The following post was contributed by Bex Hughes and originally appeared on her book review blog, An Armchair by the Sea. We are grateful to Bex for allowing us to reproduce an edited version of her post here.
A lot has been going on with the libraries lately, especially in my former home town of London. I think, though I’m not sure, that this is also the case in the U.S as well as here in the U.K, but certainly there has been a lot of hype over our wonderful (heavy, heavy sarcasm) government and their ideas about what is culturally important and what isn’t. Apparently, it isn’t important that children be encouraged to read independently, or that they are provided with a safe haven outside of the home where they can go to do homework or just sit on the internet without their sister hanging over their shoulder going ‘it’s my turn now, you’ve had an hour, get off the computer!’.
This is the library I grew up in. It’s a converted fire station and over the door, although you can’t see it in this photo, the words ‘Free Library’ are carved into the stone. The whole of the right hand side was the children’s section, and we used to go there for story time once a week pretty much since I was born, and with all of my siblings. We also used to have a weekly excursion to the library – of course precluded by me running around the house shouting at people to help me find whatever book I’d lost that week, which quite often turned up in the end of my bed…- and I still remember how excited I was when I turned 11 and could take out ten books on my card instead of five (don’t even get me started on how excited I was when we moved to Kent, aged 23, and found out I could take out THIRTY books). As a child, buying books was a total luxury – we used to go to the local children’s bookshop (The Lion and the Unicorn, which has to be my favourite children’s bookshop ever, and I know I share all these links with you and you will probably never go to the places, but I wouldn’t like to not share them, and then you’re somehow in the area and miss out because you don’t know about them!) once a year, at the beginning of the summer holidays and we got to buy two new books each for the summer and it was about the most exciting thing ever. So without the library, my discovery of new worlds (especially those of The Babysitter’s Club, The Saddle Club, The Famous Five and The Secret Seven) would have been hugely limited.
Two major mainstays of my childhood existence were the craft days that the library used to run during school holidays, where we would do an entire day of craft activities based around a particular book (I don’t remember any of the books in particular, but when my brother was little they did a really good one on The Gruffalo). We used to make murals and stuff and it was awesome and you got to meet loads of people who lived in the area who you would often then see during your weekly trips to the library. Also, they cost about £2 to attend, which was really good for our family of 7! The other one was library book sales! One year my sister gave me about 20 Babysitters Club books for Christmas, which she had been buying from library sales for 10p each for most of the year. To this day, it remains one of my favourite ever presents.
I know I’m one of those geeky people who is slightly too obsessed with books and reading, but I did actually have a very balanced childhood – lots of swimming, athletics, long walks in the park with my family where my mum would teach us how to make signs out of sticks and trail each other, after school drama club, piano lessons… etc etc etc. Despite all of that, I literally cannot imagine what my childhood would have been like without my library, and although both of the areas I call home have been really lucky during this whole library closures situation, I know there are many others who haven’t been so fortunate, and I am so sad for them.
Zadie Smith has written a beautiful article about the closures in North West London, which I would really recommend reading if you’ve any interest in the issue. Somehow the local council think it’s OK to storm an historic building in the middle of the night, removing articles of importance (including the plaque from its’ opening by Mark Twain!!). I don’t understand quite how we can get through to the government that it’s really not OK to treat literature this way; that just because it isn’t ‘valuable’ to them (or because other services are deemed more important), doesn’t mean it isn’t to anybody, and I know that a lot of people have little interest in what happens in London, but having lived there I would say that by closing down libraries they’re just asking to make a whole load of problems very much worse.
I know that it isn’t just me who feels strongly that the closure of libraries is wrong; I’m writing in a community of people who adore books and libraries, and whose childhoods were probably as shaped by them if not more than mine was. I don’t know what to do about it, so I’m writing about it.
This article from the Guardian website has a lot of stats about the popularity of libraries – apparently they are the most popular facility provided by councils, despite various councillors continually telling us they are not used.
Also, little quote from the awesome that is Roald Dahl:
“Over the next few afternoons Mrs Phelps could hardly take her eyes from the small girl sitting for hour after hour in the big armchair at the far end of the room with the book on her lap. It was necessary to rest it on the lap because it was too heavy for her to hold up, which meant she had to sit leaning forward in order to read. And a strange sight it was, this tiny dark-haired person sitting there with her feet nowhere near touching the floor, totally absorbed in the wonderful adventures of Pip and old Miss Havisham and her cobwebbed house and by the spell of magic that Dickens the great story-teller had woven with his words.”
Parental neglect and the fact that we aren’t all prodigy’s like Matilda aside, surely this is the kind of experience that libraries have the potential to provide? Why does anybody feel they have the right to take that experience away?
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