There’s a challenge that I set myself every now and again. It’s called NaNoWriMo, the annual international write a novel in a month event. If you’ve ever attempted it you’ll know that what ‘seemed like a good idea at the time’ is, in truth, a ridiculous ordeal: trying to write 50,000 words in thirty days in between family life, preparing for Christmas, and, for me, numerous birthdays, is more burden than pleasure. Yet I’ve done it more than once!
One year there were several participants living locally and we decided to meet up. The main library in our city seemed a good meeting place and on the specified day we five gathered there.
‘I didn’t know this place existed,’ said one.
‘How long has this been here?’ said another.
I’m not convinced that we should but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume it was only the main library with which they were unfamiliar. To imagine there could be in existence a writer who has never used a library is too mind-blowingly awful to contemplate. Is it an age thing? Are we – those of us who make up the audience for Books For Older Readers - the last generation to appreciate the value of libraries?
As both a writer and a reader I love libraries. Even if I were neither and just a human being I still can’t imagine life without the safe stronghold, the receptacle of knowledge, that a library is.
I grew up living close to my local library and it became my second home. Indeed I often imagined which room would be my bedroom, living-room etc were I to move in. As a shy child reading was my escape, my hidey-hole, from the real world, and the library allowed me a constant supply of my drug of choice. From Pookie to The Secret Seven to Little Women I could explore lives and places very different from my own – and in safety.
I realise as I am writing that the word and idea of ‘safe’ keeps cropping up. I hadn’t thought of the association before but I believe that it is a valid one. In books, we can indulge in adventures far more dangerous, defiant, sexually explicit, crazy, than we would attempt - or want to try out - in real life. And in libraries we are physically protected from the elements, bullies, and loneliness.
And another wonderful thing about libraries: they’re free!
It still amazes me that I can walk into a huge room absolutely full of books and take home any I want. Just like that. Of course owning books is a wonderful feeling – and as a writer I say definitely one to be encouraged - but borrowing books brings its own freedom. It allows me to try out new – to me – authors and if I’m not enjoying a book I don’t feel the obligation to finish it that I would had I spent money on it.
|Libraries are good places to speak to potential readers of your books|
And, of course, libraries these days are far more than book repositories. They are lively community hubs and yet many are coming under threat of closure. Libraries can be seen as an easy target: no lives will be lost if we cut corners here, the councillors may tell themselves to justify their decisions, and that’s hard to argue against. Except to say ‘no lives lost maybe but many lessened.’ And not just intellectually or imaginatively. There’s the homeless man who spends his day sitting by the radiator reading newspapers to avoid freezing to death on the street. And the mother who relies on the free internet and computer service at the library to find out why her benefits have suddenly been cut leaving her unable to feed her children.
Records show that the elderly, the unemployed, those with a limiting disability, and those from the black and ethnic minority groups, all have higher rates of library attendance. The American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who founded over 2,500 free public libraries across the world, said, “A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.”
Libraries in some form or another date back more than 5,000 years and the oldest surviving public library in Britain was founded in Manchester in 1653 at the bequest of a local merchant, Henry Chetham who specified that the librarian ‘require nothing of any man that cometh into the library.’ Books, however, were originally chained to the bookshelves so I’m not sure how easy it was to borrow one … Chetham Library is still in existence today and is a significant centre for study and research.
But the free public lending library with which most of us are familiar didn’t come into being in the UK until the second half of the 19th century when the Public Libraries Act was passed in 1850. The Act allowed any municipal borough of 100,000 souls to introduce a halfpenny rate to establish public libraries - although not to buy books - as part of a movement to improve educational opportunities and facilities.
It's worth noting that during the debates on the Act members of the Conservative party, concerned about the cost of the scheme and the social transformation it could bring about, argued strongly against free public libraries.
That the Act finally became law was down to the persistence of a few men determined to see free public libraries introduced for the benefit and improvement of the working classes and in 1852 the first such library opened in Manchester.
Now, since 2010, at least 478 libraries have closed in England, Wales and Scotland, and the number of full-time posts has dropped significantly with volunteers taking up the baton. You’ll find more than three times as many volunteers in libraries as full-time staff which is fantastic on the part of the volunteers but many may not have the expert knowledge or experience of the professionals.
Will we still have libraries as we know them in twenty years? Will it still be the case that the librarian ‘require nothing of any man that cometh into the library’? I certainly hope so but I’m not holding my breath.