Much has been said in the British media in recent weeks about closing libraries. Essentially, our current *cough*right-wing*cough* government has decided to deal with our national deficit by slashing public funding of... well, almost everything. Including libraries. Cue a Save Libraries campaign, heavily supported by authors, celebrities and most importantly, the public.
Needless to say this was all heavily Tweeted - you know there's a serious campaign underway when it's got its own hashtag. In trying to come up with something suitably concise and pertinent to say about libraries in 140 characters, I tried to imagine what my childhood would have been like without them.
And found that, quite simply, I couldn't.
It wasn't that we didn't have books at home. I'm the youngest of three children, and both my siblings and my parents are keen readers, so there were certainly lots of books around and I don't ever remember being told that any of them were off-limits. I had my brother and sister's old books, I got books at Christmas and birthdays and as a reward for being brave at the dentist or something, and my mum used to make a point of seeking out jumble sales and school fetes specifically so that she could buy me second-hand paperbacks for 5p each. Unfortunately, from the age of six or seven I could easily finish the average children's paperback in an afternoon or a long car journey, and frequently did. There is no way that it would have been affordable for my parents, however much I know they would have loved to, to keep me in as many books as I wanted to read. Consequently, one summer - I think I was still at infant school - my mum took me to the library.
I believe it cost 25p for my mum to join, and nothing for me because I was a child. My library card not only had my name on it in nice neat capital letters and referred to me as 'Miss', but was stamped with a big green J. I assume this stood for 'junior', but at the time I liked to pretend it was for Joanne. Upon entering the children's section, which had a room of its own with low, child-sized chairs and tables, I was briefly overwhelmed. There were so many books. They were everywhere, and I could just... take them. Take them home and read them. For nothing. And not just one, either. I didn't have to spend an hour fretting in WHSmith trying to decide on a single paperback because that was all my saved-up pocket money would stretch to. I could pick six books. Six. Except for the occasional foray into the book stalls at the aforementioned jumble sales, I'd almost certainly never been able to choose six books at once.
I wish I could remember which books I chose as clearly as I can remember everything else, like the woody, papery, vaguely institutional smell of the library itself, the satisfying metallic clunk of the date-stamp, and even the heat of the July sun as we walked back home with the books in a carrier bag bumping against my legs, but I haven't actually got a clue what they were. I do, however, remember that I started reading them as soon as I got home, and that I'd finished them all within the week and started asking to go back for another half a dozen.
After that, until I was old enough to go on my own, I went to the library every week with my mum during the holidays and every week on Wednesday evenings, when it was open until 7.30pm, with my dad. It was a genuine highlight of my week, just going to that hushed municipal building crammed with books. Books I knew, books I didn't know, books in strange library bindings, classic books, obscure books, books with intriguing titles, books with little pictures stuck on their spines to tell me what they were about (skulls for horror, hearts for romance, little castles for historical fiction and a sword for fantasy. Sci-fi was an atom symbol, which may have been rather lost on me at the age of six). Easy books, hard books, scary books, sad books, laugh-out-loud books, books filled with adventure. Books to discuss. Books to sit and think about quietly for hours and not talk about with anyone else because they were just too special and important and personal to share. Most importantly, books I had seen in the shops, or read about in the back pages of other books, and coveted. There is no question that the library gave me access to books I would otherwise never have read, and brought me not just a great deal of pleasure but also, as a kid with a reading age a fair way above that of any of the books I was given to read at school, a level of education I simply wouldn't otherwise have had.
Without the library, I'd probably never have read Swallows & Amazons, Watership Down, The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen, The Eagle Of The Ninth, The Children Of Green Knowe, The Ghost Of Thomas Kemp, Children On The Oregon Trail, Little House On The Prairie, Finn Family Moomintroll, The Family From One End Street, The Dark Is Rising Sequence, Ballet Shoes, A Little Princess, The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase, Hating Alison Ashley, The Machine Gunners, The Phantom Tollbooth, the Chrestomanci series, Charlotte Sometimes, Leon Garfield's 'Apprentices' stories or Mrs Frisby & The Rats Of NIMH, among countless others. Trying to envisage my childhood without ever reading those books makes me feel, quite genuinely, a little bit sick.
Despite my junior library card, the staff - the helpful, well-informed staff who knew the library's regular users by name and would happily recommend good reads to suit their tastes - also never stopped me from borrowing books from the adult library. As soon as I started secondary school, which was a forty-five minute walk away on a route that went right past the library, a school-friend and I were absurdly frequent visitors. My friend, a fellow book geek, used to place orders on an almost weekly basis for the latest instalment in a string of epic fantasy series, the 800-page volumes of which she read at an almost unnatural speed. I worked my way through Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham, Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell, HP Lovecraft and MR James, Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo, George Orwell and Albert Camus, John Wyndham and Ray Bradbury, Douglas Adams, Daphne Du Maurier and once, memorably, Samuel Richardson's 1,500 page epistolary 18th century brick of a novel Clarissa (admittedly I was largely confined the house with a broken ankle for that one, which may have given me extra staying power). I also remember being the first person to borrow Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman's Good Omens, which made me chuckle out loud in almost every chapter and which I've loved ever since; the head librarian kindly didn't say a word when I returned it in a horrible, crinkled condition after dropping it in the bath. The library was also the only place that I could obtain unabridged audiobooks to get me through long nights of insomnia. I listened to some unemployed former member of the RSC read Jane Eyre to me in its entirety when I was about nine; it wasn't until I was almost 15 that I had to read it at school. It was at events at my local library that I met - and was inspired by - numerous local authors.
Libraries are one of the few public services that are completely free, to everyone. This makes books perhaps the only resource to which all children and adults, no matter what their income, have equal access. A single parent on a cripplingly low income can check out six new bedtime stories to read to their child every week, for nothing. Equally as importantly, they can safely leave a seven-year-old pottering around in the children's library for half an hour while they shop - where else in the average town centre can you leave a child and know they'll be safe? And let's not forget that the library is also somewhere warm and quiet to simply sit and read the newspapers for free, to attend a poetry reading, to do homework or use the internet without needing your own computer. In my twenties, living in north London, my local library stocked books and newspapers in at least 15 different languages and appeared to play unofficial host to a thriving pensioners' chess club, the members of which probably spoke all those languages and more between them but had found common ground over a chessboard.
Council leaders in areas where libraries are earmarked for closure have regularly tried to deflect criticism by asking us what we'd rather have - proper social services for kids and the elderly, or libraries. What a bloody ridiculous question. Don't they realise that libraries are a social service, and an invaluable one at that?