As an author and booklover, it’ll come as no surprise that a library is of my favourite habitats! I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time in some lovely libraries over the years, from toddling among beanbags on a Saturday morning choosing my stories for the week, to studying in the treasure-trove of Oxford’s Bodleian.
These days, my local library in Caversham, run by Reading Libraries is a little gem and it’s a place I really love. When I decided to move to the area, the library was part of my choice. It a beautiful building, sitting at the centre of the little high street and to me it feels like the heart of the neighbourhood. Since it’s a place that means a lot to me, and these days sadly we can’t take our libraries for granted, I thought it was about time I wrote a post in honour of it.
A Beautiful Building
Like a lot of public libraries across the US, UK and beyond, my local library is a Carnegie Library. Between 1883 and 1929 the building of over 2500 libraries around the world was funded by Scottish-American business magnate Andrew Carnegie, who’d made a fortune in the steel industry, becoming one of the richest Americans in history. He began by funding libraries in places he had a personal connection to, in Scotland near his birthplace, and in Pittsburgh, his adopted city, but over the years as more and more towns applied for funding very few were turned down. Through his various philanthropic donations to charities, foundations and universities during his lifetime, he eventually gave away almost ninety per cent of the fortune he’d made. A good example to today’s billionaires!
Let’s start with the building then, because it’s a truly beautiful one – an Edwardian delight, described very well by the Carnegie Legacy in England and Wales website. After securing Carnegie funding in 1905, a design competition was held with the winner being one in the ‘free Renaissance’ style by a local architect. The foundation stone was laid in March 1907 and the library opened in December the same year – not bad going! What exactly the ‘free Renaissance’ style means is open to debate, but the library very much reflects its Edwardian birth, borrowing elements of classical architecture but dispensing with symmetry and adding plenty of idiosyncratic features such as its barrel-vaulted porch and globe-topped tower. Above all, it has a strong arts and crafts influence in the high quality of its design and finish, and in details such as its unusual clock.
Not all libraries are such beauties on the outside, of course, and it’s the beauty within that counts – all those books! When I lived in London, my local library was a sixties concrete box, but it was nevertheless a lovely haven and a precious resource. Still, I’m very grateful to our Edwardian forebears for taking such care when they built this place. It’s a pleasure to pass by and it really invites the visitor inside. Long may it last.
Borrowing & Sharing
Libraries fulfill all kinds of functions, and they’re evolving with technology, but the sharing of books is at their heart. Of course, the further we go back in time, the more rare and costly books were. Medieval libraries, which were anyway only accessible to privileged scholars and theologians, had their books chained to the shelves. Even a century ago, books would have been a luxury out of reach to many even among the literate. That’s why the foundation of a library within a community was such a valuable gift.
Even today, though, when books are more plentiful and less expensive to buy, I still think there’s something a little magical about borrowing a book from a library. During its life in a library, a book builds up its own history. When I open a library book, I almost always think about the others who’ve borrowed and read it. That label inside the front cover where the return dates are stamped, I find it strangely fascinating. You can see its periods of popularity and its spells of rest on the shelves.
Further inside, although library borrowers are generally very careful custodians of their books, there are signs of previous readers – a thumb print here, a coffee splash there, the occasional dog-eared page. Inside library books over the years I’ve found some quite fascinating artifacts – holiday postcards and shopping lists, a forgotten bookmark and some incomplete homework. Each of them carry a story of their own, quite aside from that of the book itself.
Unwittingly, I may have left my own traces on books I’ve borrowed – a biscuit crumb or two lodged in a spine, the odd smear of rain from a railway platform. History books earned me my degree, my studies essentially consisting of three solid years of reading and very little else. Travel books from the library have often been my holiday companions, guiding me around new cities, pointing out highlights. Borrowed novels have seen me through many a maddening commute and the occasional sleepless night. Library books on writing have helped me on my journey to becoming an author, offering encouragement, or at least the sense of purposeful procrastination! For a time, the books are mine, and the fact that time is limited always spurs me on to really make the most of it.
Ultimately, it’s the shared nature of library books that I love.After our time together, I always enjoy returning the books to their home, knowing they’ll be off on many more adventures with a host of new companions, having a life of their own. And of course, the act of returning the books to their library home is an invitation to borrow more.
