Thursday, 27 January 2011


 There are terrible things afoot. Ghastly things that chill me to my very soul and threaten the very fabric of our society because there are plans to close local libraries in their droves. Since we're all in it together according to the Tories, even books need to make sacrifices to help the deficit...

Frantic to cut costs no matter what, libraries have been pushed into the firing line thanks to coalition policies on cutting local government spending. Less immediate than bin collection, less green than parks and less bright than street lighting, libraries are the Cinderella of council spending. Everyone forgets they are there, but relies on them without even thinking.

My love of libraries goes back to when I was knee high to a grasshopper and my parents used to take me to the local library every single week. It held several charms to a small child. Firstly I can't remember not being able to read and I have always loved books, so all those coloured spines twinkling at me and tempting me to lift them were a feast of excitement and one I was encouraged to indulge. Secondly, thanks to the open plan layout of our library, my parents could leave me alone in the kids' section while browsing for their own tomes and the frisson of independence was electrifying. I felt so grown up it made me feel giddy. It's just another small way that books have shaped me for life...

I still remember some of my favourite books from the library more than 25 years later. Choice was a wonderful thing, but so was the familiarity of certain books taken out time after time or read again and again while sitting on a small plastic chair in the building itself. I adored Christobel Mattingley's The Picnic Dog which introduced me to the unfamiliar heat and vast space of Australia while in sight of the drizzly River Lagan. I thrilled and frightened myself with The Giant Jam Sandwich and its novel approach to the problem of wasps. Already a fan of Shirley Hughes' My Naughty Little Sister, I copied other tips on being a torment to my brother from Edith Unnerstad's Little O stories as she charmed and infuriated her Shakepearian named siblings.

I drifted away from the library for a while as I got older as the shelves didn't contain enough titles to sate my overwhelming desire for pony books. My dad took me to a charity shop bookstore instead where for mere pennies I could buy enough books to last me a week and build an impressive collection of novels in my bedroom. I grew to love the smell of used books, but it's never replaced my love of the library (and its oddly squeaky floor.)

I came back to the library as I hit puberty. Partly because I couldn't trust myself to study effectively in my own bedroom due to my uncanny ability to procrastinate and partly because the library had a social side. As we got older, our parents trusted us to trek down town on a Saturday morning to stake out a seat at the first floor of the Central Library. Pre mobile phones, friends would know that if they wanted company for study or an illicit wander round the In Shops later, you could be found in the library. I learned many things from those days from the poetry of Robert Frost to how to disguise the smell of craftily smoked cigarettes to how to banter and flirt with the staff (male and female) when you needed something obscure finding amongst the shelves or when you hadn't returned something on time.

But the library really came into its own for me when aged 18 I went from academic over achiever (a much nicer word than precocious) to seriously ill and almost completely housebound. The Ormeau Road library became the centre of my weekday world. Just close enough to be possible for me to walk to and feel a sense of achievement, I would. at least once a fortnight, go there and rummage the shelves for the six books that would stop me losing my mind stuck in the house with only 4 TV channels to watch in a pre-internet era. I devoured those books, each page keeping me sane and connected enough to the world to cope as my friends passed exams, moved away and started new lives at university on the other side of the Irish Sea. They gave me something to talk about with people who had jobs, courses and commitments beyond being awake for an afternoon episode of Quincy.

As my health improved and I returned to study at the local tech to get those elusive A-Levels that would restart my life, I relied ever more on the library as the standard of teaching at college was to say the least, erratic. I also discovered that my small South Belfast library had the most startling selection of unusual American Literature, particularly African American writers and this cemented my desire to work hard and get into university to study American Studies when I was wavering in my ambition. This early knowledge of the works of Chester Himes and Iceberg Slim also helped me impress my way into a place at King's College, London.

Strangely, I spent very little time at the library while at university, disliking the old creepy building on Chancery Lane and preferring to take books home and study there instead. Put off the joys of reading by my Lit degree for some time, I never once in three years set foot in the library in Waterloo, despite it being one street away from my house.

I came back to libraries with renewed vigour when I was homeless. Warm, safe and distracting, I spent long lonely days in them able to occupy myself without spending any money. I found the only book I could find on how to cope after rape or sexual assault in Tooting Library where it had been gifted by Cosmopolitan several years ago. Rarely taken out, but so well worn it was almost falling apart, I could sit anonymously and seek advice I hadn't been able to find anywhere else at the time. I also began a long love affair with crime fiction, immersing myself in a world where cops might be mavericks, but they cared about victims and got criminals off the street...

I collected library cards for each borough I had a hostel or a bed for the night in, so that I always had somewhere to go when I tried the patience of friends far enough with my ever present misery and so that I didn't need to weigh myself down with heavy books as I traversed London with my possessions on my back like a modern day snail. I even committed some light fraud to obtain cards in Hackney and Southwark and almost got away with it til my library book on Ted Bundy was stolen the night I was raped in Soho, and I had to fess up that I wasn't Marie Smith to Hoxton Street Library. I was then asked for a huge fine to replace the book with a look of such disapproval, I still cross the road rather than walk past the desk.

I could also access the internet for free and get the details and information about my legal rights as someone homeless. This helped me contact both Shelter and a legal aid solicitor and I believe, ultimately get rehoused and start my life again. It worries me immensely that in this ever-increasingly online world, the one free source of the internet is being taken away from the poorest and most vulnerable. Add in the fact that legal aid is being slashed and you realise that being able to at least access a law textbook or online advice becomes even more crucial, yet harder to obtain. How can this not feel ideologically driven when usually even the right wingers embrace the virtues of education?

I'm not sure what we can do to put pressure on our councils and our government and remind them libraries are just too important to mess with like this apart from congratulate Philip Pullman on his brilliant pro-library speech and use the hell out of our libraries. If you don't already have a library card, go and sign up. If your card is gathering dust, get it out and use it more. It should be harder to take away something if its so popular...and that's worth so much I'm prepared to risk the odd fine again!

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