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.
I 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.
One 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.