A Place to Pass Time
There have been times in my life when libraries have been about more than their contents, though. They’ve been a haven. Time is the most precious thing, but I think it is possible to have too much of it. On the facade on my local library the a grand clock is held aloft by a hunched and weary Old Father Time. As a teenager and a young adult, there were spells when time weighed heavily for me too, and during those spells I would often haunt a library. If I was having a tough time at school, the library was a safe place I could go to sit out the daunting lunch breaks. I’, not alone in that experience, as this article by a school librarian shows. When I’d moved to a new place and knew no-one, that didn’t matter at the library. When you may be lonely or a little lost, a library is always a welcoming place.
As long as a public library is open, it’s open to you. Beyond keeping a little bit quiet, it’s a place free of obligations. You don’t have to stay long, or you can spend the day. You can borrow a book, use library resources or bring your own projects to work on. Libraries attract the very young to the very old. Toddlers just learning to read will be revelling in choosing their next week’s worth of bedtime stories. Older people may be picking out the stories to keep them company when sleep is harder to come by. Although among the hush of the bookshelves library users rarely interact, a library is still a place that brings people together.
As such, a library is great for people-watching too. Select a book, pull out a chair and begin reading. Now and then your eyes and ears will wander. What is that lady researching with so many books on a single topic? From that pile of travel books, which destination will he choose? What’s the latest on that local controversy being discussed in a hushed whisper? So, aside from the books it holds, a library is a source of stories in another way too, and for an author, that makes it an ideal place to while away an hour or so.
A Quiet Space
There are very few truly quiet places in our towns and cities, so the hush of our libraries is an asset in itself. Sometimes we all need a quiet space, and libraries of course provide this. Outside places of worship, where else do people lower their voices to a respectful whisper or leave if they need to take a call? Of course, there will be fun times too, and who could begrudge a lively troupe of toddlers their bounce and rhyme time? But in general, library users protect the peace of other library users, because they value it so much themselves.
Peace brings concentration and contemplation to those who need it. As a student, there is no way I would have been able to absorb the volume of information I needed to learn, then organise it into essay form, outside the safe harbour of a library. I had my room, of course, but a bassline might suddenly burst into life at any time through the walls or the floor. Friends, although welcome, could drop by just at the point where I might, just might, have grasped an important point and was trying to frame it in a sentence. If you want to hide without actually resorting to hiding, a library is the place to go.
A Community Hub
Whilst you might find escape in your local library, you can also find connections, and that can be just as important. Libraries are one of the last bastions of the local noticeboard – a wonderful thing! Of course, you can discover almost anything online these days, but you have to be looking for it. Your local library noticeboard, on the other hand, will present the casual browser with an array of information, useful, interesting, quirky and even amusing.
There will be interest groups you can join in with and groups you can seek support from. There will be performances you can attend and performance groups you can join. There will be campaigns you might want to get behind and petitions on issues you hadn’t even been conscious of. In almost any community, there’s more going on than you might think. In the area of the arts alone, your library noticeboard will probably furnish you will a full calendar for the month ahead. You could be out at plays and concerts almost every week, listening to talks on local history and visiting open gardens in the other weeks, and throwing pots and painting watercolours in between.
As a booklover and writer, there are usually posters or leaflets that catch my eye for local reading groups and book festivals. It was at my local library that I first learned about the world of writing competitions, when I saw a leaflet for the Bridport Prize. I took that leaflet home and decided to enter a flash fiction story, crafted from an extract I’d cut from one of my early novel drafts. Several months later, I heard that flash fiction story had been shortlisted in the prize which gave me such a confidence boost as a new writer. That’s just one little example of an opportunity that came to me via my library. Who knows what opportunities your library could open for you?
A Precious Resource
For all their benefits and virtues, unfortunately local libraries are a threatened species. My local library is well used, but still almost every year I receive a survey or consultation about cutting the services and hours. This isn’t unusual across Britain. Funding for public libraries continues to decline, with 2021 budgets down 14% on average. Between 2010 and 2019, almost a fifth of British public libraries closed – that’s around 800 libraries. Pandemic closures and budget pressures will have taken their toll since then, despite the efforts of libraries to respond with initiatives such as increased ebook lending and virtual subscriptions.
I’m lucky – my local library continues to survive – but it only does because it’s used. With libraries, it’s a case of use it or lose it. So aside from all the benefits you can enjoy, a visit to your local library is a vote of support and a little contribution to your community. It’s something positive you can do that doesn’t cost anything – unless you bring your books back late! In some parts of the country, I know that libraries are very active in recruiting new members – babies are even issued with library cards at the time their birth is registered! It’s such a lovely idea which I hope is more widely adopted. I only hope that our local libraries are still open and thriving for these future readers to enjoy.
Do you have a local library that you love? Drop me a comment, I’d love to hear about it!