This week, as most book lovers and avid readers will know, is LIBRARIES WEEK, and a chance to celebrate our wonderful, much-loved and treasured libraries that for many of us have been an essential part of our entire lives.
In fact, it often feels as if libraries have been more formative and vital to me than any other national institution. And I am sure many other readers feel the same.
My earliest memory of The Library, though, is before I could even read and was no doubt still in a pushchair.
I remember my mother visiting the Boots Lending Library in Pinner which was above, I believe, the actual Boots Chemist, itself a very small, narrow shaped space smelling somehow of medicines and Elastoplast. Perhaps my memory is fanciful and I am conjuring images of a dusty, attic-like space with rows of dull, cloth-covered books – I would have been very, very young – but nevertheless I do remember its existence.
And the move that the library made to a larger, separate building near the River Pinn and close to Woolworths before making another and far more impressive move to a new. purpose-built premises that seemed to me to offer a kind of Aladdin’s cave and wonderland – spacious, open, airy with a large children’s section and later, a space to study – and it was somewhere I spent, it seems to me, a considerable portion of the next 15 to 20 years or so.
Initially, of course, as a regular book borrower.
And even now I can remember the excitement I always felt when going to the library in search of a new book to read. There might be a Lorna Hill on the shelves that I hadn’t read – or was happy to re-read – another Pamela Brown and The Swish of the Curtain or Blue Door Venture might await me. Borrowing books for me as a child was the highlight of the week.
It was, of course, a very different era with very different habits. Buying books was a treat – and occasioned by a Book Token for a birthday, a cashed-in postal order or pocket money saved over months. Book shops outside London – and probably every other major city – were small and few and far between. People quite rightly lament the demise and struggle faced by independent book shops these days, the dominance of Amazon and onslaught of online purchasing – but some of us of a certain age will recall that, in our childhoods, simply finding a book shop at all to visit was an achievement.
Libraries, therefore, ruled.
Back to The Boots Circulating Library that my baby/toddler self vaguely recalls.
Florence Boot, wife of the founder of the business, an enthusiastic champion of the arts, was the person who convinced the expanding Boots empire to move into the circulating library business. Already flourishing during the late 18th and 19th centuries, these libraries existed by way of subscription which meant that their membership was targeted at the middle classes who could afford such fees. Boots introduced 3 subscription schemes: one for borrowing on demand, one for borrowing new books and one cheaper version for borrowing books already published. Later a Pay As You Read scheme was added. One of the attractions of the Boots Libraries was that books could be returned to any branch – so wherever you were in the country you could offload your books and borrow new.
By 1965, however, the network had considerably shrunk and in 1966 they closed completely.
But by this time, I was lurking among the shelves of the splendid new public library in Marsh Road, Pinner, my three precious library tickets in hand. (how did I not lose them? I lose everything!)
And lurk I did, spending hours after school, before drama classes, after ballet classes, a convenient and safe place for my mother to meet me to take me home. I still hold onto the smell of the place – a mixture of bookish paper, parquet floor polish and …well, just books!
And it continued to be a great refuge, later on, for revising for A levels, in particular. Somehow, I associate Wordsworth’s The Prelude and Milton’s Paradise Lost with Pinner library, learning notes and quotes at a quiet table during the Easter holidays before the exams.
Libraries have continued to feature endlessly and persistently in my life.
(it is possibly no coincidence that my oldest -in the sense of most enduring – friendship is with Carol, a librarian!)
As a student, then as a teacher (before the internet allowed access to all the information you needed for the next day’s lesson …) and then back to the babies and children’s section as a parent with my son.
And now, as a writer myself.
In fact, the co-operation of libraries to have my novels on their shelves and to welcome me – Hillingdon and Yeading libraries, thank you SO much! – to events has been heart-warming. I feel as if I have come full circle – and that the importance of public libraries is as central as ever to my life.
Of course these days many libraries have a new name.
In Winchester, our library, housed in the wonderful old corn market building (always makes me think of Hardy and Bathsheba Everdene standing her ground over the price and value of the corn …)closed for some years for refurbishment to open again, a very phoenix, with the name – Discovery Centre.
It still does not sit well with me.
It sounds too science-like, space-like, too technical and unliterary for my tastes.
Yet what else to call it?
After all, our libraries these days do so very much more than offer books to read.
They provide access to computers – which is access itself to many other worlds. In ‘normal times’ cafes often comprise part of the offering alongside small galleries, performance spaces, community events, children’s activities, book groups and more …
Books are only part of a very exciting and all-encompassing and embracing cultural treasure chest.
And libraries are, of course, all the better for it. Gone are those stereotypical, hushed and dusty places which deter rather than encourage visits.
So a new name is no doubt warranted. Just not sure what it should be …
Anyway, as Libraries Week draws to an end tomorrow, let’s celebrate how lucky we are to have them – if, indeed, our own local public library has escaped the appalling, catastrophic closure that has affected so many in the country.
But that is a subject for another time, another blog….
Watch this space!