libraries Ireland portal for reserving books at no extra cost. In short, I love libraries, whether in Britain or Ireland, and still use them a great deal. It’s a pity that Ed Vaizey has no real grasp of what libraries can and do mean to many people.
My library love affair began many years ago, growing up in Birmingham. My mum registered me at our local library when I was pre-school age; and in turn, our daughter had her own library ticket before she could even read, from Hereford library. I grew up with a library routine that saw us exchanging our books every Saturday morning. As teenager, I used to take my younger sisters for the regular Saturday library trip, borrowing endless (or so it seemed to me) Topsy and Tim adventures every week. Amongst my own reading then was Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle and Georgette Heyer. I was a big fan of RJ Unstead’s history books and Henry Treece’s adventures of ancient Britain. And let’s not forget my teenage swashbuckling hero, the Scarlet Pimpernel rescuing the innocent (and of course les aristos were always simply misunderstood) from Mademoiselle Guillotine. I do occasionally ponder on how many books I would never have read, had I not had ready access to a library. We always had books for Christmas and birthdays, but with four children, there was always going to be a limit on book buying. As I grew older, I saved up pocket money to buy paperbacks, but they were more than likely books by authors whom I had first discovered in the library.
The earliest library I remember was an old building, a former Masonic Hall, in Harborne High Street. The library steps were where I remember waiting to see Father Christmas drive past in his sleigh one chilly December evening (no November appearances in those days). The children’s section was a treasure trove of books, up an imposing flight of stairs with a curving banister. Funnily enough, it looked much larger when I was a child. Also upstairs was the Reading Room, a mysterious chamber only accessible to grownups. Alas, I discovered on a recent visit that it no longer exists so I never managed to penetrate its solemn interior. The adult section was downstairs, all dark wood shelving and creaking floors. At that time, library cards were still just the brown cardboard variety. I think we had four cards each (I seem to recall that children’s cards were blue) so that was all the books you could borrow. When you took out a book, the librarian took the coloured slip from a pocket inside the front cover and tucked it inside one of your library tickets, which was then filed until your return visit. The plastic bar-coded cards simply don’t have the same magic about them.
When we moved house to a different suburb of Birmingham, we also moved to a new library. Quinton library was awaiting re-development. In consequence, we spent time choosing books in a dingy temporary building while all the exciting work went on next door. What finally emerged from the rubble was a shiny new library and community centre with more glass than walls and big comfortable sofas. In my memory, the overriding impression is that of a large space filled with books and bright orange furniture, but I may be mistaken about the colour. In sum, I remember it as very 70s in its bright and breezy welcoming style. All apart from the head librarian, who was a very scary woman and not at all welcoming in manner (well, not to children anyway). The mystery was that she didn’t look as though she ought to be terrifying, not being an archetypical ancient custodian of the books, but a comparatively young woman. She obviously didn’t really want to be lending the books, or at least not to children!
Despite the best efforts of the intimidating head librarian, I loved going to the library and devoured my regular quota of books. For quite a few years, I cherished a dream of becoming a librarian after leaving school. When I was younger, I even created my own library cards and made tickets to stick in my own books. In the fifth form, I went along to a careers advice talk and was sure of my vocation to be a librarian. At some point however, I abandoned that dream and settled for being a lifelong library user instead.
I suppose I should get back to the TBR Pile now…
Picture Credits: http://www.libraryofbirmingham.com/ – with thanks