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.
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.
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.
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?
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.