The wonderfulness of public libraries

So, it’s like this. I’d been toying with the idea of doing a post about the wonderfulness of public libraries in general and Allerton Library in Liverpool in particular. Then the other day in Greendays I overheard somebody behind me braying ‘What do we need public libraries for anyway, now we’ve got the internet?’ And the ‘public libraries’ post became a necessity.

Allerton Library. No, it doesn’t look like a palace, but it is.

He was young. The culprit. Looked like we’ve all only recently finished contributing towards the costs of his education. And I’d been vaguely aware, in the corners of my ears, that he’s been doing an ‘I’m really right wing, me’ performance for some time. I’d heard mention of ‘insurance based private health care’ being ‘a good thing’. And he seemed to be trying rather too hard to impress the two young women he was with. But failing anyway, judging by their sneers and mocking laughter. And so foolishly and mysteriously, he’d then turned the attention of his fledgling neo-con brain muscles to the subject of public libraries.

We soon left. So that’s all the space his ‘opinions’ are getting on here. Because I want to return to the subject we haven’t really started yet. The glory that is the public library. And the glory that is books.

I remember being introduced to this glory at about the age of four.

Me at 4, ready for the library.

We’d moved to our new house on a new estate, just North of Liverpool. And in one of our early explorations of the new place, called Maghull, I remember my Dad taking me to the Library there and explaining how it worked. That I could pick the books I wanted and take them home. Then after we, or rather he, had read them to me, we’d bring them back. ‘It’s part of how we’ve decided to run the country. Books are important and this is a good way of making sure everyone can read the books they want,’ he said, gently educating his little son in the gently British version of socialism.

As soon as I was considered old enough to venture out on my own, and that was much much younger than it is these days, I haunted that library. And began the serious business of reading it.

I’d soon exhausted the children’s section and by the age of nine was spending long hours in there reading books from the adult side. On football, cricket and motor racing – but also stronger stuff. I was steadily working my way through Sherlock Holmes and, guided by my Dad, was beginning on George Orwell (‘Animal Farm’ to get you going’). But of course, I couldn’t take these books out on my children’s ticket.

But an angel had noticed me, in there reading for all those long hours. I don’t think I ever knew her name, but I’d always thought of her as ‘The Dragon’. She was the Head Librarian and ruled the place ruthlessly. All talking was fiercely frowned on, and laughter was of course strictly forbidden. But one day she came and sat by me, told me she’d noticed how much I liked to read and wondered if I’d like to ‘take the books home?’ That was how I got my adult library card at the age of nine.

It came with conditions mind. My parents had to come in and agree to it. And the books I was borrowing had to be checked by her for ‘suitableness’ – but I was on my way. To a proper education.

Which continues to this day. Thanks to the wonderfulness of public libraries.

At home, Sarah’s botanical books.

Because, you see, one of the things that often surprises visitors to our house is that we don’t have all that many books. Sarah has her botanical reference books, I have my history of Liverpool collection, and we each have just a few precious or inspirational books we wouldn’t be without. But we don’t furnish our walls and alcoves with books. Why would we when Allerton Library is just down the road?

My Liverpool books and maps.

I’ve now been reading my way through Allerton Library for over twenty years, and I haven’t exhausted it yet. Liverpool City Council have been good throughout this time at re-stocking the library with new books. And most of the library is set out using the classic Dewey Decimal system, making it easy to find books and explore new areas of potential interest. But a section I particularly like is called ‘Quick picks’ where there appears to be no system at all. Here a selection of paperbacks are seemingly randomly displayed. And many of the novels and authors I’ve most enjoyed have been found here by pure chance.

Still there have been times over these years when I’ve owned complete collections of the works of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. And I do still return to their treasured books now and then and re-read them. But, reckoning they’ll always be in print, I just go to the library and get them when I want them. My own copies having gone to Oxfam long ago.

