What has the library ever done for us?

Lego library

Even lego figures go to the library.

There’s a lot of anxiety about libraries here in the UK. Like all the most valuable social resources in this country, they are under threat of closure through ever-decreasing lack of funding and the current vicious cuts in public spending. Library closure is rarely off the agenda, but it’s usually in a local context – now closures are becoming a national reality. In advance celebration of National Libraries Day on February 9th, I wanted to add my voice to the clamour of dismayed outrage, and relate how a library literally (ho ho) helped save my sanity.

It was only when I started to plan this post that I realised how consistent a backdrop to my life libraries have been. I still have a special pull-out from the Boston Globe in 1973 about  Boston Public Library, which features a photo of ‘child receiving individual attention’ – that child being me! (Incidentally Boston Public Library was on my ‘to do’ list while on holiday in New England last summer, and my heart actually started to beat faster when I stood in their incredible children’s section, 38 years after that photo was taken).

Exterior shot of Boston Public Library

Boston Public Library, July 2011

Libraries are about borrowing books (for free! That bit still floors me with its glorious embodiment of socialism), but they are about so much more. I have revised for and sat exams in libraries; I have written assignments, dissertations and Important Documents in libraries. Pre-internet I searched newspapers in libraries for job vacancies, and saved on heating bills by writing job applications in libraries. As a writer I have read my books to groups of children in libraries – I feel a personal affection for the libraries which have played their roles in the story of my life so far (with the possible exception of my university library, which was absolutely freezing, even in the summer, and where I would work wearing fingerless gloves and a large scarf).

Now I know the library has a role beyond providing books (free ones – did I mention that?), large tables and eager small children. Three years ago we moved out of London to a small town where I knew not a soul. I was on maternity leave with a baby and a toddler, I had left my closest friends, my support network of other mums, my work, my house, the last ten years of my life, the city that I loved. My brother was seriously ill. As if trying to increase my feelings of isolation, the phone company seemed completely unable to synchronise technology so that a phone and the internet worked in our home for a month after we moved in.

Long days alone with tiny children have defeated tougher women than me. By 10am I had been up for over four hours and had exhausted every ounce of creative play in my body. We’d done snacks, we’d done DVDs, we’d covered the entire bottom floor in jigsaws. I felt like Leia in the Star Wars scene where the walls of the rubbish chute start closing together, except there was no R2D2 to stop the walls squashing the brain cells out of my body. So every day at 10.30am we went to the playground, and then to the library. The library shimmered on the far side of the park like Oz, waiting to give me back my brain. Stepping through the doors was like walking into a huge hug. After an hour we would return, my brain restored, clutching new books to take us through the afternoon.

In the evenings I returned to the library alone, this time making my way upstairs to the computers and free (there’s that word again) internet. I would stay there until closing time, emailing my friends and re-connecting with the world I had left behind. Then I would cycle home, calmer and satisfied and able to face the next, year-long day.

I honestly believe that at a lonely and stressful time of my life, knowing that I could go to the library whenever I wanted for however long I wanted, with children and by myself, helped me cope without succumbing to depression. It helped me establish a routine in a new place. It became the familiar, the constant. It gave me a connection; to my old life and to my new one: after six weeks of daily visits, I met the person who became my first friend in this new town, and we – and our children – remain friends today.

Libraries are our nation’s collective sanity. They are therapy when you can’t afford therapy. They are the most accessible and non-judgemental institutions in existence. If we lose our libraries we don’t just lose potential knowledge, we lose the future of our country’s mental good health.

Me being read to, Boston Public Library 1973

‘Child receives individual attention’.     Boston Public Library, 1973

Update: there was such a tremendous amount of interest in this post! As a result you can read another piece by me about writing in libraries, published by the very lovely people at the Library as Incubator Project.

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30 thoughts on “What has the library ever done for us?

  1. What a wonderful post. Let’s hope that people pay attention to individual testimonies like this. A threat to libraries is, in effect, a threat to something that helps form many children’s (and communities’) identities….as your post testifies.

  2. Very interesting post, Lucy. The one word that really stuck for me was Free – well, you did mention it once or twice. And quite rightly so – it is so very important.

    We do not question that free education for our children is one of the cornerstones of our civilisation. Without that education, a child is marginalised and excluded from the mainstream of society. But after childhood, what then?

    Further education is becoming more and more expensive. We hear plenty in the news about student fees in the UK. Even the Open University, traditionally a more affordable option, has almost quadrupled their fees for undergraduate students in England over the past couple of years.

    Never mind, the internet provides all the information we could ever need and books can be ordered for pennies plus postage. But what if you don’t have a computer, or don’t know how to use one? Despite all those posters and booklets many in my parent’s generation remain stubbornly outside the online community. Or what if you have the computer, but have to choose between food, heating or a broadband connection? No longer such an outlandish scenario.

