Why I’m Passionate About My Library Card

Isaac Asimov - public libraries

Do you remember the first time you entered a public library?

The feeling of excitement when you received your first membership card?

The thrill of turning a corner to find thousands of books just waiting to be picked off the shelf and read?

I was nine years old when I joined the public library in my home town. It wasn’t a grand affair – no marble pillars framed the entrance nor where there any sculptures of Greek gods adorning the roof.

It was just a modest double fronted building that looked more like a house than a public building. It’s the yellow building in this photograph.

Doesn’t look much does it?

But to a young reader like myself it was paradise.

I had learned to read when I was four years old. In those early years my school could just about keep up with my appetite for more and more reading material.

But as I grow older and changed schools, my demands quickly exceeded supply. Neither my pocket money nor the family income stretched to buying new books every week.

Discovering New Worlds

The public library came to my rescue. Although it didn’t have a huge stock, it had enough copies of classics like Treasure Island, Heidi and Black Beauty to keep me going, supplemented by birthday and Christmas presents and the occasional treats. That building became my route into new worlds and new experiences entirely different from everything I had known before.

Isaac Asimov captured the power of the public library so well in a letter in 1971. It was in response to a request from a children’s librarian at a newly opened public library in Troy, Michigan who wanted to attract as many youngsters to the premises as possible.

Marguerite Hart asked a number of notable people to send a congratulatory letter to the children of Troy, explaining what they felt were the benefits of visiting such a library. Here’s Asimov’s response.

This was as true for me as a nine year as it was when I was sixteen years old and used the same public library to introduce me to translated fiction. I spent the entire summer engrossed in Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Tolstoy.

How much of their work I understood is another question entirely. The point was that I was stretching my brain, getting myself ready for more advanced literature studies. Sadly the curriculum never encompassed these guys and stayed mainly in the tradition of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Bronte, and Milton. The Tolstoy did prove useful in our discussions on Russian history though.

Life Long Supporter

Fast forward more than 50 years and I’m still a proud card-carrying member of my local public library system. I wish I still had one of those original cards (maybe you had one too – they were small brown envelopes in effect) . But all I have now is a credit card style.

Even though I can afford to buy my own copies of books I still love popping into one of the local branches.

I use my public library system to sample authors I’ve never read or genres I’m uncertain about. And to read newly published titles ( as a rule I don’t buy hardcopy versions and sometimes it’s too long a wait for the paperback) .

If the non fiction selection was better I’d go looking for some poetry or biographies but unfortunately the stock is heavily weighted to celebrity memoirs.

Now of course my options are not limited to physical books. I can sit at home, scroll through the on line database of audio books and ebooks. Within minutes they get delivered to my computer. I love the convenience but nothing beats a visit to a bricks and mortar building and a browse through real shelves!

In Defence of Public Libraries

I’m a staunch advocate of the value of the free public library ethos. Always have been. Always will.

But I wonder how many years are left in which I – and the eight million other active library members in the UK – can continue to enjoy the benefits of this system?

In the UK, the future of the public library is under threat. Between 2010 and 2017 at least 478 libraries have closed in England, Wales and Scotland. This is the result of successive years of budget cuts by the local authorities in whose control they lie.

Although the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 says these authorities have a statutory responsibility to provide a library service, they are getting around the legislation by converting professionally-run branches into community and volunteer led libraries.

It happened in my village three years ago. Our small but much appreciated library was threatened with closure. Residents were essentially threatened – unless we took over the operation (and all the costs), the branch would close.

I was so angry I tracked down a solicitor willing to take our case to the High Court. Here we are on the day of the hearing.

We lost (on what the legal team agreed was a technicality). The village library is still open though with significantly reduced hours and struggles to raise enough funds just to keep the lights on.

The moral of the story?

If you have a public library near you, please please use it.

You don’t even have to borrow any books (or DVDs, CDs). Many larger libraries use an electronic pad at the door which automatically registers number of visitors. Footfall counts when it comes to reviews of libraries.

