Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Library Book

Eagle-eyed readers will note that this post is a change to the billed one on Tana French’s latest thriller. This is due to mix-up entirely of my own doing, and that post will follow at a later date.

“For a child a library needs to be round the corner. And if we lose local libraries it is children who will suffer.” – Caitlin Moran

One of my earliest memories of moving to a new town a couple of months before my 5th birthday is the day that my mother and I headed out along the Main Street to find the library. My dad’s cousin, who knew the town, had given my mum rough directions, but we couldn’t find it and headed home. If memory serves, we were both disappointed. I know I was. The library was an essential landmark, it was an Important Place to Find, like the doctor’s surgery and the dentist. Not knowing where it was induced, I believe, a mild sense of panic. I remember my mum phoning dad’s cousin again, this time getting clearer instructions, and we headed straight back out again. We found it. There was a sigh of relief.

Library BookThe Library Book is a collection of essays by (mainly) writers about the value of libraries, especially the wake of recent government cuts and library closures. Stephen Fry is in there, as is Susan Hill, Ann Cleeves, Zadie Smith, Julian Barnes, Val McDermid, Seth Godin, Kate Mosse, Hardeep Singh Kohli, Lionel Shriver, and – as the cliche goes – many, many more. Like any collection, there are highs and lows. Godin, for instance, provides his vision of libraries in 2020, and while his prediction of the library becoming “the local nerve centre for [electronic] information… the insight and leverage is going come from being smart and fast with online resources, not from hiding in the stacks” might well be accurate, I felt a pang for my memories of the library I grew up going to (or in some ways, grew up in). Online resources are brilliant for education and learning, no argument from me there, but what of novels and poetry and the emotional education that can be found within them? If it hadn’t have been for copious coming-of-age novels read in my teenage years I suspect I would genuinely have struggled in some ways. I credit novels with my sanity after some difficult years.

“Those books are almost a form of medication; I reckon we save the NHS a fortune in anti-depressants.” – Ann Cleeves

I hear ya, Ann. I really do.

So libraries as a place for learning, yes, I understand that, and that is an essential purpose of them. But what I am more interested in is the other journeys of discovery the library can lead you on. For me, an abridged, children’s version of Jane Eyre borrowed from the library when I was nine or ten is where my love of the Brontes, and then more widely, Victorian novels came from. The Nancy Drew stories were most likely the start of my love of crime fiction. The Point Horror books had me terrified, and Judy Blume… well, she’s Judy Blume. She’s amazing. I went to the library at least once a week; every day during the school holidays. I read and I read and I read. We could never have afforded to buy the number of books I went through thanks to the library, and that is a crucial point. Libraries are havens for readers without the disposable income to buy everything they fancy reading. These need to be local, just as Caitlin Moran says in the quote up the top. If you’ve just got once big fancypants super-library in your nearest city, you’re not going to make the weekly (daily) pilgrimage unless you cross its path. And so fewer books get to fewer people.

Val McDermid’s contribution was one of my favourites. In it she described how she had more or less devoured everything from the children’s section, but the adult library was on the other side of a barrier that required an adult library ticket. And so, she concocted a scheme whereby she snuck her mother’s library card from the house then presented herself at the library claiming that her mother was ill and bedridden, and had sent her daughter to pick up a book or two on her behalf. She was in, and a new world opened. The library, McDermid says, was the cornerstone of her development into a writer:

“Being a reader turned me into a writer. It fed my imagination, and revealed worlds far beyond my own experience. When I took the mighty leap into the dark to abandon my well-paid and secure job and attempt to make a living as a writer, I was too poor to afford books or music, and again it was the library that saved me. When I was starting to make my way as a writer, it was the support of libraries that helped me gain a readership.”

Contributing to a book blog may well mean that I am preaching to the converted here. But if anyone needs a reminder as to the value of your local library, then this book, surely, is it.

All proceeds from sales of this book go to The Reading Agency and their work to support libraries.

The Library Book (London: Profile Books, 2012). ISBN 1781250057, hardback, RRP £9.99

8 comments on “The Library Book

  1. rosemarykaye
    January 27, 2014

    I have this book and I agree, it’s brilliant.

    Libraries were vital to me as a child (my mother took me every Friday, as we could not afford to buy books) and I’ve never stopped going. I’ve lived in many parts of the UK and in Canada, and like you, one of the first things I need to find in a new town is the library – it gives me a real sense of comfort to know it’s there.

    Libraries are an emancipating force – they hold the key to knowledge for everyone, not just those who can afford it, and we all know that knowledge is power. I do wonder if that’s partly why our current government is so keen to close them – although I think it’s also because its members have probably never been near a public library in their lives.

    It concerns me also that so many people now seem to see using libraries as some kind of social stigma – ‘oh we just buy what we want from Amazon’.

    Libraries not only provide free access to the books and music we know we want, they also lead us down so many paths that we would otherwise never have discovered – as a teenager I used to spend hours of my holidays in the library, looking at all kinds of books that I would otherwise never have heard of. Amazon, with all its ridiculous suggestions, comes nowhere near that.

