Loving My Libraries

Image 1As we all know, the great Early Modern scholar, Erasmus, once said:

When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.

Well, finding myself with a little money left at the end of the last financial year, I decided that rather than wasting it on food and clothes I would treat myself to a twelve month subscription to The Bookseller, because let’s face it the next best thing to reading books themselves is reading about them and the world in which they are created and marketed.

My first issue arrived on Thursday and has proved to be pretty much a one off, focusing as it does on the various shortlists for the Bookseller Industry Awards.  I love shortlists of any sort so I had a wonderful time reading about all the different aspects of the book world and those who had excelled in them.  The nominations that caught my attention most immediately, however, were those for the library of the year, because of the six listed four of them were local to me.

Library-of-Birmingham-Open-Air-Amphitheatre-December-2010I live just on the city side of the Birmingham border and anyone who remembers the publicity last September that surrounded The Library of Birmingham when it opened won’t be surprised to see that it is on the list.  However, if I walk five minutes down the road in a westerly direction, I cross into the Dudley authority and in fact I do most of my borrowing from the nearest Dudley library in Halesowen because unlike Birmingham they let me keep the books for four weeks and are much more generous in the number they allow me to have on reserve.  Well, Dudley libraries are on the list too, as are those of Sandwell, the next authority over, who are especially praised for turning their libraries into community hubs in an area where educational achievements are low and poverty very high.

Another five minute walk, this time in a southerly direction, and I’m into Worcestershire and the fourth local library named is The Hive in the City of Worcester itself.  This is also a relatively new library and one which is shared with the University of Worcester, a coming together which, when it opened in 2012, was unique in Europe. If I’m honest, I’m not certain how well this works and I’d quite like to talk with the University librarians and see how they feel about it.  I do, however, love the Children’s Library there, which has a myriad spaces where children can gather in small groups to read and talk together and best of all a series of beehive cell shapes along one wall where individual readers can secret themselves away and read undisturbed to their hearts’ content.

But how lucky am I, at a time when library services are being cut all over the country, to have four such wonderful examples within very very easy reach?  I feel I want to stand on the highest point I can find and shout out loud to the world that the West Midlands may not be the most romantic spot in the land, the Black Country might be the butt of many a cruel joke, but listen to me – we care about libraries and we’re doing something to show the world how essential they are to the human spirit.  When you can say the same, then come back and poke fun at us but until then, keep your jokes to yourselves.

1676727One thing that the shortlist did make me think about was how easy it would be for me to take libraries for granted just because I can’t remember a time when they weren’t a part of my daily existence.  I don’t know how young I was when I was first taken to the local branch library, but I certainly wasn’t at school.  What I do remember are the very first books that Mom and I brought home, both from Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit series.  There would have been about two dozen of these available when I first started making those weekly trips to this sanctuary where books came free, and together Mom and I read our way through them all.  As we very often got through the last two days of any week on brown bread and fish paste sandwiches, there certainly wasn’t any money to spare for buying books, even if I could have persuaded my mother that Erasmus had a finer sense of priorities than her own. But what did that matter?  We didn’t need to spend money on books, we could have them for free.  Even now, when I walk into any library, the Squirrel, the Hare and Little Grey Rabbit, not to mention Sam Pig, are always somewhere in my mind irrevocably bound up with all the other pleasures of the last sixty or more years.

So what, I wonder, are your first memories of your library visiting days?  Are you still haunted by those earliest borrowed books?  The more, I think, that we remember what the library service meant to us when we were children the less likely we are to allow those services to go under now.  All children should have the right to sit in beehive shaped cubbyholes and lose themselves in the world of Alison Uttley.


30 thoughts on “Loving My Libraries

  1. What a lovely post, Alex! And while i”m very grateful for our county libraries, I can’t help a bit of envy for your four. My first memories of libraries are school libraries, but I know my parents were taking us to the local libraries at a very young age. When we moved to a small college town, where i could ride my bike to the library whenever I wanted, I think that’s when I fell in love with libraries. For a college town, it was surprisingly lacking in bookstores, now that I think about it, though there was one good used-bookstore (I still find their bookmarks in some of my oldest, treasured books). I thought first of libraries in those days – I didn’t feel the same need to own books that I do today (and I had no guilt-inducing TBR stacks either).

