When I was at primary school, we’d sometimes walk round the back of the carpark, up the back road and to my local library. It was a treat – a special day. We’d sing “the wheels on the bus go round and round” (endlessly) and get to choose a couple of books each to read, and maybe a book to borrow, and some kids would huddle in groups comparing pictures, and others would sit on squishy bags in corners and read until it was time to go.
Then I started violin lessons (I was crap) and would get to visit, once a week, an even bigger library. The day I got my grown-up borrowing card was a revelation. I started working through the entire SF/Fantasy shelf from top to bottom, tore through the YA section, occassionally borrowed a VHS as a Wednesday evening treat.
At secondary school, I was lucky enough that my school had a big, comfy library that I could just camp out in. My journey to school was an hour and a half there, and the same back. For a good book, I’d sometimes adapt my route, sticking on the Piccadilly Line as far as Manor House and then back-tracking by bus, so I’d have more time in one seat to read. I was the kid who read on the escallator. Books were everything.
The library at LSE had an incredibly annoying staircase, which gave electric shocks when you touched the handle, and had steps just a little too shallow and a little too wide to comfortably climb. I’d rock up once a week, borrow my own weight in books, and read them back in halls. I learnt everything I know about the Algerian War of Independence in the bath. I will forever associate the Spanish Armada with peanut butter sandwiches.
My local council library was a few hundred yards from my hall of residence. When my brain melted, I’d slick off there. That was where I finally got my hands on a ready, free supply of graphic novels (my knowledge being almost entirely determined by what the library had in stock) and the miracle of new technology that was the DVD.
At Ra-de-da, the library was full of play scripts. In my first year, I read so many that I actually won a prize for how much I used the library. In my first year I also had a lot of really crappy show roles, including the joyful time I spent 5 days sat by myself in the dark waiting to open a door, only for my cues to be cut at dress rehearsal ‘cos it turned out, actors can open doors all by themselves. I read by torchlight, and it kept me sane.
I did a course on how to negotiate at my local library, ‘cos I could. My Mum goes to hers to learn how to use her computer. I have written sizeable chunks of novels in numerous libraries, and been shushed for typing too loud; and if I have an hour to kill I will find the nearest library and just take shelter with any shelf, any topic that crops up, because ultimately, stories are wonderful and knowledge is great. I learnt about the history of He-La cells while waiting for a martial arts class, and failed to get to grips with Katakana in between job interviews.
I know I’m, ultimately, a bookish geek-nerd, and I’m cool with that. I know that there are many people for whom libraries aren’t a beacon of hope, comfort and warmth. Figures show that attendence is dropping off slowly in many areas, but what they don’t show is just how much more a properly funded library can give to its community. The Tory government has obliterated library spending, and every year more and more libraries are forced to close. That’s not just a place for children and adults alike to find stories, to discover culture and the understanding that unites us all; it’s a place to learn languages and life-skills, to be inspired with new ideas, to find shelter from the cold with a world of knowledge, to learn technology and basic finance, to meet your community. Where libraries close, education falls, but the impact of culture on our society is so much more. When you take away our culture, you take away the very tool of language that brings us together. Stories are our glue; without stories there is no society.
Please help protect your library. There are campaigns such as the Library Campaign and Voices For The Library, there are petitions both local and through sites such as 38 Degrees. There’s also just voting, whenever you can – voting against the brutal austerity that is gutting civil society, and for change. I live in a constituency that, in our first past the post system is unlikely to flip any time soon; but every vote I cast in a local or general election is another voice raised for better ideas. All it takes is enough of us, and we can change policy, and our leaders.
Until then, take some time one lazy day to visit your library. It is yours, a part of your community, and a gift to us all.