Libraries are forests, stacked with books, enormous places in which to wander and get lost. I love the idea of borrowing books, reading them and handing them back. It’s the original kind of recycling. But recently libraries thrilled me even more. All my faith in them has been repaid.
I grew up using libraries. Books were and are expensive but free libraries mean anyone can read. When I was young, I went to the library with my mother every week. I wandered the children’s section while she went off to hunt her own books.
I browsed. I picked books and began reading. I lost myself as I might have done in a forest. I forgot time, forgot myself, in the library.
But, as much as escaping and getting lost was fun, time was limited and I didn’t want to leave without anything to read. So I found my way through the forest. I began using a system of reading that I still use today.
I’d find an author whose writing appealed, because of the title, the cover, the blurb or the first few pages. I’d clasp that book and take it out. In the days before computers, I had a little cardboard ticket and it was attached to every book I borrowed from the library. When I returned the book I’d get my ticket back and I could use it again to borrow more books.
When I’d read the first book I’d find another by the same author until I had read every one of that writer’s books I could find. From that one writer I’d branch into others who wrote in the same style, or covered the same subject, until it was all exhausted.
But it never was. I never reached the end. I still haven’t reached the end. One author leads to another. One subject leads to another. It’s a little like the internet, only physical and better.
I read Swallows and Amazons and all Arthur Ransome’s books. I read all the Hardy Boys books – whatever happened to them? I moved on to GA Henty and James Fennimore Cooper. I read Children of the New Forest and Tarka the Otter. My tastes in books were getting a little mixed up, the kind of the thing that led to me reading science fiction alongside Tolstoy, and Ken Kesey whilst reading Jean Plaidy.
At school I found another kind of library. We were let loose in the school library for the length of a lesson and I learned to find books that made learning interesting. Reading books I paid less attention to lessons than I should have done though it must have paid off because I found my way to university and another kind of library.
Our library at university was in a huge building. Not only were the shelves and stacks of shelves of piles of books, there were desks where I could sit and read all day long without anyone disturbing me. That was the idea anyway until I found the library was a good place to meet, a fine place to conduct affairs with and meet girls whilst, to all intents and purposes, working. We spent a lot of time playing with photocopiers and sitting on the steps that led up to the library.
Despite distractions I carried on reading, carried on using libraries. I’m still reading today. I’m still using libraries and I haven’t reached the end of the paths that make their way through the forest of books, through libraries round the world. I love it that my library can track down a copy of any book in the world, except North Korea and Iran apparently!
The British Library is one of the biggest libraries in the world and soon my book will be there. I have to do that. I have to send the library a copy. As a library lover what could be better than knowing that my book is in that library.
I was even more thrilled to discover that my local library will buy two copies of my book. I was so thrilled I donated another copy.
What could be better than that? To think that someone like me might one day find my book in a library and take it away and read it. That piece of news really made my week and I felt like all my faith in libraries has been repaid.
My local library was one of the places that gave me help when I was writing Open to All – how youth hostels changed the world. Other resources which helped in writing the book are here. And if you, like me, like libraries, if you value libraries and the chances they give us all to read more, to broaden our lives and widen our eyes, make sure you use them before we loose them.