Or two cents’ worth if you prefer.
Since libraries seem to be the subject du jour, I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring.
(OK, Patrick, enough with the mixed clichés. You didn’t learn those in any library.)
Life without libraries wouldn’t really be life at all. I don’t use my town’s as much as I should, or as much as I once did, but I do use it. Any attempt to close it will be met with strong opposition – and I’m getting good at that, ask anyone on the street where I live.
I can’t remember a time when one library or another didn’t play a role in my life. I joined the local public library for the first time when I was six; the official age was seven then (long, long ago – they sign babies up these days), but I escaped my mother’s clutches and went exploring while she disputed the issue with the librarian in charge, then while she filled in the form I made short work of a pile of picture books and demanded to know where they kept the big girls’ stories, so they realised they were on a loser insisting on the letter of the law.
I’d graduated to the adult library by the time I was eleven – again against the rules, but by then I’d read everything in the kids’ section except Biggles (definitely not for girls!) and the baby stuff (outgrown before I joined). And since Young Adult was a thing of the future (though not, apparently, in the US – see below), I needed access to Catherine Cookson and H E Bates.
At primary school I decided I wanted to be a librarian myself when I grew up, and at high school I took charge of junior library day when I was fifteen. I’m still not sure why I strayed from that path; a working day surrounded by books is still my idea of the right kind of working day. But when you’re at the age when you choose a career path, all kinds of influences kick in. I didn’t apply for jobs in publishing companies either; it took another ftymumble years to get there.
So what did libraries do for me?
At first they provided an escape from the real world. I was the skinny kid with glasses and a funny accent, so sometimes I needed somewhere to run from unwelcome attention in the school yard. The cool kids don’t follow you to the library.
Then they widened my horizons. Holidays abroad didn’t happen till my college days, and I didn’t visit the USA till I was in my late 30s. Cherry Ames and Kay Tracey (a precursor to Nancy Drew, and my introduction to mystery fiction) gave me a taste of a world where things weren’t at all like home (hey, showing my age or what?!).
Then came research. Essays and papers in my college years; background for fiction when I realised I was a writer. I still have pleasant memories of afternoons spent in the town library with a list of titles I needed to get the background right for a novel based in the First World War. I’m not sure which of us enjoyed those times more – me, or the librarian who hunted down every last one.
But mainly, from when I was six years old right up to last week, just losing myself in a world of someone else’s making, without running up a huge overdraft and wondering where to store all the books that won’t fit on the shelves. Or where to put more shelves...
These days, there’s the opportunity to try out new authors before parting with hard cash. I try to strike a balance between buying and borrowing; fortunately here in the UK we have something called Public Lending Right, which ensures authors get paid (though not a lot) when people borrow their books from public libraries, but I’m all too well aware that the only way to help writers keep writing is to buy them. So I try only to borrow books by unfamiliar authors, and buy all but the really hard to find titles by my favourite authors.
OK, so there’s nothing remarkable in any of that. I didn’t use the library to educate myself from the ground up; no chance of that, my mother was a teacher and achievement at school was not optional. I just used it, and still use it, the way most people do.
And the way most people want to go on using it.
Are you listening, politicians with eyes permanently on red alert for soft targets for your budget slashing?