A lot of my childhood was spent in libraries. Our local library was a safe haven for me. Other children would go on holidays and have trips and do exciting things – I would travel the world from the comfort of my own bed, or chair or whichever corner I decided to read in. I stepped into the crispy snow in Narnia with Lucy. I stayed in a caravan, drank ginger beer and solved mysteries in Cornwall with the Famous Five. I even spent term times in boarding school with my friends in Mallory Towers.
Was I deprived of money when I was little? Yes. But through reading – I felt richer than any prince or princess in the world. How was this possible? Through the library. It was an imposing, Victorian building with automatic doors, which always felt strangely out of keeping for me. I’d walk in and hear the familiar beeping as books were scanned, and feel a satisfying thrill as the books were stamped.
I’d ignore the adult sections of the library and head straight towards the refuge of the children’s section, which had it’s own enclosure. Brightly coloured posters. Bean bags. Every type of children’s book that you could imagine. Adults weren’t welcome in here, only children.
I loved all sorts of books – greek myths, fairy tales from around the world, the Chronicles of Narnia (The Silver Chair was my favourite), but best of all, I loved anything by Enid Blyton. I remember one of my earlier visits to the library, there was a book with stories from the Old Testament. An attractive, colourful children’s version of the Old Testament. I remember looking at it curiously – it was in fact my mum who insisted that I should borrow it. ‘But we’re not Christian mum,’ I began – but she simply said, they are good stories and you should learn about other religions.
And they were great stories – about wise King Solomon; Samson and Delilah; Moses; Abraham….I read them again and again…lost in the ancient world.
As I grew older though, the sheen of the library began to wear off. I began to notice how tired and grubby the books looked, the stains on the pages left by other readers…the place that I had once loved, I no longer valued, and I vowed to myself that as soon as I had enough money, I would buy my own new, shiny, beautiful books. Ones that no one else had touched. That were clean and belonged to me only.
And that’s what happened. As I took that step from ‘aspirational class’, into ‘middle class’ – my visits to the library stopped. I never thought about visiting one for years.
After I had my daughters though, I started thinking about the library again. About my love for it when I was little and thought that they would enjoy it too. Of course we have a massive collection of books that I have bought at home, bookshelves creaking with the weight of books purchased over five and a half years…but their appetite for books is as voracious as mine was at their age.
On Saturday, I needed a copy of a particular book, and I didn’t really want to buy it. So, I phoned around all my local libraries, they were all extremely helpful. Finally, one of them rang me back to say that they had located the book, they would hold it for me – so went to get it. My daughters ran around with glee, wanting to take all of the books home. As librarian scanned and stamped our final selection, I asked if this particular library was going to be affected by the budget cuts – her grief was palpable – the library would be closed next year.
I cannot describe the mixture of anger and astonishment that I felt. After speaking to a few other people, I’ve since discovered that quite a few libraries in the city that I live in, are going to be closed, and my mind has been whirling ever since.
I was born at the right time it seems. I didn’t pay university fees and was given a grant to help me study. I had the most amazing local library which was my safe haven. Although I was poor, I was given opportunities to improve my life. What do children from the background as me, have available now? No bloody libraries? How will they read? Where will they go? How will they escape and aspire to change their lives?
Oh I know – take your clothes off and pout, have millions of followers on instagram and be like Kim Kardashian. Or sing and sell your soul on X-Factor. Oh yes – purchase fake breasts, and aspire to be WAG of some guy….
I don’t know – once I borrowed 1984 from the library and George Orwell seemed to be able to predict the future better than anyone else. The deprived people don’t need to read. They will be told what to think. Told what is right. History will be re-written. Thought police will emerge. People will be killed off for disagreeing with those in charge.
I know I normally try to write positive things and leave people with positive messages. This time however – I write to warn. I find it sinister that libraries are being shut down. We can spend millions on new roads. New crappy buildings – but we can’t preserve free access to books?
I am very, very worried – and so should you be. But the question is – what do we do now?