‘I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library’ – Jorge Luis Borges
On National Libraries Day, Helen MacKinven, author of Talk of the Toun, tells us about the role libraries have always played in her life.
I didn’t grow up in a house filled with books (I don’t think the Littlewoods catalogue counts). But I did grow up with my mum taking me and my sister to the local library every week. The weekly pilgrimage was the only way to satisfy our appetite for books. I can still remember being transported from my terraced Council house in a working-class village in central Scotland to the seaside boarding school from the Malory Towers series.
And I spent hours copying pictures from reference books to create my handmade (does this count as self-publishing?) non-fiction book, ‘Fashion through the Ages’ (my love of books and clothes has never faded). From picture books right through to reference books for my teaching degree, the library was a big part of my life.
When I was at a student the first time around, I had a Saturday job as a Librarian’s assistant in the neighbouring town of Denny. Being on the other side of the desk was an eye-opener. The staff were regularly abused by local neds, used as a free crèche and often we had to reach for the antibacterial spray and cloth when some of our dodgy interesting characters returned books (you really don’t want to know why!)
But most folk appreciated how important the library was to their local community and respected the staff. A library isn’t just about books, films and music. My local library has a book group, Rhyme-time for toddlers and plays host to the local history group as well as being a venue for mini exhibitions and gatherings.
In the digital age some might argue that libraries are now redundant when information is available at the click of a mouse from the comfort of your own home. But not everyone has free internet access or a place to read quietly, especially in deprived areas. I’ve always felt strongly that libraries should also be open on a Sunday when families have more time to visit, students need a place to work and the community can meet for social events.
Libraries are not just the heartbeat of a community; they are a political statement to demonstrate a nation’s commitment to free information to all, regardless of your postcode. It makes me sad and angry that the libraries not already closed are having their opening hours cut and exist with the threat of closure looming over them. I’m fortunate enough to be able to buy most of the fiction books I read but I still visit my library most weeks, whether it’s to borrow a travel guide, hear a visiting writer or pick up a copy of the magazine Booktime. I also pop in to get free doggy poo bags that are handed out so I won’t have anyone say libraries deliver a crap service (excuse the pun) when there’s something for everyone.
Forget Valentine’s Day this month; love your library while you still have one!