(This was given as a talk to the Friends of West Norwood Library, at their Annual General Meeting, on Saturday 7th June, 2014 – in a sun-baked room in the West Norwood temporary library. Copper nicked from the roof and ongoing conversion to a Ritzy Cinema have closed West Norwood Library for months.)
Stand-up comedians have the same biography: I overcame bullying by being funny.
Writers, too, tend often to say the same thing: I had this fantastic English teacher.
I expect we could all say similar things, as readers, about libraries and our experiences of them. If one or more libraries weren’t – at some stage – very important for you, then you wouldn’t be here. I’m preaching to the converted – but sometimes the converted need a little preaching, to restore their faith in the book.
I was at the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction evening, earlier this week. And Syl Saller, Chief Marketing Officer or Global Innovation Director at Daigeo (a large alcoholic beverages company), said pretty much what I’m going to say to you today. She talked about how going to the library, was such a great thing. About how one particular librarian was important to her. About how books got her through her difficult teenage years.
She did say that, at one point, she wanted to be a writer – but that hadn’t come off. And that’s where we differ. I did become a writer, as well as Global Innovation Director at Toby Litt Inc, and that’s why I’m here.
I’d like to tell you, briefly, about four libraries that were important to me.
The first was Ampthill Library, in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, where I grew up.
It was a small library in an former church set up by the Primitive Methodists. It was on Saunders Piece, which was on my route to and from primary school. One of the librarians there was X, the mother of my best friend, Y. This had its upsides and downsides. X was prepared to ignore overdue books, and let me get out more than I should. She was also, however, there quite often, and she was my best friend’s mum.
I remember one time, I must have been eleven or twelve years old, and I had got out a novel called Switchback by Molly Parkin. These days it is filed under Women’s Erotica.
Back then, I saw it on a spinner, liked the idea of the cover, was curious about sex, so took it out when a librarian I didn’t know was on the desk.
When I wanted to return it, however, X always seemed to be there. And I couldn’t bring myself to hand it over to her – I could see her eyebrows going up (her eyebrows went up quite often), I could imagine her passing on the news to Y (she told him everything).
Trying to return that copy of Switchback, without getting caught, made going to the library quite a heart-pounding business. But I found it exciting at other times – because there were books I could choose and choose to read. Not ones given out at school. Set texts. There’s recently been a literary ding-dong about Michael Gove supposedly banning To Kill a Mockingbird from the National Curriculum GCSE for English. And also the works of John Steinbeck.
I’m not with Gove on many things, but about the works of John Steinbeck not being forced on children who might one day enjoy reading books, I am with him 100%. I was given The Pearl and Of Mice and Men as set texts, and I hated them. The library was the place where I could go to get the books I wanted – by Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Michael Moorcock… The library gave me cultural independence. There, I could get away from characters dressed in dungarees. Ampthill Library was a portal into bits of the world I wanted to get to. I’m fairly certain that if, at that stage, I hadn’t had that link – that thing that kept me going back to books – I wouldn’t have become a writer.
The second library I’d like to mention is Bedford Central Library.
This was larger, had a better stock of books – but also stocked music on LP and later on CD. It also had a cafe that served Rombouts filter coffee – you know, with the plastic spaceship full of boiling water that lands on the coffee cup of doom, and passes its contents through the duvet of caffeine. Those were very sophisticated, in Bedford, in 1984. And also sophisticated were the selections I was able to take out, and covertly tape, from the Record Library. It was somewhere I discovered that I liked more than I heard on the radio or saw on Top of the Pops. It was also somewhere to go on a Saturday, when it was raining, and sit and read books taken off the shelf. It was a place to try out being grown-up in my own particular way. It was a portal into a different stage of life, or kind of life.
The third library wasn’t in England, it was the English Section of the Narodni Knihovna in Prague. I went to live in what was then still Czechoslovakia in 1990.
I had, in between, become obsessed with books – particularly poetry – and done an English degree at Oxford. I was in Prague to teach English, as a completely unqualified TEFL tutor. The library I’m talking about – up some stairs, hidden away as all good things in Prague were – was very little used, because (at one stage) to go there would have attracted attention from the secret police. I became friendly with the librarian there, and one day she said she had something to show me. I went behind the counter, through a door, into a dusty room twice the size of the library proper. Here were the banned books, but the books they still held. I remember a long line of Arthur Koestler’s books, covered in dust. The Yogi and the Commisar. Darkness at Noon.