    I’ve taken my own children to the library from a very early age. Two of them still read, though I’m sorry to say my son doesn’t. My youngest daughter is now 15 and uses the Edinburgh libraries all the time – we are fortunate to have not only general libraries but also a Fine Art library, where she can look at and sometimes borrow books that we would never be able to afford to buy.

    I completely identify with Val McDermid’s subterfuge to access the adult library – as a child, I was consigned to the green ‘junior’ tickets, and could not wait to get into the main section. Our libraries now seem to be a lot more flexible, and my daughter can borrow from both. What appalled me the most, however, was the school library that I helped at when my son was much younger. It was divided into P1-3 and P4-7 sections, and the younger children were banned from taking out the books in the ‘older’ part. My friend and I used to let them anyway, but we were actually stopped by one of the teachers, who said that the books were not suitable. I’ve always let my children read exactly what they want, and so far it doesn’t seem to have done them any harm – who on earth can judge what a child is ready for? I think they make pretty good judgements themselves.

  2. Hilary
    January 27, 2014

    I love this piece, Kirsty, thank you so much for it. I am bound to, of course, having spent my career in public libraries. Though I have to confess Seth Godin would have given me a big pat on the back for my last 15 or so years there, when my job was to introduce the Internet and networked information resources into public libraries (the initiative was a national millennium project called The People’s Network, and the proud boast at the time, and maybe it still counts, is that it was the first and only public IT infrastructure project to come in right first time, on time and on budget). It did completely transform libraries in one way, while preserving them (so long as they could be kept open) as essentially what everyone loved about them. To my shame, I have not read this book, but I salute it and all those who have contributed – and I also salute The Reading Agency, a groundbreaking organisation, run on a shoestring, and a fantastic advocate for reading and libraries.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings
    January 27, 2014

    As the Manics put it, “Libraries gave us power…” As long as there is free access to books there’s still a chance for everyone.

  4. Kirsty D
    January 27, 2014

    That Manics line is a very apt choice: Nicky Wire is another of the book’s contributors!

  5. consignee
    January 27, 2014

    My path to libraries and the love of ‘proper’ books is echoed in the previous comments. For school projects and essays, I found the reference books I needed at my local library. In high school, I always wanted a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica at home but this was out of the question so would regularly walk the three miles to the library and back. It was also a refuge as the atmosphere at home was dysfunctional. I often went there just for the respite from home. This is an important community service offered by libraries and should be a conscious consideration before closing any library. Removing safe places for children or anyone having difficulties at home for whatever reason contravenes the values extolled in mission and vision statements of councils and their libraries. I would like to see extended opening hours for libraries for this reason and would not be adverse to 24 hour trading.

  6. Jackie
    January 27, 2014

    Oh, this post made me smile and I can so relate to many of the anecdotes here in the comments. I love libraries and still go to them several times a month, sometimes weekly and bring huge piles of books home. When the weather is unpleasant, I download library books for my Nook.
    This collection sounds like a great way to reach out to people and remind them how important libraries are and using popular celebs would have a greater appeal to much of the general public than just authors. I hope I can find this book in one of my own local libraries.

  7. Pingback: The Library | Obsessive Behavior

  8. Sharonrob
    January 29, 2014

    Thanks for a smashing review of a rather wonderful little book. I have The Library Book on my Kindle, which might seem to be missing the point slightly, but it means I can go back to it whenever I like and read my favourite bits, the way I did with much loved books as a child. Reading, re-reading and re-reading again was much more a part of my life than it is now, where there seems to be more of an impetus to move onto the next title on my list.

    I particularly enjoyed Alan Bennett’s piece. Like him, I grew up in Leeds, albeit in a different era and another part of town. His local library was Armley (the book includes a beautiful photo of it) whereas mine was Chapel Allerton. It’s still there, a lovely Victorian building near the old police station, which is now an expensive restaurant. When I was fourteen, we moved from Chapeltown, to the much more prosperous Shadwell area. Shadwell didn’t have its own library, it was covered by the. Moor Allerton branch. It was new, bright and shiny and I never really took to it in the same way and continued to use Chapel Allerton. Like Alan Bennett, I also went to the central library and from his description of it, I don’t think it changed much between his time and mine. It has now though; all its systems are updated, it’s cosier, friendlier and has one of the most splendid cafes I’ve ever seen anywhere.

    Using libraries turned me into a reader and a buyer of books as well as a borrower of them and I don’t understand those writers (who are a minority and shall remain nameless) who think libraries are depriving them of income. The vast majority of children own nothing in their own right (even the privileged ones only have what the adult world gives them) and free access to books allows them to develop borrowing and reading habits, which for many, lead to buying habits later on. Readers aren’t born, they are made and libraries have a big role to play in that.

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This entry was posted on January 27, 2014 by in Entries by Kirsty D, Non-fiction, Non-fiction: literature and tagged , , , , .



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