Libraries have always been a place of sanctuary for me. The first library that I ever loved was shaped like a boot, I expect it was supposed to be the kind of boot that the Old Woman had so many children in, this one often had lots of children in as it was the library in my primary school. It was quite large and wooden and you had to climb up some steps to get inside where it was lined with books and there was a red carpet with a couple of cushions. In the bad old days teaching was a bit more inflexible than it is now, I was already reading small paperbacks by the time I started school but it was decided that I my mum had taught me incorrectly and so I was told that I had to sit with the other kids and learn again from scratch. Somehow they didn’t notice me slipping out of the classroom at every opportunity, I’d get inside the boot library and read quietly to myself and whenever I was discovered (which wasn’t often) I’d say I’d been told to fetch a book. My first library sanctuary!
My mum used to take my brother and I to the library in our village after we’d been shopping as a treat. The librarian there was a very smiley, cuddly lady and we called her Mrs …… as if she were a teacher. We had a LOT of books at home, I was a very lucky kid, but nevertheless when you read a lot you need new books all of the time so I loved the library. I remember loving the fact that it was mostly hardback books that you could borrow (those were the days- I’m only 35 though so it wasn’t that long ago!) which seemed very special. Books I borrowed that stand out are Hiawatha by Longfellow and everything by Arthur Ransome in hardback with dustcovers that had little coloured drawings all over them. Also a picture book called something like “The frog who came to dinner” which my brother and I had out so many times that when it was withdrawn from use we brought it with our pocket money. The library smelt like old paper, dry and a bit musky, and I loved the little trays of tickets which the librarian sometimes used to let me help her find things in. It was a small library though and the librarian had to fight to keep it open. When I’d read just about everything in the children’s section she ordered things in for me.
My middle school didn’t have a central library area, the books were spread around the school on available bits of wall space next to the classrooms. It meant that finding new books to read was a bit like going on an expedition. It was a bit off- putting as I generally had to go and find books outside the classrooms of much older children as my reading age was higher than my actual age. One school library would have helped enormously. I do remember the feeling of striking gold though when I discovered a new author or a series of books to start on. Willard Price’s Adventure series was awesome (I still occasionally read his books) also Elizabeth Beresford’s time-shift books. The school had a bookshop, rather bizarrely, which my best friend and I used to run at lunchtimes. Hardly anyone used to buy the books so mostly we used to lounge around on the beanbags reading the stock without bending the spines.
The first secondary school I went to had a school library in a building all by itself. It wasn’t brilliantly stocked although the non-fiction sections were pretty good. It was a safe place from bullies though. Due to a brilliant teacher I had at age 14 I finally realised that my love of reading was actually related to the subject of English at school. It sounds odd but we rarely had to actually read a book before this point and the ones we did have to read I had little interest in so in my mind there was no connection between my book obsession and English. I was deeply into Ray Bradbury by this point though and so a short science fiction story that we were asked to write suddenly made me think that I actually liked English. The teacher noticed that I read a lot and from that point onwards pushed me to keep up my marks- to a point where even the bullies gave me sympathy but which kept me safe from their negative attention. Mr Davies, you were a star! My sixth-form was in a state-run grammar school for girls- I hated it but it had a good library. Another fantastic teacher taught me here, he read us Romantic poetry and cried when he read to us from the letters of Keats to Fanny. Some girls complained that he was going off our A Level syllabus but I loved every moment of it. The school library had some critical theory in it. The collections of essays were old but made me realise that I could criticise what I was reading if I knew what I was doing. I discovered Yeats, Wordsworth, and Marlowe and we studied King Lear- I applied to read English at Oxford and by some miracle I got in.
