Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Sunday, 15 January 2012

Libraries


Linda Mitchelmore’s post over Christmas triggered off lots of memories for me, especially about parcels from Canada and going to school in my sticky-out petticoat which was way too long. In the way memory ambles off down different byways that one triggered another.


Not long after I had started in primary three I, a voracious reader, had read all the books on the classroom’s lending shelf. Yep, one shelf of books was all we had – for a whole year. My father asked about membership to the local library but in those days for some reason a child had to be 10 years old before being allowed to borrow books from the children’s section. I was only seven. Maybe they thought 10 was the point at which the risk of scribbling in books passed, or that a child’s brain had sufficiently developed to be given unlimited access to books?

The first public library was Innerpeffray Library, established in 1680 as part of a school. The poet Allan Ramsay set up a circulating library in Edinburgh in 1725 and the miners’ libraries of Leadhills and Wanlockhead are the oldest subscription libraries. In 1853, the Public Libraries Act of 1853 came into force allowing taxes to be used to fund public libraries. Apparently growth was slow with some people objecting to their taxes being used for such a purpose.

My wonderful P3 teacher, Miss Irving, entered the fray and I was given permission to join. I can still so clearly see the little brown cardboard pocket with my name on the front. There was a diagonal cut across one corner. These were kept in a long wooden, shallow container on the librarian’s counter. Each book had an oblong ticket with the book’s details. This oblong ticket was put into the pocket when a book was borrowed and replaced inside the book’s pocket when it was returned. I have a feeling it might even have been a quicker system than the electronic one used today!

So, there I was, aged seven standing in front of shelves of books, literally spoilt for choice. The library had almost closed by the time I made my first selection. The highlight of my week was the trip to the library on late night opening. My parents were both avid readers – my mother of detective novels, my father of just about everything (except detective novels). My mother never went to the library so dad had the task of choosing her four books each week. He could never remember which ones she’d read and took to putting a pencil tick inside the back cover of every book he took out for her.

Nowadays, of course, parents are encouraged to take their children to the library before they even reach school age and libraries cater for their young customers with a whole range of colourful picture books. Libraries often have story telling sessions for tots which involve much laughter and clapping – the sort of thing which would have been frowned on in the days I joined the library. They really were silent places but why would anyone need to chat when faced with the delicious task of choosing books?

Over the years, the library gave me freedom – to inhabit other worlds, to go on adventures, to lose myself in the joy of reading. Meeting up with a cousin recently she said she always remembered me as having my nose stuck in a book. ‘Going to the library’ was always something I was allowed to do without having to answer twenty questions on the who with, what will you be doing, when will you back theme.

My reading was never censored at home although I remember dad being quite upset when he discovered I’d read one of the books he’d borrowed. I can’t remember the title but I will never forget the contents. It was by a survivor of Auschwitz and I was transfixed and appalled by the unimaginable horrors into which I plunged. Dad was concerned I was too young to know about such things but I’d read it and such things can never be un-read. I think my recurring nightmare of hiding in a corner of the attic listening to the tramping boots coming towards the house began then.

Now, I have to confess for many years I let my library membership lapse. For part of the time I lived abroad but even when I came home I did not immediately re-join the library. I’m not sure why – books were cheaper to buy, I suppose. And I like owning books I don’t have to give back. It was only when much noise was being made about closing libraries a year or so ago I stirred myself into becoming a member again.

Apparently around 42 million items are loaned through Scotland’s libraries each year: not only books but videos, CDs, DVDs, computer software, audio books. My library looks very different from when I joined 50 years ago (did I really just say that – 50!) – bright, cheerful, not silent and computers are dotted around the place.

Still, when standing in front of all those books – spoilt for choice – I can still feel the same sense of sheer delight I felt all those years ago.

18 comments:

  1. Let's hope we can keep them for a long time to come. Wonderful post, Mary.

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  2. Thanks, Sara, glad you enjoyed it. I hope people will realise the value of what libraries have to offer before it's too late.

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  3. Memories indeed,Mary! I even remember when Boots had a lending library though you had to pay a small sum and most of the books were in the romance category.
    I am a regular member of our local library and it does appal me to see how empty it is is for most of the time, when there are all these books available for free (even cheaper than the 99p charged for so may books on Kindle). Perhaps the recession will encourage people back?

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  4. Thanks, Myra. I was never a member of a Boots library but years ago when I worked for Oxfam we often received books with the library labels.
    I had written something about the reading room but took it out because I felt the post was long enough but I keep wondering this morning about all those old (to me as a child) men who read the papers in silence. Did they meet up later to discuss what they'd read?

