Public libraries

I came across this book at my village library, last week:

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I’d just returned How To Be Both, discovered this on the shelf and promptly took it out on loan (cue a new author crush). The short stories in this collection concern themselves with our relationships with books and their effect upon us. Between each story are anecdotes – from writers, friends and people on the street – or, rather, affirmations of the real value of public libraries at a time when this free and openly-available public resource is under threat as never before.

The testimonials in this book set me thinking about my own relationship with public libraries. I’ve been a bookworm for as long as I can remember. As a young child, I spent many a night reading by torchlight under the bed covers. Aged 8, I’d cycle to the nearest branch library just over half a mile away and spend my Saturdays getting lost in the worlds of books. During school holidays, I’d sometimes take a book into the blissful silence of the reference room and copy out whole passages, for the love of words. O’ and A’ level English Lit followed by a B. Ed degree (English Lit and History) meant I did fall out of love with reading for a while (all those holidays spent chewing my way through set books for the following term’s syllabus). Then we emigrated to South Africa and, when the new life we’d craved seemed largely unfamiliar and daunting, the town’s public library became my sanctuary.

I don’t remember when I went from borrowing books to buying books. Perhaps it began with the appearance of cheap paperbacks on supermarket shelves. Or when library stocks no longer satisfied my growing appetite for poetry. But I do know that, for years now, my buying habit has out-stripped both my reading speed (I’m a slow reader as I sub-vocalise everything) and available time for reading. Concerted efforts to quit have been short-lived. My habit is fed by my poetry social life, social media links to reviews, publishers/small presses, book vloggers, etc. My collection of poetry books remains relatively intact despite a massive cull of ‘stuff’ when we down-sized last year. The reading of poetry is a vital part of my writing process and my ongoing education. Much of what I read is published by small presses and unavailable on library loan. But I do wonder if my buying habit is, in part, consumerism by another name.

Of course, public libraries offer so much more than books. Our village library is a real community hub (and it’s one of many public libraries in the county that are now community-run and will soon be entirely self-funded). Most Thursday afternoons, I go there to knit and natter, drink tea and scoff cake (oh, the joys of retirement). I’ve very recently completed my training and induction as a library volunteer and I’ve learnt there’s so much more to do than stamping books for loan and shelving returns. Library loans are once more part of my TBR pile. Only the other day I came away with this 5-CD box set from the audio bookshelf. It’s the perfect accompaniment to a certain recent second-hand book purchase:

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Oh – and I’m also listening to BBC’s Book at Bedtime abridged version of Salley Vickers’ The Librarian, set in 1958: my birth year! It’s available on iPlayer Radio for the next month or so, here.

I’d love to read your public library testimonials via the comments box below.

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