Talking of which, there are two Oxfam shops nearby where the majority of books I do buy are bought. Once read I take them back where they came from for them to sell on. I virtually never keep them. (In fact Oxfam have just written to tell me that in the last twelve months the books I’ve passed back to them have raised ‘£185.12, plus £46.28 in Gift Aid’. That’s better than them sitting on shelves in here gathering dust isn’t it?

But returning to Allerton Library, our major book source. A recent story. Of Rachel, Sarah and the Wollemi Pine. If you read the story at that link to Sarah’s blog you’ll understand why she was so keen to find out all she could about this plant that had survived in Australia from before the extinction of the dinosaurs. And that she wanted to plant on her and Gemma’s allotment, Plot 44, in memory of her Australian friend Rachel, who’d just died.

Talking about this on Skype with Rachel’s mum, Mandy, Sarah found there was a book, published in Australia, about the rare and precious plant. She checked on Amazon and it was some crazy price. So Mandy, who’s a retired librarian, said ‘Why don’t you just order it from the library?’ So I did next time I visited. And a month later Sarah was reading the brand new copy of the book they’d gone and bought. Cost me 70p for them to do that. Because it’s part of how we’ve decided to run the country.

And yet, as a result of the ludicrous ‘austerity drive’ our governments think will see us through the evils that bankers have done, public libraries are now suffering shorter opening hours and even some closures. And that’s not clever economics, it’s stupid and it’s immoral.

Because all over this city, just like your town or your city, there are curious children. I see them in Allerton Library. Reading and being read to. Gazing in sparkly-eyed wonder at the shelf after shelf of more books than they could ever fit in their houses. These are their books. In the common ownership of us all, to be accessed and read, as of right, from the cradle to the grave, because it’s part of how we’ve decided to run the country. And the internet doesn’t change that. Ebooks and Kindles and iPads don’t change that. They just add to the ways we can take books home.

So, ‘Why do we need public libraries?’ Don’t get me started.

More on public libraries, in and around Liverpool, here, from Sevenstreets.

12 Replies to “The wonderfulness of public libraries”

  1. Hi Ronnie,
    I remember the library in Maghull very well, we probably went together on occasions, and like you I loved the place, the smell of books in there, the quiet atmosphere, and of course ‘the dragon’. ( I’m sure she had sisters who worked for the Doctors on Liverpool Road North, and the Dentists as well. They were possibly related to Miss Judge, our junior school teacher.)

    The library in my rural village, Caton, closed about 4 years ago due to ‘the cuts’ but the one in Lancaster has gone from strength to strength, even hosting music gigs now. I would take my 3 daughters to the Caton library on Friday evenings after school, and they would each get 6 books out at a time. I don’t think we were allowed that many in the sixties. I remember reading my way through a series in the kids section about young sportsmen…’Young Footballer’, ‘Young Cricketer’ etc. And also they had all the Jennings, Just William and Billy Bunter books. Yaroo !
    Kind Regards,
    Barry.

    1. I’m sure we did go together, Barry. And I’m sure my memories of laughter being so forbidden come from being in there with you, and us having to use our own made up sign language rather than speak!

      On the question of numbers of books, I think it was dependent on how many tickets you had. You exchanged them for books. I only ever remember having two at any one time.

      And I’ve read one of the early Just William books in recent years. It was horribly dated and elitist, but still side splittingly funny.

  2. Ronnie,
    Fabulous post and I couldn’t agree with you more. My mom was a librarian, so probably no need to say more…. Libraries of any kind are wonderful, but public libraries are a special treasure as you so eloquently have written about in this post. Thank you.

    1. Hi Nancy, glad it’s struck such a chord with your Mom’s work. And glad to hear public libraries are so valued in Wisconsin too. I think they’re a cornerstone of a healthy democratic society.

  3. I love this piece, Ronnie, and agree completely with you. My boys grew up in our public library, as I did. Like you, I have very few books on my shelves because I know I can get them from the library. We are experiencing library cutbacks here, too. Such shortsightedness. So I’m glad you featured the issue here. It’s extremely important, and the Internet will never replace libraries. xox

    1. Thank you Jan, particularly enjoyed the idea that you and your boys all ‘grew up in our public library’. They are places of such dignified but deep excitement.