Use It Or Lose It

Nor does it matter if you do borrow books but never read them. The library will still include your borrowing in their performance statistics – the more items issued, the harder it is for a local authority to argue the library is not being used.

But also remember that in 28 countries around the world every time a book is borrowed, the author gets a small fee. It’s a scheme called Public Lending Rights and is designed to compensate authors for the potential loss of sales from their works being available in public libraries. You can find a list of participating countries here

Public libraries are as important today as they were when I was a child. But if we don’t use them and don’t value them, one day we may wonder why there is a derelict building where once there was a treasure house.


Are you a supporter of public libraries? What do they mean to you? I’d love to hear your story so please leave a comment below

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on September 1, 2019, in Writers on Reading and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 45 Comments.

  1. Love and relate to this so much! And I agree that it’s so important that we use our local libraries as much as possible 🙂

  2. I feel the same way about our libraries. I’m so happy that our grandkids use the library zealously and treasure the ritual of choosing books to check out, read, then return for more treasures. I don’t often read anything electronically (perhaps I will in the future) and am not an audiobook fan–there is just something about shelves full of books and a book in the hand that make my heart flutter. I hope that’s never lost.

  3. Sheree @ Keeping Up With The Penguins

    YES! I will go down fighting for any and all libraries, they are the load-bearing pillars that keep our community standing. I remember my first library card, too – it had a limit of 10 books per fortnight, so I strong-armed my parents into getting cards too, so that I could get 30 books (yes, I was a huge nerd, and very precocious – I even got cranky if they decided to borrow a book or two for themselves, eating into my precious quota). I just finished reading The Library Book by Susan Orlean, a more touching and wonderful love letter to libraries I couldn’t imagine – highly recommend to any booklover!

  4. I live 10 minutes on foot from my awesome public library, and would have a hard time living without it. I visit at least three times a week. When we vaguely consider moving, we always look first at the quality of the library that city has!
    I was for some time part of the board working for the Strategic Plan of our library, and while we researched the demographics, we discovered that some families did move to our town because they wanted to enjoy all the services offered by the library. I feel so sad for you in the UK.

    • I’ve never heard of proximity of a library come up as consideration for people moving home. Usually people look for things like transport and schools. But it’s delightful to find someone who cherishes the service so much

  5. I grew up in country towns that didn’t have libraries as far as I can remember (I’ll have to ask mum). As a teacher’s son I had the run of the school libraries and remember discovering William books when I was 9 or 10. Also, the department would circulate books to country staff rooms for the teachers so I had first go at them too. These days I borrow mostly audio books, though I sometimes get hard copies to do reviews, up to 200 a year so I hope someone is getting paid their lending rights.

    • You’re doing a great service for all those authors. Although the lending rights payment isn’t very high, it still makes a difference when the author is struggling to make ends meet

  6. Terrific post. I do not remember my first visit to a library but I remember many visits as a child. My local library was actually occupying an old retail store at the time. I remember reading so many books. Mostly science fiction and history. I still use my library system for books. I am so glad we have this resource.

  7. Thanks for this and for reminding me of my first library: an imposing Victorian building in Newport with lots of mahogany. Now demolished. 🙁 I use the library in Monmouth all the time and since becoming a community hub it has seen more footfall. I hope it will be enough to keep it open. I get an excellent range of books, fiction and nonfiction, newly published and old favourites, and it’s not unusual for me to have eight or nine on loan. Off there today to pick up my hold on A Month in the Country for a reread.

    • Hi Anne, I’ve been to the ‘new’ library in Newport -the one in the shopping centre and was impressed by their research section. But I still have an affection for those old victorian buildings. Such a shame when they stopped using the one inthe center of Cardiff

  8. My mom started taking me and my sisters to the library when we were tiny. It too was just a house on the main street of town. If not for libraries, I would be broke. I go at least once a week. I also take out books and don’t get to reading them before they are due but I figure it helps keep the books in circulation and the library as a vital community resource. Now my library also has ebooks I can borrow and I use that service too.