This was the library as an unknown place – or a place that you think you know, but really don’t. It was a portal into secret stuff, stuff that is part of the knowledge end of Knowledge is Power.
The fourth and final library was West Norwood Library, just across the road.
Here was where I took my sons, to storytelling on a Tuesday morning – and here the Bobbin was repeatedly Wound Up and the Wheels on the Bus went round and round and round… But here was also where I brought them in the hope that, one day, libraries would be as important to them as they have been to me. I was giving them a glimpse of the portal, in hopes they’d choose to go through.
Now I’d like to talk about libraries more generally. What I believe about them, and their future.
It is too easy to forget what a genius-level idea libraries are. But if, for a moment, you de-invent and then re-invent them, it’s not hard to imagine some slick young thinker getting up on his TED-legs to tell us how great if it would be for us to share books just as we now share cars and clothes. And everyone would retweet the link, and facebook about it, and call them a visionary.
It is politically advantageous for right-wingers (pro-free market, anti-state) to make voters believe they get very little from the state – that the state is bad at giving them things, that the state is mean, that private companies are better, that private companies are more generous.
Libraries are one of the points where the citizen (tax-payer or not) can increase what they get from the state. It’s possible for the dedicated reader of, say, romance novels or graphic novels, to get through £500 worth of books a year.
The message borrowers receive is that the state isn’t all take. Your local council wants to help you develop and entertain yourself.
On Prague’s National Theatre there is a slogan, ‘To the Nation, From the Nation’. That’s what libraries are now, from the nation to the nation. Some of them may have come from Mr Carnegie and Mr Tate in the beginning, but they didn’t leave all that much money for maintenance. We’ve taken them over. They’re ours to keep or destroy.
If libraries go, our society will have – without question – become more selfish. Yet another civic space, another common, will have been destroyed.
What should libraries be?
Behind me is a little plaque, commemorating the opening of the Old Library Centre. Built 1887. Re-opened 8th May 2004. And it has a motto: ‘A community facility for all’. That’s committee-language, inoffensive and voted-through, but it’s also accurate and, if you think about it, quite stirring.
I think libraries should ‘a community facility for all’. I think libraries should be totally free, open and easy for borrowers to use.
I think librarians should have qualified librarians who are properly trained not just in the Dewey Decimal system but in dealing with the kinds of people who use libraries, and can help those users find the information they need – to fight their legal battles, to discover their local or personal history. Librarians are a great force for basic social justice. They are the guardians of that kind of portal.
As far as I’m concerned –
If it’s not staffed by librarians, it’s not a library – it’s just a building with some books in it.
There are other buildings with some books in, and most of them charge you money to take the books away, and don’t ever want the books back.
Libraries rather than filling potholes – better a slightly bumpy ride to the library than no library at all.
Libraries rather than colourful brochures through the door every month, telling me how wonderful my local council is.
I’ve said libraries have, for me, been like portals – the portals into society. Let’s be honest about who comes through that portal. Libraries are often, you might almost say predominantly, used by the disenfranchised. Like buses, parks, hospitals, they are civic spaces used by the lonely, the angry, the mentally ill, the politically estranged, the very young, the very old. This isn’t incidental – it’s what these places are now for.
You’re not going to catch that many investment brokers or politicians in libraries. The 1% (call them that for swiftness) don’t want other people to have touched the books they read. The 1% are too busy to access the kind of slow knowledge libraries provide. They don’t visit places just for the sake of visiting them, sitting there. They need value added in every moment. They’re already through their own portals.
I believe libraries, as portals to many things, are extremely important. Just because someone has difficulty with society, it doesn’t mean society should make things difficult for them. The opposite – they need to be granted peripheral spaces, easy access, where they can maintain their intellectual dignity and independence.
Libraries are the home of autodidacts – the self-educators who have issues with the power-structures of classroom and lecture hall. I don’t believe all forms of knowledge should be conventional or institutional. I think it is a weakness of philosophy, science in general, that it is by and large only open to those with academic qualifications.
A library card, and a good local library within a borough holding a decent stock of books and with computers for internet access – this is the greatest empowerment we can give some people.
Libraries are our portals. They get us out of ourselves. They take us away from the centre.
A society should not be all centre – especially when that centre is a shopping centre.
[A few months after posting this, I interviewed Neil Gaiman on the subject of libraries.]
The image of West Norwood Library is from West Norwood News – where you can follow the saga of Nettlefold Hall and the new Ritzy Cinema.