Saturday 6 February 2016

Why Libraries Matter

Last year, as part of the YA Shot blog tour, I wrote a piece about why libraries matter for the lovely Sofia over at The Reading Fangirl. Today is National Libraries Day, so I thought I would repost it (with some minor edits for clarity) here:

Forget Hogwarts. Never mind Narnia. When I was a kid, there was only one place where magic really happened. In this place, I could go anywhere. I could be anyone. I could fly; I could make myself invisible; I had superpowers.

That place was my local library.

As soon as I stepped inside, I entered another world, intoxicated by the scents of paper and ink. I never knew what I might find – what worlds I’d find between the covers of the books that waited for me there. And even better, I got to take that magic home, and it didn’t cost me a penny. For a child with a reading habit like mine, the library was a lifeline, feeding my book addiction and filling up my brain with stories and experiences and life.

Later, as an adult, I got a job in a library, and now had the chance to see life from ‘the other side of the desk.’ I was also an aspiring author, writing stories of my own. I spent every day surrounded by books, by authors, by words. That familiar magic filled the air; I took it in with every breath. When I was supposed to be shelving books, I’d find a quiet corner in which to read. Between customers, I’d scribble ideas down on old receipts and tickets and request cards. I’d look at the books on the shelves and daydream about seeing my name on a book spine one day.

But there was more to it than that.

The stereotype of the library as an archaic, dusty institution, inhabited by stern, bespectacled librarians saying SHHH! every time you so much as breathe persists to this day. But that’s never been my experience, even as a child. The library I worked in was a cheerful, welcoming place. We had author events, storytimes, readings and more. And best of all was seeing children come in – some already keen readers like I had been, others just starting their first uncertain forays into the world of words.

I’ll never forget the fourteen year old boy who “didn’t read”, only, after we recommended a list of authors to his frustrated mother, he did. Or the kids devouring their favourite series who came running in every week to see if the next book had arrived.

I was able to volunteer to help out at events like the Big Book Bash, an annual celebration of books and authors for young people in care. I was asked to join a team of writers for a website that recommended books to young people. Later on, I was lucky enough to set up two writing groups – one for adults, and one for children (which I still run after we were adopted by Writing East Midlands), passing on my love of words to other people and – I hope – encouraging them to find their own magic in writing. After I got a book deal – much to the surprise of my colleagues, who I’d more or less kept my writing a secret from, never daring to dream I might actually get anywhere with it – I had two book launches at two different libraries on the same day.

But libraries aren't just about books. Mine certainly wasn't. There were the people working their way through their family trees. People who came in to use the computers to do their work, type up CVs, look for jobs or simply keep in touch with far-flung friends. People who needed information, who needed help, and it was us they came to – I hope that most of the time, we were able to give them what they needed.

This is why libraries matter. They are important to me on a personal level, but it goes wider than that, too. I know the difference libraries make to people because I’ve seen it – and I know what a difference they made to me.

We must look after our libraries. They are truly democratic – a space for everyone – and they need to stay that way.

1 comment:

  1. Libraries matter all over the world - it's ironic that, last time I was in Pohkara (Nepal) I noticed they have opened their first library - a sign of the nation creeping out of abject poverty. As they are discovering the vitality of libraries, we are closing ours. Makes you wonder who is truly rich.