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  5. Loved this post, Mary. Brought back many memories. Like you, I have recently made more of an effort to use my local library. If we don't use it, we will lose it.

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  6. Oh, what memories your blog brought back, Mary! I remember the little brown folder thing too, and the librarian saying to me, 'You most certainly can NOT take out 'Les Miserables' - you're far too young!' I was eight, I think, and it was the title which grabbed my attention and intrigued me. Suffice to say, my mother appeared instantly at my side, a martial glint in her eye, and I got the book! Like you, my parents were avid readers so it was a once a week trip to the library for my sisters and I, and oh the joy when I was finally allowed to take out as many books at a time as I wanted instead of just four which never saw me through the week. I'm a member of my local library, but it's a sad replica of the libraries I remember as a child. It has so few books, the shelves are only ever half filled, and yet it boasts six state of the art computers. The librarian told me they just don't have enough money to buy more books which is appalling. As a child - and an adult - I derived such pleasure from books. They took me to unknown worlds, made me laugh, made me cry, terrified me witless, and uplifed me when I felt down. It's such a true saying that you are never alone if you have a good book to read, and though Kindles and computers are marvellous pieces of technology this old dinosaur still feels there is nothing better than cuddling up on the sofa with a book in your hand

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  7. Thanks, Michael. I felt a bit of a hypocrite one day when moaning about the proposed cuts and closures and decided signing a petition was a bit of a cop out.

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  8. Maggie, thanks for your comments. This blog seems to have triggered lots of memories for people. Interesting to see that people who write today started out as avid readers and users of their local library. I bet that was when most of us first started writing. My 'books' were written on wallpaper off cuts!
    My local library is still fairly well stocked and they will get books in from other libraries for a 75p fee - still cheaper than most Kindle editions. I think Kindle is great for holiday reading or when travelling but, like you, I much prefer the feel of a real book in my hand.

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  9. Great post, Mary - I too remember the delight of being let loose in front of all those wonderful books. So many adventures and mysteries waiting for me! We don't have a library in our small village but I really should make an effort to visit the one in the nearest town - too used to owning books now. But I still love the atmosphere and sense of anticipation.

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  10. Rosemary, you are so right about the sense of anticipation - all those books just waiting for me to open them! I usually know what I want to borrow but I've also started to choose an additional book at random which has been interesting.

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  11. Great post, Mary. It's one that so many of us can identify with. I remember so well the smell of the library - I came to associate it with the pleasure of reading the books I chose. Libraries smell different now, but just as invitng.

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  12. Thanks for your comment, Joan. It's funny, I don't remember the smell of the library - but I did think I could hear the books breathing in the quietness.

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  13. Thought provoking post, Mary. I'm sure a lot of librarians would appreciate it. Our primary school library consisted of three wooden boxes brought from the town library and changed every six weeks. The same ones often reappeared. I remember how much I loved Bambi.
    I believe there is a Thomas Telford library at Eskdalemuir because he educated himself from books. I think a school master helped him get hold of them. Makes you think how lucky we are.

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  14. I'm glad you liked the post, Gwen. We are indeed lucky. I was amazed to read that people objected to public money being spent on libraries for everyone to use - did they think poor people didn't deserve to read books?

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  15. OOO libraries. This post reminded me of how central they were to my own childhood and how many happy memories they evoke. When, a few years ago, I went back to the part of Cheshire where we lived from when I was aged 9 to 15, my mother was amazed at how many of my memories were linked to libraries. I knew where they all were, and once I worked out that as a member I was allowed to take books out of any branch, I used to visit any I happened to be near to see what their selection of books was like. Happy days.

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  16. Thanks for your comment, Gill. I love the idea of you popping into any library to see what they had. There was only one in my vicinty!

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  17. Feel very flattered that my post triggered such a brilliant post from you, Mary......and yes, those little cards with our names on - how I remember those. And the smell! I love that fusty, old book smell which all libraries had way back then...:)And the paper in many of the books was so thin! So tactile....leather covers, too....ooh, I must stop - maybe it's writing historical novels that makes me think this way?
    Libraries are soooooo important....not least for our PLR...must dig out my library card seeing as Paignton has the most wonderful, new (yes NEW!!), swanky library.

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  18. Thanks, Linda.
    Unfortunately Dumfries & Galloway seems somehow to have been able to opt out of PLR. I don't know how that's possible but it seems so.

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