The Library Book

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The Library BookLibraries have always played a significant role in my life. Until she retired when I was at university, my mother worked in our town’s central library and had done so for many years. She took me to it on a regular basis from an early age, and I was on first name terms with most of the staff who worked there. She occasionally had to go out and run one of the tiny branch libraries that lay in small villages miles away (so small they opened for just a few hours a week with just one member of staff); if one of these shifts came up in the school holidays, I went with her. Strange as it must seem now, I rather looked forward to these trips. I have vivid memories of quiet mornings where I was the only reader in the building, having all the books on the shelves to myself – and sometimes being allowed to help with the stamping out of books and the shelving of returns. I even worked in the central library for a year myself, while I was saving up to help fund my MA.

Since leaving my home town, I have lived in three other places, and each time I moved location joining the local library was one of the first things I did. It should come to no great surprise to anyone that knows me that I have come to end up living in Cheltenham, home to one of the UK’s biggest literary festivals, where I can happily indulge myself in bookish heaven for two weeks each year. Of course, living in Cheltenham has also meant that I use Gloucestershire libraries – one of two counties (the other being Somerset) whose councils were taken to the High Court late last year by concerned patrons to prevent the widespread closure of branch libraries. Fortunately, the High Court agreed that such closures were unlawful (see www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-15752432), although this hasn’t prevented a “review” of services that will undoubtedly lead to other limitations and restrictions on services provided. They have to cut £1.8 million from the county’s library budget – how can the service possibly survive that unscathed?

Why do I mention this? Well, I have just read a wonderful new publication call The Library Book, in which a range of writers have been brought together by The Reading Agency (www.readingagency.org.uk) to write about these very institutions, giving me a timely and eloquent reminder of the value of our public library system. This little book contains within it 24 essays on libraries from contributors as diverse as Stephen Fry, Caitlin Moran, Alan Bennett, Karin Slaughter, China Mieville, Val McDermid and Julian Barnes. We hear about how some of our top writers became who they are now through the impact of their local library as a child; how journalist James Brown has recently rediscovered libraries now that he has children of his own; how libraries have provided comfort, companionship, education, solace, wonderment and inspiration to generations of readers. On a lighter note, we also find out what books are stolen the most from libraries (antiques guides and hip hop biographies in Nottinghamshire, Citizenship Tests in Swansea, and books on accountancy and nursing in Brent, apparently) and that Tamworth library once had a streaker in their music section.

In an age of Amazon, Kindles and Wikipedias, I’m sure some of you might well be wondering why we still need our libraries; in an age of austerity and cutbacks, how can we possibly afford to keep such luxuries open? I recently heard someone complain that all libraries should be shut as all they do is provide a way for cheap middle class readers to get out of buying the novels they want to read. Only yesterday I read a letter to a magazine from someone complaining that libraries were slow and inconvenient and couldn’t possibly compete with the internet. If any of these thoughts have ever flitted across your mind, I urge you to read this book. Try Karin Slaughter’s impassioned defence of libraries as the backbone of our educational system, that they are necessities for civilised society rather than luxuries. Try Caitlin Moran’s argument of why libraries are so invaluable to the very poorest members of society. Try Bella Bathurst’s reasoning of how libraries can be vital resources in all communities, acting almost like an unofficial social service. Then try to argue that we should allow libraries to be closed down.

Thought-provoking, varied and almost certain to raise a smile amongst regular library-goers, this is a read that I can heartily recommend to all keen readers – whether they currently use their local library or not. As Alan Bennett notes, “a library is a haven”, and long may these havens survive the government number-crunchers who want to close them down.

Highly recommended.

The Library Book by various authors
Published by Profile Books, February 2012
All royalties from The Library Book will go to support The Reading Agency.
With thanks to Profile Books for providing this review copy.

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The Library Book
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Written by collingwood21
collingwood21

Collingwood21 is a 32 year old university administrator and ex-pat northerner living down south. Married. Over-educated. Loves books, history, archaeology and writing.

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