In Oxford I was in library heaven. My college library was open 24 hrs a day, you had to go up a staircase and then through a locked door and then down more stairs into a kind of book-cave with beautiful high-backed chairs and a very good selection of the works that we needed. People would camp there for days. I used to work in there all night but thankfully never got disturbed by the couples who used to use it for other purposes…. not sure I’ve ever found libraries sexy but it does it for some! The English Faculty was in a revolting concrete monstrosity but it had multiple copies of even quite obscure titles. The Radcliffe Camera was too dark for me and I disliked the huge communal tables in there but I found the library of my dreams in the Upper Reading Rooms of the Bodleian. In the Upper Reading Rooms there are huge windows that look out onto the famous spires, it’s light and airy yet lined with books. Huge desks all looking towards the front make it feel a bit like a classroom and you could either disappear into your desk or keep an eye on all the comings and goings. My husband loved The Upper Reading Rooms too (I met him at my entrance interview, Keats and Yeats were on my side but Wilde was on his) we used to meet there in the morning and work until last orders then leg it over to the pub. We ordered lots of things up from the stacks just to see them. He ordered early runs of 2000AD and I ordered up a few children’s books written by my great grandmother that had gone out of print before I was born but which I felt I wanted to see. I’ve lost track of all the incredible things that I read in that library of libraries but I discovered Paradise Lost there and read the complete works of Blake . The morning that Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson was published I brought it from Blackwells on the corner, took it up to the Upper Reading Room and didn’t come out again until I’d finished it several hours later. The staff were incredibly helpful and kind and never made me feel stupid when I filled in a slip incorrectly. A post-grad tutor we had taught us about electronic databases so that we could search for articles within journals- it was another revelation research-wise.
I wish I’d actually listened during library induction though! It was all so much in the first week that I went through it in a daze and then felt too scared to ask again about various workings of the library. In recent years I’ve led library inductions for post-grads and I always start off by telling them that they’ll probably forget most of what I tell them but that they can always ask us again. It’s difficult to concentrate on that kind of thing in the abstract, so it’s much easier when you’re actually after a particular book or article to get your head around it. I never lecture people about overdue fines or make them feel bad about them and I always check everything else on their tickets as I am generally pretty awful about remembering to return library books myself and have built up massive fines over the years so they have my understanding!
I avoided libraries for a while after graduating. I think it was because it was almost too obvious that I’d end up working in them. I worked in museums for a few years showing people about and polishing the glass cabinets but then the pull got too strong and I ended up in a public library running activities for kids and helping people get online for the first time. It was an inner city library, a library where people came because they struggled to read the letters that the Council had sent them and wanted help. A library where parents brought their children in for help with their homework because they had no money for books at home and they couldn’t read themselves. The sick, the addicted and the generally lost used to come in for a bit of a chat or a warm chair and a newspaper. Bright kids from a local school that was seriously failing used to come in and ask for “everything by Jacqueline Wilson” for example so I’d order them in from other libraries and give them other suggestions. Our Summer reading scheme was very popular. The kids were on the whole funny, clever and keen and were, for want of a better description, pretty much all on free school meals. It was very much a sanctuary for a lot of people, for lots of different reasons.
My boys both had library tickets from birth. My husband and I have both chosen low-paid high-skilled jobs which we love but have left us trying to live on a way-below average family income. It’s a price we are willing to pay for jobs that we believe in and thanks to a very good local library service we don’t go without even the most recently published books- which is probably what we’d spend any disposable money on anyway. Rhyme times in my local library were a godsend for me when I became a mother, they were free and my boys loved them. It meant I had a reason to get out of the house and meet people too. My sons are very different. My eldest has a scientific leaning that doesn’t come from either of us. He can listen to me reading him books for hours though and when he was a diabolical terrible two year old it was the only thing that calmed him down. My youngest wants the books in his hands, wants to tell us the stories. I sometimes find that he has pulled a pile of Ladybird books into his cot and has fallen asleep on top of them. He hates the weekly shop but will let me put him in his buggy with a promise of a book from the library that is next door to Asda and open 7 days a week…
I work in an academic library now, in a post-grad library with a lot of international students who value learning and libraries incredibly highly. I’m planning on trying to move in to school libraries as well though once my youngest is at school. I know that school libraries are also under attack at the moment so it’s a risk and that it’s poorly paid and you end up over-worked and under-valued a lot of the time but when I think back it was libraries and books that were always there for me and the librarians and library assistants who worked in them. I wanted a school librarian at secondary level who would have helped me make the connection between English and my love of reading earlier on. One who would have shown me different things to read and pushed my reading on a bit into areas I hadn’t explored. Someone who would have made me feel less like a freak for reading 12 books during Readathon week than my teachers did at the time perhaps! I want to find the kids who think that reading isn’t their thing and find things that they do want to read and are inspired by, whatever that is.
I want to provide a sanctuary where people can find answers and questions or just a bit of peace from their lives. I’m not sure I can deliver all of those things but I’m going to try because it’s worth fighting for and that’s what libraries have always done for me.