Judith Cutler’s childhood library and its wonderful successors

Crime fiction writer Judith Cutler wrote to tell us why libraries were so important to her when she was younger and how the “educational spirit” still remains in her childhood library, even though other things may have changed there.

When I was a child (some 60 years ago!) I was so sickly I didn’t go to school till I was ten.  My mother educated me at home, but even she had limitations.  So the local library – Bleakhouse Library, still alive and kicking in Sandwell – became my school.  In those days the building was guarded by dragons lurking behind a very high counter.  Children had to reach up to put their hands on it so the librarian could inspect them for cleanliness.  Then you were admitted to the children’s room -serried ranks for books, just like the adult library.  If you borrowed a volume of fiction, you were required to borrow a non-fiction book too.

The following week, the librarian would question you to make sure you’d read them.  Eventually I had literally read everything in the junior section, so I was allowed to read certain books from the adult library – carefully checked to ensure there was neither sex nor violence. Hence I ended up reading all the books from the Golden Age of crime writing.

Recently I was asked back to do a talk.  The intimidating front desk had disappeared (sold to the USA, apparently!), and much of the library interior had changed.  But the educational spirit of the previous librarians had a new incarnation.  Their wonderful successors had introduced all sorts of clubs, from art and IT for pensioners, to Saturday morning games sessions for ASBO kids they’d had to exclude from normal after school clubs.  The place buzzed.  It should have won prizes. The staff should have been given bonuses and promotions. Instead, the librarian who had made all these wonderful additions to what people like Jeremy Hunt might construe to be the daily business of stamping books had been made… redundant.

Judith Cutler