Thursday, 22 November 2012

Library lines

Encouraged by the Society of Authors and New Writing North I've become interested in the Save Newcastle Libraries campaign. Of course libraries are important to me now in my role as a writer - for research, as places in which I do talks, and as repositories of my books; and I have worked several times on behalf of Newcastle Libraries centrally, in branches and in the community - but my love of libraries goes back to early days in the old Ashington Library behind the Post Office. I've been searching in vain for pictures but I believe the building (which must have originally been a large house) still exists near the present library and I guess is owned by Northumberland County Council.

I remember the small junior library at the back of the building, the much larger adult library forbidden to us children, and the reading room upstairs which was also forbidden until we got to the Grammar School at the age of 11 and were allowed up there on the pretext of doing homework. I recall the first time I stepped up the staircase to the reading room holding on to the varnished brown banister in a confusion of thrill and fear, a feeling that I was encroaching on hallowed ground, that I was being regarded with suspicion bordering on rage by the library guardians downstairs, that I had no right to be making the journey, but that the journey itself was an exciting sort of treasure hunt for books I'd never set eyes on before, shelves I'd never had the opportunity to explore.

I remember, too, being so proud of my library tickets - it was either two or three small wallet-style tickets that could fit into each other, one for each book we could borrow - and especially when I was finally able to exchange the (pale green?) Junior tickets for the (blue?) Adult ones. Now I think of it, I believe we were allowed two tickets as Juniors and three as Adult readers. The old-style cards - which had the member's name handwritten and a date of expiry - were later replaced by a rather boring rectanglar charcoal-grey block of a card with no personal details, and of course in recent times by barcoded plastic.

Above all, though, what I remember as a child reader is being lost in whatever world I'd brought back with me between the covers of my library book. Worlds I could never have visited without that library portal to enter whenever I chose (opening hours allowing).

Although my mother was also an avid reader and like me a regular library visitor, there were no books in our house beyond comic annuals, a couple of dictionaries and a Bible. I'm sure the same could be said of virtually every one of the workers' homes in Ashington and other working class communities - in fact I remember as a student teacher reading a statistic from the then recently-published 1967 Plowden report on Education that the average home had only five books in it, including a dictionary and Bible. Labouring families at the time would not have dreamed of spending part of their hard-earned wages on books to keep. That's why the library was important to me, and millions like me. And why would it be different today, despite the obvious technological developments that have made reading material apparently more easily available? There were bookshops in my day, but we didn't visit them. There's a world of difference between possible and reachable, between available and availed.

In support of my argument for preserving and protecting libraries I have been collecting some thoughts on the subject from past and present authors and assorted creative types. I offer them below as evidence.


If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.

Marcus Tullius Cicero (statesman, scholar and orator)

Come, and take choice of all my library,

And so beguile thy sorrow.

William Shakespeare (dramatist and poet)

When I step into this library, I cannot understand why I ever step out of it.

Marie de Sevigne (diarist)

I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.

Jorge Luis Borges (poet and short-story writer)

I love the architecture of public libraries, the very large windows. Inside it’s polished, it’s quiet; during the day, the sun is usually streaming through one room or another. And all the people are sitting there together, but they’re all going to completely different places through the books they’re reading.

Maira Kalman (artist and author)

A library is not simply a repository of books, it is the symbol and centre of our culture - a door and a window for those who might not otherwise have such doors and windows.

Amy Tan (author)

The library … is no mere cabinet of curiosities; it’s a world, complete and completable, and it is filled with secrets. Like a world, it has its changes and its seasons, which belie the permanence that ordered ranks of books imply. Tugged by the gravity of readers’ desires, books flow in and out of the library like the tides.

Matthew Battles (Harvard rare books librarian)

I go into my library, and all history unrolls before me.

Alexander Smith (poet)

To a historian libraries are food, shelter, and even muse.

Barbara Tuchman (historian)

Everything you need for better future and success has already been written. And guess what? All you have to do is go to the library.

Jim Rohn (management speaker and author)

Libraries are reservoirs of strength, grace and wit, reminders of order, calm and continuity, lakes of mental energy, neither warm nor cold, light nor dark. The pleasure they give is steady, unorgastic, reliable, deep and long-lasting.

Germaine Greer (author and campaigner)

My alma mater was books, a good library . . . I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity.

Malcolm X (political activist)

When I got my library card, that's when my life began.

Rita Mae Brown (author)

The privilege we have in this country to borrow books from our public libraries is quite wonderful, really. It empowers all of us to keep on learning and exploring throughout our lives. That’s very special, because life is all about growing, changing and opening ourselves up to new ideas and information.

Elizabeth Taylor (actor)

We all love to hear a good story. We save our stories in books. We save our books in libraries. Libraries are the storyhouses full of all those stories and secrets.

Kathy Bates (actor)

Of the boys who worked in the reference library a surprising number must have turned out to be lawyers, and I can count at least eight of my contemporaries who sat at those tables in the 1950s who became judges. A school – and certainly a state or provincial school – would consider that something to boast about, but libraries are facilities; a library has no honours board and takes no credit for what its readers go on to do but, remembering myself at 19, on leave from the army and calling up the copies of Horizon to get me through the general paper in the Oxford scholarship, I feel as much a debt to that library as I do to my school.

Alan Bennett (actor, author and playwright)

Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library. The only entrance requirement is interest.

Lady Bird Johnson (campaigner and First Lady)

There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the Earth as the Free Public Library - this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.

Andrew Carnegie (industrialist and philanthropist)

When you are growing up, there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully - the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you. The public library is a great equalizer.

Keith Richards (musician)

I’d be happy if I could think that the role of the library was sustained and even enhanced in the age of the computer.

Bill Gates (entrepreneur and philanthropist)

The library is the temple of learning, and learning has liberated more people than all the wars in history.

Carl Rowan (journalist and diplomat)

At the moment that we persuade a child, any child, to cross that threshold, that magic threshold into a library, we change their lives forever, for the better.

Barack Obama (statesman and politician)

Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.

Ray Bradbury (author)

What is more important in a library than anything else - than everything else - is the fact that it exists.

Archibald MacLeish (poet and playwright)