All this talk of libraries makes me nostalgic. I’m not the only one, it seems – last week my local had a queue ten people deep. Is it a sign that, in fact, we don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone? Or that in a town where one of our main bookshops just closed down, we’re starting to show our appreciation? I personally needed no reminders to appreciate the library –the first thing I do when I move somewhere new is join one, and I’m always amazed by how good English libraries are. I grew up in N Ireland and it seemed we rarely got new books – perhaps the budget was going on policing instead? Guns not books. Will everywhere be like this now?
My first library – my meta-library – was the one in the next (very very small) town over from my village. They did their best – they’d keep books for you on request and order new ones when they could. The head librarian let me start on the adult section at ten, when I’d read my way through all the children’s books and most of the teens’ too. My mother used to take me every Saturday morning. There wasn’t a whole lot to do in the countryside in Ireland, but I’d come home with a clutch of new worlds to explore. Although I wasn’t really allowed to watch ‘Allo ‘Allo, I could read whatever I liked. I remember distinctly another librarian asking me with suspicion if my mammy knew I was taking this out? (I forget what it was. Something unsuitable no doubt, I read my first Steven King at 11, scared the hell out of me for months.) Yes, I said, she recommended it.
The school library, the librarian’s special saying that she ‘didn’t remember asking you to talk, girls’. The geek-love for Oxford’s libraries, books all round and in stacks under your feet, knowing you could get anything ever published, even copies of Cosmo, and rumour has it there’s a room somewhere with all the magazine free gifts yours for the taking. (I never did find this). The 24-hour college libraries where you stayed awake on Red Bull and adrenaline. The ones you had to put on white gloves to read the books, or where previous readers had scribbled long arguments in the margins – with pen! Having naps in the English Faculty and peering out at tourists from inside the Rad Cam. Stumbling across a silent, beautiful library at midnight on US Election night 2000, in the Oxford Union. I must have spent hours in libraries over the years.
I wouldn’t be a writer without libraries. I was a child who read up to ten books a week – where would I have got those from? As it is I own hundreds and we’re moving to a smaller house, and Himself keeps muttering about E-readers and charity shops. Imagine if I also owned every book I’ve ever read!
What’ll happen without libraries? People will lend to each other, perhaps. Soon someone will come up with a system. They’ll say, hey, let’s all pay a little – call it a tax – and we’ll buy new books centrally, and we’ll borrow them in rotation. Anyone can join, and we’ll give you a card or something so we know who has what. What a good idea!
If libraries didn’t exist, we’d only invent them anyway.