    1. Really enjoyed the post and so glad of the enlightened approach of West Midlands to libraries. I remember libraries as a refuge and as a treasure trove. I went through a period of playing truant from school a lot – and discovering Orwell’s essays at the public library hooked me to reading. I loved the periodicals and the reference section and the sheer pleasure of browsing the shelves and racks – it helped me a lot. Public libraries still seem to me a vital public space.

      1. Ian, your comment made me think about all those wonderful WEA and Extra-mural courses that there used to be where those who had not got on well with school for whatever reason were able to educate themselves. Like too many of our libraries they are now a thing of the past. Without libraries I would probably have never gone on to become a teacher and without the support of those easily accessed evening classes would certainly never have had the courage to apply for university. School did very little to help me at all which is one of the reasons I wanted to teach and try and do a better job.

    2. I find I am returning to libraries more and more these days, mainly because I simply don’t have the room for any more books around the house and I can’t bring myself to get rid of any of them. It would seem like discarding a friendship.

  2. You *are* lucky to have such wonderful libraries – though ours isn’t bad I must say. Earliest memory is being obsessed with Dr. Seuss’s “I had trouble in getting to Solla Sollew” and constantly taking it out of the library. And in my teens my dad and I borrowed lovely hardback versions of The Lord of The Rings with big fold out maps and read our way through them. Thank goodness for libraries!!

    1. That isn’t a Dr Seuss that I know, Karen, but I had that self-same edition of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ for my thirteenth birthday and it is still on my shelves today – although very much the worst for frequent re-readings.

  3. I read my way through the children’s section of my small village library and was allowed to take grown-up books out (I remember a single Teens shelf) by the excellent librarians there. My town library was within bus reach and oh, the books I reserved and got on inter library loan when I was a Saturday assistant there! My school library was good, too, full of Georgette Heyer and other novels upstairs and serious books downstairs. Lucky me!

    1. Being a Saturday assistant in a library was one of my unfulfilled dreams, Liz. I still wonder occasionally if it’s too late to make my dream come true even now.

  4. Thank you for a lovely post and for pulling me back to my own childhood library. I use the same library building today and though it’s been completely reorganised I can still ‘see’ that library where there are offices now. And I could locate books, Alison Uttley included.

    1. You’ve made me stop and wonder, Jane, whether or not that first library I used to go to is still there. I think I feel a pilgrimage coming on!

  5. My memories of going to the library with my mum are some of my earliest memories. It was before I started school and she used to take me on her bike – I had a little seat behind hers. The library was just a small branch library with adult and children’s books all in one room. Going to the library was a regular event, and as I grew up we went to the main town library, either on the bus or bikes and queued up waiting for the library to open. It was a real treat – books and libraries have been part of my life ever since. I too read Little Grey Rabbit, but I think the first book I remember borrowing was Teddy Robinson, I loved it and didn’t want to take it back.

    1. No, the taking the books back was definitely the worst part, Margaret. It was some time before I caught on that that was what you were supposed to do 🙂

  6. Lucky you living so near such lovely libraries. Another thing I miss since I moved to France. And oh, Little Grey Rabbit — how I did love those books. Nice post!

    1. I didn’t realise you’d moved to France, Harriet. Did Oxford not work out? Two of my godchildren are in France: one in Brittany and the other near Versailles.

  7. Oh Allison Uttley! We had the Little Grey Rabbit books when I was little. My favorite was The Speckledy Hen, because she got to have her own little house and decorate it however she wanted.

    My library growing up was (and is!) surprisingly good for a town of this size. My mother used to take us in the summer a lot, because it was cool at the library and we could entertain ourselves for hours. They recently tore down the old library building to make way for a new fancy one, and although the new building is very nice and has loads of enormous windows, I did feel a pang losing my childhood library!

    1. There ought to be a law against pulling down library buildings, Jenny, even if they do replace them. They are, after all, temples of learning and therefore very definitely sacred.

