What Libraries Meant To Me When I Was Eight Years Old

Alex sent us this heartwarming post about the impact libraries had on her life.

When I was 8 years old I was given my own library tickets. It changed my life.

Like most children at that age I was curious. I loved asking why and I always had another six questions when you answered the first. My parents, reasonably indulgent, comfortable financially, were happy to buy me a handful of books every month when I wanted to add to my burgeoning book collection. They both read themselves but their tastes were fixed and their books couldn’t be shared with me. Mills & Boons romances, aga sagas, Dick Francis titles and David Attenborough books just aren’t designed for kids.

When I was 8 years old though I became more difficult to cater for as a junior reader.

I had the books my parents bought me and books that I got from the school library but these really only dealt with my ongoing interests in obvious subjects like Ancient Egypt. If I suddenly became curious in something that had just caught my eye, say bridge building for example or the history of lighthouses, my parents weren’t inclined to buy me a book for the passing fancy and nine times out of ten my school library was just too small to have anything on these ever more niche curiosities.

After a while it was obvious to my mother that I had outgrown what home and the school could provide. I was getting frustrated with the books available to me and I was reading less.

Juggling awkward library hours and school runs we started going to the public library regularly. It was this sudden freedom to take out any (suitable) book on any subject that saved me as a reader.

I didn’t have to worry about whether I’d still be interested in geology in a month or check the cost of a book and only very, very rarely was there a subject I couldn’t find out about. I also discovered proper, grown up encyclopedias which enchanted me, became fascinated in Teach Yourself books (I learnt shorthand at 10, Finnish at 11 and promptly forgot it all at 12 but I had tremendous fun doing both) and started borrowing classical music tapes after hearing Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals and being completely captivated by it.

Statue of children reading

MAR212009 (c) colemama/Flickr

My parents were, quite frankly, baffled by almost everything I borrowed. They had no interest in classical music, thought the Finnish obsession was bizarre and shook their heads over the endless books on lighthousekeepers and engineers. But the point is that I was trying everything and they were happy to let me because it was safe, cheap and supervised.

Being part of that library, choosing for myself and trying everything, having the barriers of cost and access removed, getting to know what I liked and didn’t; these freedoms made me a better reader and a much better thinker.

One thing that often gets overlooked by those discussing the impact of library use on children is just how many conversations it can open up for them. The librarians, quickly spotting a kindred spirit, asked me about the books I borrowed. They recommended other books to me, teaching me to assess whether a book was a ‘good fit’ for me and whose recommendations to trust. Reading more widely taught me to compare books and authors and gave me confidence in saying what I liked and why. Explaining why I’d borrowed a specific book to my parents and answering their questions got us talking about books even though our tastes were worlds apart.

Those six little bits of cardboard gave me access to all sorts of conversations I just wouldn’t have had without them. They led to me studying academic subjects I wouldn’t have pursued otherwise (Latin and Classical Civilisation), kept me curious and enthusiastic and taught me that having eclectic tastes does not have to mean bad or trivial. They taught me to take an active role in my own, ongoing, education.

Today I read widely and have overflowing bookcases at home… but I still treasure and regularly use my library card. I use it just as I always have – to read more widely than I could afford to on my own and to feed my endless curiosity.

Alex grew up to be a book blogger too and writes at Alex in Leeds.

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