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
Booker Talk is welcoming two additional members of the team this year.
In her first post for Booker Talk, publishing student Cerian Fishlock bemoans the effect doing a literature degree had on her enthusiasm for reading
Growing up, I was the avid reader stereotype. I would arrive at school every day with at least one non-syllabus book in my bag. My tutor encouraged my passion, asking for recommendations, and marvelling at the (ridiculous) number of texts I consumed in the holidays.
I was the real-life Rory Gilmore.
Yet, at some point something changed.
I went to university to study English and History. And to be perfectly honest, I would be slightly ashamed to reveal the number of books that I’ve managed to read in the past 2 years.
Don’t misunderstand, I genuinely loved university. But I’ve only recently realised the damaging effect that it had upon my relationship with the books that I once loved.
I can’t possibly speak for all subjects, but I can say the amount of reading English and History departments require is, frankly, ludicrous. At least one book per week for English (often two, and more for single honours), and probably five or more accompanying chapters. For History it was ten to twenty academic texts a week. These were upwards of 60 pages, and incisive notes were expected – plus your other work. I only had 5-10 weekly contact hours, but I was still in the library daily between 9am-6pm, pouring over the pages and pages spread over all surrounding desks.
As I said, I loved university, so I’m genuinely not trying to complain. But when your time is spent reading for work, it’s difficult to read for pleasure.
You can no longer just be absorbed by a text. Now you subconsciously consider all possible meanings behind every syntactic choice. Books I used to adore I haven’t touched in years. I’m unable to detach them from the indecipherable notes scrawled down whilst my tutor shared his wisdom whilst going a million miles a minute.
There are the books I didn’t like, those I had no say in reading. In my first year I had no influence at all over the English modules taken, and they were often not my taste. I enjoyed them at the time, but that’s a year spent on texts I will never revisit, never look back on in fondness.
Although I hate to admit it, the lack of reading for pleasure whilst studying may have had something to do with the fact that it was around the time I went to university that Netflix really took off. When the options are either struggling through a translation of Middle English or watching the newest season of Orange is the New Black, I think I’ll go for the latter. The thought of reading too much else outside of these hours was just fairly exhausting.
So how am I trying to move on?
Firstly, I’m only reading the books I truly want to. If it’s recommended and sounds like my cup of tea, great. If not, I won’t pretend it’s going on my ‘To Be Read’ list.
Secondly, I’m making a note of all the titles I find interesting, so that when the mood strikes, I’ll be able to take my pick – rather than aimlessly wandering Waterstones, slightly overwhelmed by all the options. (Please don’t say I’m the only one this happens to?)
Finally, I am setting myself personal targets. These are just for me, and will be adjustable to reflect the realities of the rest of my life. Don’t worry I won’t be popping these on GoodReads, I’d probably end up feeling inferior!
I still love books, I’ve never stopped. I think I just had to take a break for a while, to regain my senses. As I’ve said, I really did love university. I just hate that it temporarily ruined my relationship with literature, without me really being aware it was happening.
It was big news for a community that doesn’t have a bookstore and has never had a library to call its own.
Not unreasonably, many of its residents expected that part of the $1.5M cost would go a long way to paying for a few books. Imagine their surprise to learn that theirs will be the first bookless and paperless public library across the whole of North America.
Many libraries around the world are switching funding from the purchase of paper copies of books, to buying digital versions. Just last year Imperial College in London announced that over 98% of its journal collections were digital, and that it had stopped buying print textbooks. Other academic institutions have experimented with this approach, particularly in their science and technology faculties.
But the new BiblioTech facility in Texas will be the world’s paperless public library. Readers will visit the Apple-inspired building to download e-books directly onto tablets, smart phones, PCs and e-readers from an initial collection of around 10,000 titles. If they don’t have their own devices, they’ll be able to borrow one apparently.
The county commissioners and officials are excited about their new baby, seeing it as the first step in a much bigger project that will see similar facilities open in other parts of the state. “We are trailblazing,” said the county’s top elected official, County Judge Nelson Wolff. “…the world is changing and this is the best, most effective way to bring services to our community.”
Traditionalists (and I hold my hand up to being one of them) might react with rolling eyes to such comments. The first time I saw this picture I imagined that using it would be an antiseptic, soulless experience completely alien to the musty, dusty but oh so atmospheric libraries of my formative reading years. Even now, as libraries have modernised and refurbished, I still can’t imagine getting the same thrill from selecting a book from an on line catalogue rather than taking it down from the shelf and browsing a few pages before deciding if it’s for me. Orange walls and green bar stools don’t make the experience any more pleasurable. If they were going to spend a few million dollars, couldn’t they have done something inventive and pleasurable.
Like this new library in Maranello, Italy which seems to float in water.
Or this one in Mexico city where the architects designed a concrete and glass frame around the front of an old house
But once the initial reaction wore off, I began to think that maybe these good burghers of Buxton county are not only smarter than I gave them credit for, they could be considered community heroes. Woolf is a personal fan of the printed book — he owns about 1,000 first editions though not an electronic reader. “I am a guy who likes that physical book in his hand,” Mr. Wolff said. “But I also realize I am a bit of a fossil.”
Faced with rapidly growing populations in suburbs and satellite towns outside the San Antonio city limits he knew the residents of these areas wanted more services. But no-one would be happy to see their local taxes escalate to pay for them. His plan not only gets people access to a library for the first time, he’s doing it at at a significantly lower cost than the traditional approach.
And he’s given the new facility a very strong community education focus through partnerships with local schools, digital literacy courses and late opening hours.
The new BiblioTech site is due to open later this summer. Whether it will get the positive reaction the officials are hoping for, therefore remains to be seen. There was a public outcry in Newport Beach, California in 2011 when residents learned their city was planning a bookless library. Eventually the city fathers backed away from the plan. Will Buxton become a failed experiment or will convenience and the preferences of a new generation of readers prevail?
One comment from a local father could hold the key.
I’m not likely to use a library containing only e-books, but my kids probably will. I really hate those little screens. But my teenage kids—that is the only way they want to read now.”