Libraries featured in my past week.  I visited an unstaffed council library, another but staffed council library, a mobile library (also staffed),  an Audible on-line library of my books,  ditto my Kindle library, and the hugger-mugger of books on shelves, at home, in what we call ‘the library corner’.

Tom Chapin’s  library song   also came my way.  It’s completely delightful, just singalong to the chorus, and amuse/irritate the passengers on the bus

I’m going down to the Library,
Picking out a book, check it in, check it out.
Gonna say Hi to the Dictionary,
Picking out a book, check it in, check it out.

And then, one of the Poetry Foundation’s Poems of the Day was Haki R. Madhubuti’s ‘So many books, so little time’  The poem opens:

Frequently during my mornings of pain & reflection
when I can’t write or articulate my thoughts …
I escape north, to the nearest library or used bookstore.
They are my retreats, my quiet energy-givers, my intellectual refuge.

Libraries are exactly that – ‘quiet energy-givers’.   All my life I’ve been a public library member.  My mother was a librarian which might point to my familiarity with them.  The first one I joined, aged 2 or 3, was called ‘Tudor Drive Library’, in outer London.  It still exists – I just checked, in exactly the same building as was there 70 years ago, and where I did ballet and tap lessons as a child, and also the place where I went to Mrs Webb’s nursery school.  The picture conjured rafts of memories back to me! 

We had paper library tickets then and the librarian stamped the date into the book.   We made a weekly trip to the library, and there was always a flurry around our house looking for the books and checking the return dates, to avoid a fine. 

My mother told us endless stories about her days as a librarian, the way borrowers came in and asked for book recommendations on the lines of ‘a good murder, no sex’, or similar.  Her life was ruled by Mr Gaffney the head librarian, who was always pulling her up for putting the tickets in the wrong order and not being able to reconcile the cash in the fines box. 

Reading the excellent Shrines of Gaiety, for our book club, last week was another call to libraries.  Gwendolen Kelling, one of the main characters, is a librarian, on leave from her job.  Like my mother, Gwendolen was a librarian in the late 1920s and their stories of a librarian’s work are strikingly similar.

The joy of reading Shrines of Gaiety was that I wasn’t just looking at the print hardcopy version (available from my public library) which is a beautiful book with an attached ribbon bookmark – the paperback version comes out this month – I was also listening to it on Audible.  I skipped between the two media, depending on what I was doing at the time.  Washing up I listened, and reading in bed I read the hard-copy. 

The ability to do this illustrates the differences between my childhood library experiences and my grand-children’s.   The book I’m currently reading, Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything,  I also have on  Audible and I borrowed the paperback version from the public library, by logging onto my library account, requesting it, and then going to collect it having received an email that it was ready for collection.  The collection was during unstaffed hours, so I scanned my library card (which is on my phone) at the door. Hey presto, the door opened.  And I was able to check out the book myself – electronic wizardry.   

Electronic wizardry I like in some respects and dislike in others.  Generally, I get books on-line, (Audible or Kindle) only when I have a specific title in mind: one for the book club, or on someone’s recommendation.  The on-line recommendation feature I find infuriating and would love to switch it off.  Can you switch it off?  Let me know how, if you know. 

When I go into a physical library, I browse the shelves, waiting to see what I am drawn to – it’s a lovely, random experience taking me into books I never would have ventured towards.  The browsing a library or a bookshop expands my horizons, in a way that the Audible/Kindle recommendations, “We make recommendations based on your interests”,  don’t.  How will I expand my interests sticking with things that I’m currently interested in?   I am with the Madhubuti who continues his poem:

My sanctuaries are liberated lighthouses of shelved books,
featuring forgotten poets, unread anthropologists of tenure
seeking assistant professors, self-published geniuses, remaindered
first novelists, highlighting speed-written bestsellers,
wise historians & theologians, nobel, pulitzer prize, and american book
award winners, poets & fiction writers, overcertain political commentators,
small press wunderkinds & learned academics.
All are vitamins for my slow brain & sidetracked spirit in this
winter of creating.

Maybe I’m not alone in enjoying the library and bookshops bricks and mortar experience.  A January 2023, Guardian article notes that “There are now 1,072 independent bookshops after the industry enjoyed a sixth consecutive year of growth, according to the Booksellers Association (BA). The resurgence followed a 20-year losing streak in which bookshop numbers sank to a nadir of 867 in 2016.   Meryl Halls, the BA’s managing director, said the independent book store revival confirms that bookshops are crucially important – and valued – parts of our high street communities”.

Sadly, the reverse is true for public libraries as council budgets are cut year on year – public spending cuts have closed almost 800 libraries in the past decade  [2012 -2022] – a fifth of the UK’s total.   A November 2022 BBC report notes that “Community libraries are seeing an unprecedented rise in the number of people using their services, but many are concerned about their future.  The rise in the cost of living has seen people turn to libraries. … Libraries Connected, which represents libraries in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, says many libraries have expanded their services to help people struggling with higher prices – running food banks, giving out clothing donations, extending their opening hours and providing hot drinks.”

Public libraries are an essential community service. In my area during both staffed and unstaffed hours the libraries are humming with people using the computers, holding group meetings, enjoying activities put on by the library services, and borrowing books.   What’s so delightful is that libraries attract everyone – my grandchildren take as much joy in browsing the books as I do.  Online book reading/listening is ok, but to my mind a hard-copy book, chosen via browsing and on spec is a much richer experience.  I wish long life to community libraries and independent bookshops.

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