When I was a kid, I was weird. And not in that floppy-haired, no-one understands me but I’m still really cool and actually, if I just took off my glasses everyone would hoist me on their shoulders and carry me around ‘weird’, but plain weird. One time, I rescued a bee – a dead bee, mark you – from the school playground so I could take it home and give it a proper burial.
Another time, I took it upon myself to deliver a ‘Just Say No!’ anti-drug workshop for my peers, complete with ‘chasing the dragon’ tin foil handouts so they knew what to look for. On the eve of my big presentation, my mum swerved me away from this (apparently doomed) course of action and I had to cobble together a presentation on fashion instead. Considering that from the age of nine to twelve, I had one standard outfit (dungarees and school shoes), this was a horror show.
So I was weird. And a lot of times I was quite lonely. Sometimes, and I never knew why at the time but probably due to all of the above and more, no-one wanted to talk to me, or play with me. And this is where all the libraries came in, like knights in paper mache armour.
The school library was a lunchtime haven, where I researched witchcraft and the occult for the ghost stories I was writing (entirely inspired by the Ghost of Thomas Kempe) and where I had my first fist fight with a dimwit called Edward over the spelling of psychic. Blood was shed.
I’ll always love the local library in town where I used to spend hours after school doing my drug research (I know…) and reading autobiographies like Moonwalk by Michael Jackson (which I now feel left considerable chunks of information out).
I checked out as many books as I was allowed, honestly I don’t really think I ever bought a book back then. I got 60p pocket money each Saturday, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have afforded to buy a book even at 1980s prices. I made a special trip just to visit this library once more before I left the country recently, and I was taken aback by how tiny it was because, as a kid, it contained EVERYTHING as far as I was concerned.
I carried on checking out piles of books from libraries throughout my childhood and teens. I always had a book on the go, often more than one, and while my teen years were way happier and less lonely than some previous years, books were still a sanctuary. I am absolutely certain that I could only have read a fraction of those books if I had needed to buy them. And there wasn’t exactly an embarrassment of bookshops where I lived either, so it was basically whatever had been donated to the charity shops.
It’s not just about books though. The college library was where I first got an email address and used the computers to do my A level work and search for jobs in London to daydream about. I’ll call that era ‘the Netscape Years’.
When I was a very young and very skint mum, libraries were a haven. A free (and warm) source of entertainment for my tiny kids.
Libraries are not just about books, especially in adulthood. Especially when you’re vulnerable or even just a bit lost. For a long time, for me, the library was the only way to get online. I can’t even imagine – in this time of paperless Universal Credit applications – how some people would fare without this.
I haven’t needed the library so much in recent years, but when we went to register our youngest child’s birth in January, the registrar was based in the library and it made my heart soar to see how well used it was. The buggies stacked outside the kids’ library section, the older people talking about books and a few quiet browsers of all ages in between.
I live in a new city now, in a new country. At times, I feel lonely and cut off. I’m still a bit confused about the rules and my place in this new life. My youngest son starts at nursery in a few days and I’ll finally have proper chunks of writing time back. I was out walking with the rabble the other day when I stumbled on something that instantly made me feel calmer, and more at home: the library.
Admittedly it was called Bibliotheek, but it was as familiar as any library back home. Books to the ceiling, people quietly working at desks and computers, that smell that you can’t quite describe but is instantly recognisable. I immediately knew where I would head to spend my writing time, alone but surrounded by people. Just like I’ve always needed, just like libraries have always given me.
Libraries are so much more than books. They are still relevant, they are still vital. They will help the next generation of readers and writers to find their feet, the next generation of young and skint parents to give their kids a love of reading that costs nothing, the next generation of job seekers a route to apply for employment if they don’t have online access of their own.
To lose any libraries is to lose a part of ourselves, our history and our future. I’m so glad that authors like SJ Watson are standing up for libraries, and I hope everyone that ever lost themselves in a good book, and found themselves in a great library, will stand up too.