  9. You’ve made me feel very guilty since I haven’t used my public library in years, and the one we have here is great too. For me too it was a gateway as a child – much better than a bookshop even, because you could sit in the library and read a chapter or two to see if you liked the book before borrowing it, which back then at least bookshops wouldn’t let you do. Well done for taking the fight on – we need more people like you! I shall make a determined effort to get back into the habit of library browsing… 😀

  10. I too am a strong supporter of our library system. Over the past few months our small local library has been closed and is due to reopen in October. It has been taken on by the town council who have plans to integrate it with other community services and facilities in the town so it will a part of a town hub. I’m hoping that may mean more people will use the library as they will be in the building for other reasons. So often it was empty when I visited. Like many, my reading material comes from a range of sources, electronic and otherwise. I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve missed the library; I’m looking forward to it opening its doors again!

  11. My first library was a mobile one operated by Herefordshire County Council in the 1950s. Later I used the brick and mortar County Library. I have joined the library in every place I’ve lived – Coventry, Grimsby, Goole (East Yorkshire). I now use the library in the small town I have retired to in Ireland. Mrs.P runs knitting groups for adults and for children there. The writing group I belong to meet weekly in the library in the large town nearby. I agree with your comment – use it or lose it, Libraries are vital for every community.

    • Delighted to hear from a fellow library enthusiastic supporter Frank. Knitting groups seem to be a popular activity in libraries. Our local branch has a craft club and also a lego club for children

  12. I was so young when my mother enrolled me in the local library that I can’t remember it. It was certainly well before I went to school. We would bring home my library regulated two books a week and Mom would have to read them to me over and over again until we could go back again the following week. I remember Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit stories used to figure largely in my reading life.

  13. Wonderful post! You brought back memories for me, especially when it was a cardboard card system! In my city of Brisbane, we have 33 public libraries (of varying sizes and heritage) plus a mobile library van. All are thriving hubs for the community with a variety of age related activities as well as millions of books, DVDs, magazines, etc, plus inter-library loan and new book reserve systems. Library members have free access to sites like Ancestry.com and international newspapers and more. The most amazing thing is the returns bookcase. You place your book on the shelf and it is automatically checked in. Libraries and librarians are the literary lifeblood of cities!

  14. I think Judith (the librarian from NZ) is spot on when she talks about the range of services offered, meaning that the library diversifies into a community hub. I belong to four libraries, meaning that I have access to 20+ physical spaces and all the activities that they offer.
    The reality is that much as we might love books and have nostalgic memories of childhood in the library, today there are fewer people reading and of those who are reading much of what they are reading is often digital not an actual book. Libraries have to look to the future and offer ways of keeping the books for the people who love them but also offer other options, that can’t be accessed alone at home. My local library runs a book club, story times for children of different ages, author talks about books and also other things like gardening, cooking and even bee-keeping in the suburbs. They provide internet access, classes for older people on how to navigate services online or research the family tree and lots of other things. I don’t any use any of it except for the author talks, but lots of people do, and that’s keeping the library open for all of us. The council wouldn’t dare de-fund it.

  15. Lovely ode to libraries and a call for action to save this important institution and public service. Did not know about the Public Lending Rights, this was interesting to learn. Here in Canada they are also tailoring services based on the evolving needs including online resources such as eBooks, streaming video and audiobooks and online language learning resources. Happy to note that no branches closed in the past decade in my neighbourhood. I proudly own 3 different library cards based on places where I live and work and I use them regularly and promote reading and literary discussion within my family (all own library cards) and friends.

    • I’m so delighted to hear that in one part of the world at least, the public library ethos is still strong. If I had access to three libraries I’d be overwhelmed by choice – like a child in a sweet shop!

