On Love and Libraries
Hands up who loves a library.
Framed by the window behind me as I write this is the towering building that houses all twelve floors of Glasgow University Library. Since I started working at the University in 2007, I have had access to everything those twelve floors has to offer, for free, every day until the small hours. Just down the road, I have Hillhead Library, and twenty minutes in the other direction, the Mitchell. I know how happy that makes me.
The people of Friern Barnet in north London are library lovers too. On Tuesday, I read in the news about how they saved their local library, which had been closed in April by the council. Activists squatted in the building, restocked the shelves with donated books and became librarians themselves. This week, Barnet council agreed that the library could continue to be run as a community facility, staffed by volunteers.
It’s tempting to see the actions of the library squatters as a heroic success. It’s tempting to tell that story, because of course they are heroes.
But this is not a success story. It is the opposite of a success story.
Have we really reached a point where we are so relieved to be allowed to have a library at all, that we don’t notice or complain about the struggle it took to secure that right in the first place? Should we really be so grateful to be offered the chance to work for free to provide a service for ourselves that once was considered a worthwhile addition for every community?
This is actually happening. We are in a world where libraries are not considered necessary any longer. Does that scare you? It scares me. It makes me afraid, and it makes me angry.
When I was wee, two of my favourite things in life were roller-skating and reading. I used to take a friend and climb to the top of a huge hill near my house. We’d take a breath and then tip ourselves out over the edge, careening down the slope on our skates – faster and faster – grabbing hold of a railing at the bottom to save ourselves from screeching out into the road ahead. The road was filled with traffic, but we barely glimpsed it as we zoomed around the corner, screaming in terrified joy. It’s only now, looking back, that I realise how dangerous this all was.
Saturday afternoons were quieter. I went to the library. I could spend hours in there, unsupervised, working my way through the shelves. In the books I read, I discovered that some people had lives similar to mine, and some people’s lives were very different. Some of those lives were hard. Some were magical. Some had giants. There were toiling orphans, daring friends, quiet heroes, terrifying monsters. I learned about love. I learned about nuclear war.
Years later, I was still in love with libraries. As a history student tasked with writing an essay on the subject of genocide, I remember crouching over text after text in the library, reading the truths of Holocaust victims and survivors who recorded what they witnessed by writing in diaries, on scraps of paper, by scribbling in the margins of books they owned. They wanted to tell others what they were struggling to believe themselves: that this had really happened, that this had been allowed.
I don’t want to be melodramatic here. I’m not claiming that the situation we are in now in the UK is in any way comparable to those darker times. Nor am I criticising the heroic efforts of the people of Friern Barnet, who have managed to save their library, even if it is at a huge cost.
All I want to say is this: books are important. They’re simple. They work. Having access to them – for free, without needing to have the resources or knowledge to use a computer, or a Smartphone or an electronic reader – is vital. We need libraries because we need to read about the lives of others. We need to be able to tell stories about our own lives. It’s how we communicate, how we regulate ourselves and explore consequences. It’s how we love and how we learn.
Tomorrow it is National Libraries Day. We’re still celebrating that libraries exist, even while they are being dismantled around us. And I can’t help but feel the way I did when I was wee, standing at the top of the hill in my roller-skates, looking over the edge and down to the traffic speeding on the road below.
I’m wiser now. Take a deep breath. Step back.