Portobello Library and Why I’m Glad It’s here

There were a group of us waiting for the library to open one weekday maybe a month ago. There was a slight drizzle in the air and we were a huddle under the front awnings; myself, an elderly couple and a young father with his pre-teen son.

Another chap came across the road to join us, rather posh English accent and he regaled us with “What a great sight to see; folk queuing to get into the library. There’s hope for us all yet!”

We returned his beaming smile and understood, I think, what he meant.

On returning from self-imposed and work-related exile in England a few years back, almost the first place I sought out was the library in this wee Lothian sea-side town.

I did this due to some deep social instinct which I find difficult to explain. You either believe in communities or you don’t. I guess I wanted to ‘take the measure’ of this little town that was to become my home.

I knew a little about its social demography. There’s slightly poorer folk living on one side of it than there is down the other (one end has a boating and kayak club, the other a Wimpy and an amusement arcade). There are twee little shops on the high street which would stretch the average JSA payment to its very limit and café’s that offer more organic plum chutney and feta than a roll and square sausage (and not a notion of brown sauce anywhere).

The pubs are the same. Some you’d go for the karaoke, others you can take your dog and your children in and chat about portfolios or graphic design over a quirky jam-jar of Shiraz.

But, libraries don’t work in this way and neither should they, but there’s a danger that they will if doomed to be volunteer run. Libraries should be as they are – ‘classless’. I can just as much go into Portobello Library and borrow a DVD of Luis Bunuel’s ‘Belle de jour’ as I can ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ or a Take That CD.

There are lads and lassies from the local school over by the computer games who spraff in broad Lothian accents. There’s a couple of mornings when the cheery librarian fella will lead the wee sons and daughters of the maybe-more-well-to-do in song and laughter in the ‘book-bug sessions’. There are auld yins sitting at the tables at the back who meet every week maybe for a purpose maybe not. There are Eastern Europeans crowded around the computers maybe conversing on-line with those left back home. There are writer’s group’s and art groups.

The staff are friendly, helpful and have plenty of information to hand. They seem of the community and have plenty of local knowledge. They are paid to be local servants of this wee town, whosoever walks through the doors.

‘Volunteerism’ not only does away with a vital profession, for no better reason than it’s an easy target to cut, it threatens the very ‘egalitarianism’ that is so precious in a community such as this. ‘Volunteerism’ will make libraries like Victorian charities. The middle-classes will feel compelled to step in and run things and, like the sea-front cafes and bars, it’ll be by themselves and for themselves, no matter how well-meaning they may see themselves to be.


4 thoughts on “Portobello Library and Why I’m Glad It’s here

  1. Ian Pryde

    As a long-time staff member at Portobello Library (I think i’m probably the “cheery librarian fella” who leads the Bookbug Rhymetimes 🙂 ) i’d like to wholeheartedly thank Dave for his witty and moving encapsulation of our library and our wee community, It does my heart proud to think that our user’s think of us in such a positive way, a finer ode to keeping Libraries as open, inclusive and egalatarian could not be found!


    Ian Pryde
    Library Advisor
    Portobello Library 😀

  2. Grahame Howard

    I suspect I was the chap with the ‘rather posh English accent’ as I remember how impressed I was that people were queueing for the library to open. I entirely agree with the above sentiments and have stated at every available opportunity that Portobello library is the best in the world.

  3. Rosemary

    What a very interesting post. Although I have always supported the cause of libraries to the hilt, I had never looked at it this way before, but of course you are right. I was brought up on a weekly visit to our local library (in South London) and have been using them ever since – including taking all three of my children on regular visits all through their childhoods – but my own parents would never have gone near the place if it had had even the remotest whiff of ‘middle-class charity’ (hence my mother could not abide any involvement with the Brownies or the local church – she felt like a second-class citizen). If they hadn’t been such library regulars, I would never have gone with them, and three generations of reading would have failed to ignite.

    Thank you for such an illuminating article.

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