  8. I have two library memories. One was of the public library in my southeastern Missouri town, where I was taken once a week. Children were limited to an absurdly small number of books, but I managed to get an adult card and could check out ten each week. As a result, I read a lot of the biggest books I could find, including a lot of those multi-generational sagas and Victorian novels.
    The other is of the middle school library when I got to seventh grade. That was where I discovered The Lord of the Rings. I read them all one week, and then the next week discovered The Hobbit.
    There are two public libraries here that I go to–one is very small, but I took my kids to it when they were young enough I needed to keep an eye on them, because the whole library is one big room.

    1. We were allowed two at a time, Jeanne, and could keep them for two weeks. But the same was true for adults as well, so we didn’t feel hard done by, I suppose. And you remind me of my own move to secondary school, which would be a year later than your middle school, where they was also a dedicated library. I couldn’t believe my luck.

  9. Im so glad there are some good news satirises about libraries. Most often I just hear about them closing down which makes me so annoyed. The first library I can remember going into was one made possible by the coal miners of South Wales who knew there was more to life than working underground. They funded the miners institutes which acted as a community centre for their village or town and made sure it had a room to read newspapers and a small library. The one in my grandparents village didn’t have a children’s library But I used to go there anyway with my granddad during my school holidays and look at the atlases.

    1. I think one of the great tragedies is that the heritage of the libraries as a place where the working man (and eventually woman) could go to improve their lot. I also feel equally strongly about the way in which the WEA has almost vanished. We put totally the wrong emphasis on learning these days. And what a lovely memory to have of your granddad.

  10. You are in library paradise! My grade school had a library in it and my teachers would usually take the class there every two weeks. But my mom would take me and my sister to the public library ever few weeks. I remember carefully printing my name on the signature line for my first library card. I think I was about 5 or 6. I was so proud of that card! And because my sister is two years younger and couldn’t write her name yet she couldn’t have a card of her own so of course I had to make fun of her for that 🙂 I don’t remember the books I borrowed so much as the excitement of going there and spending time looking for treasure. And then there was the thrill of the day I told my mom there was nothing I wanted to read in the kid books and I wanted to look in the adult books and she said go ahead. I got lost in the stacks and would have remained lost but my mom somehow managed to find me which I was disappointed over because I had hoped to be forgotten and locked in, left to wander the library alone all night long!

    1. One of my dreams when I was buying children’s fiction for the College where I worked was to be allowed to spend my summer holidays in the wholesalers where we sourced our books. If they’d given me a decent chair and a bed I would have been happy there for as long as they would have let me stay.

  11. Lovely post. I fondly remember the paper library tickets in the libraries of my 70’s childhood. In my local library now it’s an automated check out which has an irritating electronic bleep. I avidly read all the Enid Blyton Malory Towers series. Although I didn’t read the Little Grey Rabbit books I do remember Squirrel in her spotted dress!

  12. Oh I hadn’t thought of those Little Grey Rabbit books in years! Thanks for the nostalgia trip. I can vividly remember the first time my Dad suggested I come and look in the adult section of the library (after reading the children’s section dry!) and thinking ‘but how do you know what to read?’. It was as if a whole new world was opening up in front of me, as cliched as that sounds!

    1. There is a reason clichés are clichés, Cathy; because they are true. Certainly, the libraries in my life have changed my life. It’s good to make your acquaintance and to meet another Little Grey Rabbit fan.

  13. Manchester has just revamped its central library and it’s money well spent. It’s a wonderful public space and being used by all sections of the community.

    1. That’s the best thing about our new library as well, Sarah. Every conceivable cross section of the community seems to use it.

  14. I loved going to the library when I was little and, like you, it became rather an event in our family. I remember the smell, the brown boxes reserved for childrens picture books and the little coloured plastic stools to sit on. I always took the maximum amount I could out, even if I knew I could never read them and delve into the depths of the library to find my Mum and show her my treasure! The main book that all the kids went for in my day had to be The Hungry Hungry Caterpillar. And, when I got a bit older, the Adrian Mole series and Jacqueline Wilson books.
    I try my best to use the library regularly even now, when I buy far too many books as it is. The refurbed central library in Manchester, like Birmingham, is something to see.

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