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