    Libraries let you borrow books for free. If you want to read one they haven’t got, they can order it for you – whether it be the latest Julia Donaldson, the exploits of Mr Grey, or a weighty tome on astro-physics. You can access newspapers and magazines and important public documents. You can use their computers for a fraction of the cost of owning and running your own. Or you can just sit in the warm and not be on your own.

    Libraries open up our civilisation to everyone, not just those who can afford it.

  3. Great post. I blogged about libraries and threatened (and actual) closures last year, to coincide with National Libraries Day. Nearly a whole year on and what has changed? I agree with everything you’ve said and more! In our little village we have a three weekly visit from the mobile library – a lifeline for the elderly amongst us. Not only a place to go to collect a stack of FREE (!) books to keep them company over the days and nights, but the chance to meet and chat with the librarian and other like-minded people. Libraries are so much more than books. We all need to speak up for them.

  4. My local library was really important for me when I was growing up. We didn’t have any books in our house and the only thing read regularly was The Sun. I still remember my dad taking me to join the library. He could see the benefit for me even though he wasn’t a member and never read books himself.

    My school really got me interested and we used to have frequent visits to borrow books. This was a really important thing to do in a poor area like ours as most kids wouldn’t have had wide access to books and knowledge otherwise. I remember discovering reading for enjoyment at the library, which was quite a surprise, and later studying for my A-levels there. And later still, ordering obscure books for my university reading list. Without access to this, no car to travel further afield and no money to buy books I would have missed out hugely, and my life could have turned out differently.

    Looking back I think the library epitomised opportunity – that there is a different world to the life seemingly set-out for you. Perhaps I’m romanticising it too much but I really do think libraries offer a level playing field for knowledge. I didn’t realise at the time what a difference this made.

    My kids are surrounded by books but the internet is beginning to take over their life. ‘Why don’t you just Google it?’ they say almost every day. I think making knowledge special rather than fast and disposable is a challenge of modern life and a trip to library can certainly help with that.

    I admit I don’t go to the library much anymore but your post has made me again realise its importance and I’ll be taking the kids tomorrow!

    • Hurrah! If it makes just one person take their kids to the library more then it’s worth it. I think ‘the library epitomised opportunity’ is absolutely it. It’s what I was trying to say by calling them accessible and non-judgemental institutions. What might your life have been like without the opportunity to go to one? Thanks Dave, for a really considered comment.

  5. Lucy, I loved reading this. Firstly your writing style is a delight – so much so that I’m always disappointed when I reach the end of a piece you’ve written. Secondly because what you say is true: I agree with your other readers that we should not still be worrying that libraries will be closed down. Sadly, the way things are going with public services I can see more libraries falling prey to budgetary cuts.
    Thank you so much for another enjoyable read.

  6. lovely piece, Lucy.
    Growing up in the ’50’s Walthamstow reference library, situated in a room of Victorian Gothic splendour over the public librabry, offered a place of quiet sanctuary for many of us needing to complete homework away from stormy family life. SO not a lot has changed, apart, perhaps, from a government with the barbaric destructive urges Goths of ancient times themselves.

  7. This is a great post. I too, have taken to going regularly to my TINY library every week with my baby daughter and really hope that she will grow up with them being as much of her childhood as they were mine. LIbraries remind us what a civilised society should look like.

    • My daughter especially loved the library when she was very little. You have many lovely years ahead of library enjoyment! Long may your tiny library live and prosper.

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  10. Thanks goodness for your library. This is so brilliant Lucy. We had a tiny community library in my village growing up – it wasn’t open all the time – once a week I think and I’d look forward to it. I always find libraries comforting. Interesting that you mention mental health – my GP ‘prescribes’ library books about illness – the library is just around the corner from the surgery! Useful for healing as well as heating…

  11. I love this post! Such a fundamental part of our lives – Libraries. I too have found myself stuck with all options exhausted on a School Holiday morning… many a time! Thanks x

  12. I’d guess that there are almost as many mother-and-library-stories out there as there are books, Lucy. Your piece certainly rang true for me. When my daughter was small, I used to trundle her up to our local library and choose all sorts of books I might never have chosen if I’d had more time to browse. That, more than anything else, really widened my perspective.

    • It’s a great way of keeping in touch with what books are out there for children as well Margret. I often have a look through the book stacks while my kids are browsing, just to get an idea of what the children’s book market is doing!

  13. Nothing more I can add to the importance of free access to books and knowledge, but one thing that often strikes me in my local library is that it is one of the few (only?) public places left where you can gather, relax, interact with people (quietly, of course!) for free. Perhaps if we lived in a warmer climate public squares would offer this opportunity, but even if you can afford the price of a coffee in a local cafe – and there are lots of people who can’t, especially on a regular basis! – it’s nice to have a place where you can take time out, read, and mix with your local community without having to pay for the privilege.

    • So true. And no-one cares if you hang around without taking any books out either. I was in the library with my son this afternoon and there was a guy asleep – none of the librarians gave him a second glance!

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