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.