On the people who use libraries

A library users blogs his discovery of his local library and the people who use them.

The idea to start using the library came to me when it started to turn cold. I had been studying from home but was finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate as the temperature started to fall in the September and October months. Sticking to my self-enforced rule of no heating before 5pm and putting on another layer of clothing becoming no longer practical I had no choice but to relocate my operation. With the promise of free electricity, heating and access to free newspapers I packed up my books and sandwich bag pencil case and headed to the book house.

I pull out a chair and take a place at one of the desks. I unpack my things with the precision a doctor lays out their tools before surgery. Paper check, pen check….after ten minutes I glance up to find out what kind of company I’m in. The characters I see before me are not who I was expecting to see down the local Library.

Two old women sitting together, elbows touching, reading from the same page, occasionally remarking on what they have just read; a bearded man with a red/black chequered laundry bag one side of him and a sleeping bag the other, busies himself taking various books from the shelves; replacing them with another stack once his interest has been satisfied ; various elderly gentleman dotted around the room leisurely leaf through the pages of the paper they have loyally read for years; a small group congregates in a circle in front of the large print section and talk away the hours and most intriguingly a young black man with a sleeping bag stands over unattended papers and mumbles and chatters to himself in a language I don’t recognise. I get the impression that none of them probably even own a library card.

Over the coming months I saw these same faces and many more again and again. It was apparent that for many people the library was the only place they had left to go and the only place where they might not be alone. I watched a man walk by, stopping to aimlessly turn the pages of a paper left open on the desk before moving off in another direction, in the hope there was some place else he had to be. Another patron tips a book back on the base of its spine with their fore finger, gives it a quick cursory look and pushes it back into its slot. At the end of one particular day a short stocky man with a back pack enters and starts to straighten the place up and is quite obviously upset at the way people have abandoned the papers and magazines sprayed across the tables, and the chairs which have now escaped from under their desks darting off in all directions. He is not an employee and I never see him again.

The black man has a smell that says he has no home. He wears the same teal coloured woollen sweater, grey trousers and worn out black leather shoes every day. He appears and disappears; I wonder if he lives behind one of the book cases. Each time I see him I think this is the day he will do something crazy, however his behaviour never gets more out of hand than occasionally breaking the quiet with some stifled laughter at something he has just read or talking to himself. On the days he joins me at my table I begin to imagine a relationship starting between us; my Robert Downey JR to his Jamie Fox, like in the film ‘The Soloist’. Talking to this mysterious man, I learn he is a brilliant man but cannot read English. Setting my own studies aside we agree to meet at the library every day at 11am and we go through the alphabet and he learns to read and write English and I nurture his talents and buy him food and find him a place to stay but he is an illegal and cannot stay and……of course I can’t even get up the nerve to say, ‘hi’ and I keep my head down until I am certain he has gone again. I am gobsmacked one morning when I see a man walk by and say hello to him and without looking up from what he is reading in perfect English, he quickly says ‘hello’ back.

With the government still on its austerity drive, many of our public services have now had their budgets cut and many of our libraries have fallen victim to these cuts and forced to close or be community run by volunteers to keep them going. 493 libraries (411 buildings and 82 mobiles) are currently reported as either likely to be closed or passed to volunteers since 1/4/13 (source: www.publiclibrariesnews.com) When a library does close apart from losing a rich resource to the community where you can do anything from check out a book to register a birth or death, I wonder where those people who depend on the library go; where else provides a warm and safe environment that asks for nothing in return? A place where people go to meet and socialise, not just learn. I think this is what troubles me most.

I only realised just how important the library is to some people’s lives when I started to use it regularly and saw for myself the vital service it provides.

When researching libraries I found this quote which summed up perfectly what I see when I am there:

‘Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries’ – Anne Herbert.

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