      And not at all surprised to hear that your government are being as shortsighted as our’s. xx

  4. This piece is a treasure Ronnie. How I wish I your testimony to the wonderfulness of public books libraries together with the comments from readers had been available to me during my career in public libraries. How many times did we as library managers have to convince bureaucrats,local and state ,about the importance of free universal access to the public library system by all citizens from 0 years upwards. Whenever there is a hint of an economic downturn, invariably publc libraries are always one of the first services to be targeted for the cost cutting knife.

    I can relate to everything you have said about libraries.I do not own many books because for many years I have had access to virtually any book that I want to read.However my pile of books from the library is exceedingly high and I must confess that sometimes Jayden and I have slight disagreements over the number of books each of us can borrow on our combined tickets. Now that I have retired my annual count of requested books is exceedingly high. Of course one of the great perks of being a public librarian was the unlimited access to new books from not just one library but six. And then there is the free access to interlibrary loans from huge networks of libraries nationwide if necessary. I think you might have to pay a fee for interlibrary loans in the UK.

    When I was a child growing up in Melbourne Victoria there was no public library system, only the remnants of an antiquated collection of subscription libraries.So I don’t have those wonderful memories you have of your childhood visits to the ‘library’. Although as an aside, I have to tell you that I had a tricycle just like the one you are riding to the library. I loved your description of the ‘dragon’ but good for her – in those times of maintaining stringent rules and protocol in the conduct of library business, she recognised a true reader and helped you to nurture that need for books. As public librarians,particularly those of us who worked with children, we believed introducing children to books from babyhood would greatly enhance later skills in literacy. And publc libraries with their free access to first class picture book collections were the obvious places for parents to start their children off on the lifelong habit of reading.

    As for the internet taking the place of public libraries well that ill-informed view has been around for some years. It is merely an adjunct to the reading of books.

    I really enjoyed this piece Ronnie, it has stirred up that passionate interest I had ,no I still have in the wonderfulness of public libraries. I must end by telling you that training to be a librarian was right at the bottom of my career choices. One because my parents thought it would be good for me because I liked reading and two because being a librarian was tantamount to beleft on the shelf.But after a while fate led me to a lowly job at the old State Library of Victoria and I became interested in the work, trained and the rest is history …

    1. Thanks for this lovely contribution Mandy. Great to be appreciated by a professional librarian. Only sorry the post and the other contributions weren’t done earlier so they could have been of some use to you.

      I hadn’t realised different Australian states had different library systems. I suppose that’s possible with federalism. Still seems unfair though.

      And we do have to pay for extra services now. Like I had to pay 70p to get Sarah the Wollemi Pine book you recommended. You have to pay the same to reserve books too. As long as payments can be held at that kind of level I don’t mind too much.

      But I do mind, as you say, that libraries are so often one of the first services to be cut. It’s like our cultures are deliberately discouraging people from reading. With inevitable results in rising levels of adult illiteracy. Only yesterday, when we were out on our walk, a very friendly young couple stopped their car and asked us for directions. It turned out they were on completely the wrong side of town. But when Sarah got a map out to show them where to go the young woman turned helplessly to her boyfriend and said ‘Do you understand these things?’ And he didn’t. So we have to hope they’ve remembered our ‘Turn round and turn left etc’ directions, or they may have still not got to their holiday now.

      Children need good teachers and good libraries, as basic human rights. Thank you for doing your bit for the children of Western Australia.

      Oh and by the way, a librarian from my library at Allerton has just emailed me: ‘Thanks for that Ronnie – appreciate your kind words – a good interesting read.’ So now what we’ve all written is appreciated by two ‘proper’ librarians!

  5. I’ve just found this piece, Ronnie, after you linked to it your latest ‘At Last It’s Monday’ roundup. It’s a brilliant piece – everything’s already been said by the other contributors – and I’m going to put a link to it on my post about Jeanette Winterson and public libraries.

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