When I was growing up, the only books we owned were a fat and disintegrating copy of the complete works of Shakespeare and an equally ancient Palgrave’s Treasury.
We didn’t live near a town with a bookshop and it was way before Amazon. Besides, it would never have occurred to my parents to spend money on books. Still, we were a family of readers, a library family. We talked about books. The Saturday morning visit to the library was a ritual, as much a part of our lives as Sunday morning church.
The librarian was Mrs Macgregor. All those years ago, and I still remember her name, although those of my teachers are long forgotten. Mrs Macgregor turned me into a crime writer. She introduced me to Enid Blyton, and then to Malcom Saville, mysteries with chases and pace and surprise endings. She remembered which titles I’d read and saved copies of those I hadn’t under the counter, producing them, like a magician’s rabbit from a hat as I walked through the door. So a visit to the library was a treat and an excitement, an almost theatrical experience. It provided colour and wonder in the drab post-war years of the 1950s and early 60s.
And that’s what we need from our libraries now: excitement and passion and the thrill of finding an author new to us. Those people who grew up with shelves of their own books missed out on the pleasure of communal reading, of discussing and sharing, of discovery in a public space. They see libraries as dull and rather worthy places. Worth keeping of course, but not really for them, not for the people who get sent proof copies or who can afford to check the internet and buy the books they’ve seen reviewed in the broadsheets. (I’d love to know how many politicians, council members and professional writers, those who talk about libraries and make policies about them, actually belong to their local branch...)
I have a vested interest of course. Without the support of libraries I wouldn’t be published today. There would be no Vera Stanhope on the television, no Shetland Quartet. If libraries hadn’t bought my early novels I’d have been dumped by my publisher long ago – nobody else much was buying them! Libraries can take a chance on new authors and support mid-listers, they can buy in short fiction and books in translation.
Rather than the grey and dreary institutions of public perception, these should be places of innovation and experiment, where readers can take a chance on a book, pick one because they like the look of the cover or the title or because they see it returned by the gorgeous young man who lives in their street. After all, they have absolutely nothing to lose. The book will be free. They should also be places of debate and disagreement. Most libraries now host reading groups. They are safe and democratic spaces for people to come together.
A reader in a group in North Tyneside once said to me: “Eh pet, I’m greedy for reading.” She had no formal education, but she came alive in the sessions, taking a delight in disagreeing with the majority view, in championing a book, which everyone else dismissed as trash. Supported by library authorities, I’ve set up reading groups in prisons, in rural pubs, in the Alaskan bush and at very literary Literature Festivals. In all these settings I’ve been recommended titles I would never choose for myself but which I’ve enjoyed.
The libraries I love best are the ones that encourage readers to take this sort of chance. I worked for a while in Huddersfield Library and there staff regularly pulled books from their normal alphabetical order – the Dewey Decimal System still remains a complete mystery to me though I worked there for five years – and set up what they called the Serendipity Collection. This was a place to browse, to come upon a book to suit my mood, to fall for a new author. In the Serendipity Collection I chanced on my first example of contemporary translated crime fiction, The Depths of the Forest by Eugenio Fuentes. I loved it and I’ve been hooked on Euro-crime ever since.
Some say that the internet has taken the place of the library. We can browse the web, read bookish blogs, twitter bookish tweets.
But we can’t pick up the book. We can’t take it away and read it for free. And there’s something sadly solitary and second hand about the electronic experience of choosing books. It needed Mrs Macgregor, with her grey hair and her magician’s smile and her vicarious enjoyment of my reading adventures, to capture my imagination and set me on my way.
But perhaps today’s young people are too sophisticated to be captivated in the same way by books? Perhaps reading is too passive for them and there are other, more exciting interests to capture their imaginations?
I don’t think that’s true at all. Back in Huddersfield, we ran a thriving family reading group, where parents and carers and their children carved time out of their busy lives to share their enthusiasms. And reading isn’t in competition with the other arts; it’s essential to their understanding. Stories and ideas spark all forms of creativity and still books hold most of our stories and ideas.
One Sunday, Huddersfield Central Library opened its doors just for teenagers. We called the project Teenage Kicks. We weren’t sure how many young people would turn up but the response was astonishing. We attracted boys and girls of all kinds: moody angst-ridden adolescents, the shy, the exhibitionist and the rebellious. That day they met writers, explored books through music and drama and painting. At the end of the day we invited comments. One girl wrote: Libraries rock!
Of course they do, but they will only rock if there’s money to buy new books, to provide training, so staff will have the confidence to interact with readers, to employ passionate, newly qualified librarians.
Without money, libraries become sad and tired. Without an adequate book fund, the new authors get left out, so does the quirky, the innovative, the difficult. And if libraries don’t support these writers, publishers won’t commission them.
Without money, libraries are tempted to buy what is certain to issue – and that’s the material that you can find in every supermarket, the best sellers, the easily promoted.
Libraries aren’t supermarkets; they’re places of cultural importance, where magic happens and where dreams begin. Or at least they should be.
Crime writer Ann Cleeves is a former reader development officer at Kirklees Libraries. Her latest Vera Stanhope novel, The Glass Room, is out now.
FINAL CHAPTER AS BUDGETS ARE AXED
Yorkshire, like much of the rest of the country, is facing the biggest programme of library closures in history.
With local authorities forced to cut budgets, at least one in five libraries in the county have been earmarked for closure.
The announcements have sparked a wave of opposition and events taking place tomorrow as part of National Libraries Day hopes to raise awareness of the importance libraries to communities across the UK.
As part of the campaign, The Reading Agency asked more than 20 influential authors to put pen to paper in praise of libraries. Ann Cleeves’ contribution is just one of more than 20 which appear in the The Library Book. Published by Profile Books, priced £9.99, proceeds from sales will go towards the work of the agency.