I love libraries. They’ve always been one of my life’s givens; wherever I’ve been in the world, I’ve visited a library. Whether it’s plate glass and modern chrome or an old Victorian school house, there’s a sense of familiarity, of safety even, and of something between expectation and excitement. You never know what you’ll find hidden inside this world of books.
Of course, some of the books are digitised these days, and going online for music and information is easy. Long gone are the ominous SILENCE signs, and librarians are clearly no longer taught that sharp, censorious ‘Ssh!’ But I grew up in the seventies when the library was second only to the church for reverence and you behaved accordingly. Especially in our village, because the librarian was the minister’s identical twin brother; one spent his days exhorting us to sing up, the other to pipe down, and woe betide if you lost your bearings for a moment and did the wrong one.
Actually, that was in the neighbouring, bigger, village. We had our own mobile library van. The ‘book bus’ was more or less identical to the Friday night fish n chip van – except that tooted its horn – and the ice-cream van – that tinkled a bell – and it trundled round once a week and parked up in our cul de sac. By the time my friends and I were ten, we’d read all the children’s books three times over, but if you were quick, you could sneak in and get through a good few pages of something thrillingly grown-up (i.e. anything with ‘passion’ in the blurb) before it was snatched away with a glare and swapped for Anne of Green Gables. Again.
My first ever literary effort was announced at school assembly and then housed in the cupboard/ library. It was a stapled pamphlet called The Little Blue Elephant – an existentialist discourse on the metaphorical idiom of undisclosed but evident depression in children* – and apparently it stayed there for years after I left.
A long time after that, I was lucky enough to study at Trinity College, Dublin – working away in the same hallowed halls as the Book of Kells, and even longer after that, I scribbled the diary that would be published as A Blonde Bengali Wife, in a very different kind of library. The Peace Library at Khalia, Rajoir District, Bangladesh, was a squat, damp shell of a room with greenish matting and a single shelf that housed text books and candles – so you could continue to read or write when the electricity was off.
I still write in libraries. I teach creative writing in libraries. I hit the children’s section with my (now) 6 year old, and I’ve even been known to lead the rhyme time sessions when the local staff were desperate… I’m amazed that some folk think libraries aren’t used any more – I’ve seen the people waiting outside for opening time.
Libraries may have lost the reverence of the past, but their spell remains. They’re about more than books; the fount of significant knowledge and community (and, as I heard one book-borrower point out, you can pick up your food recycling bags, too). Just now, I asked the iPad generation six year old why he liked the library, and he said it was ‘because looking for books is like a treasure hunt’. Couldn’t have put it better myself.
* Joke. I was 8. It was about an elephant that was little and blue.