  16. Lovely post.

    Happily, I can’t remember my first library visit because there doesn’t seem to be a time when I didn’t use my local library. Libraries are an important part of local council services in Victoria and although they vary in size and quality of offerings, they are pretty much open every day and some evenings as well. I’m a member of three council library systems, which gives me access to approx. 15 physical libraries 😀

  17. piningforthewest

    My local library where I grew up was a Carnegie one and did/does have some marble in it. I loved it as a youngster and was thrilled when I ended up working in it years later. But in Fife where I now live they closed 16 libraries despite complaints from readers and support for our campaign from local authors such as Ian Rankin, James Robertson and Val McDermid . It’s such a false economy to close libraries and the local council got around their legal duty by handing over the responsibility for libraries to an ‘arts trust’ which also ran the local theatre and they had no interest in libraries at all. Infuriating. Beware of anything calling themselves a ‘trust’!

    • The “community” led model comes in many guises including trusts. They all come down to the same thing though – non professionals replacing professionals. However dedicated and enthusiastic the volunteers are, they don’t have the depth of knowledge of a trained librarian.

  18. I am a librarian in a New Zealand provincial town and we have more people coming through the door than ever. We still invest hugely in our collections of books and other print resources, but we also have free Internet and staff who can help people navigate social services online, research their ancestry, apply for jobs, and solve all kinds of problems which they may not be able to do at home. There are programmes to encourage kids to carry on with their learning through the long summer holidays, Harry Potter quiz nights, knitting groups and art groups, book groups, Mah Jong, Scrabble – the list is endless and it’s all happening at the library. The library is also a neutral space where people can meet their social worker or talk to a JP. We are always looking for new opportunities to be relevant in a constantly changing social environment. While I love nothing better than a chat with a customer about a book they’ve enjoyed it’s even better when people come in the door for the first time in years and discover everything on offer. The people who come initially to print off a CV often go on to get a library card too and that makes my day.

    • That’s fabulous to hear Judith. Where in NZ are you by the way? I was in Nelson, South Island earlier this year and visited the library there. Very impressed by the range of services on offer and the helpfulness pf the staff. In the library in our capital city of Cardiff a new library was built to much acclaim. But 20 years later one floor has closed and another is entirely a one stop shop for local council services.

  19. This is a wonderful post! I love the library service here in Jersey and have been a member for over 40 years, yes I too remember those brown envelope tickets. As well as regularly borrowing books I’ve been volunteering for the summer reading challenge again this year.

  20. I am a strong supporter of our library here. They are much more important than people realise, especially those who don’t use it, like politicians.

  21. I love my public libraries! I got my first library card when I was six, and I remember being so proud of it! I stop at my usual branch library at least two or three times each week to check out books or just look at what’s new. That library is also where I meet with my German tutor. That branch is usually busy and is hosting one activity or another, and it’s one of several in the city. Two of the smallest branches were threatened with closure several years ago, and there was such an outcry from the public that the city council quickly backtracked and adjusted hours across all the branches to keep those two open. Suffice it to say that I am not the only one who loves my local library!

  22. I grew up in a library, my dad was the village teacher and librarian. So of course I decided to become a librarian, as which I worked happily for 40 years. Now I’m retired and keep a bookblog, https://boegerneslabyrint.wordpress.com/. I so agree in the fact, that libraries are essential. May I reblog this?

  23. Rachel Bridgeman

    So much to agree with here! Also I remember the brown envelopes they used to put the library book slips into with much fondness

  24. Totally agree. We had no money for books when I was young and so the library was a lifeline for me (and indeed my parents, who were both readers). I hate the fact they’re under fire from politicians. As the Manics said, “Libraries gave us power” and I do wonder whether those in charge would rather have an illiterate population who just watch trash TV… 🙁

  25. Oh I agree with you so much on the importance and value of libraries. I feel quite lucky here in Ireland because in recent times there has been extra effort from the government to make our public libraries even more accessible than before and they have abolished late fees in an endeavour to make our libraries even more accessible. When I was a little girl our library was across from my primary school so I started going there from the earliest age and have never stopped. Without my library I could not read the vast array of titles that I do as I certainly can’t afford to buy 150-175 books a year which is what I typically read annually. But along with the traditional book lending service libraries here are such focal points in the community for many meetings, exhibitions, talks, classes etc. etc. Long live the library service. Brilliant post!

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