A Library is for Life…

There was a post on my Facebook feed this week stating that more libraries were to be closed across the UK, and that set me thinking about how important the library in Bury St Edmunds has been to me over the years. Originally based in an old building right in the centre of town, my mother used to drop me off there early on a Saturday morning when she went into town to do her shopping. I couldn’t have been much more than eight or nine, and you certainly wouldn’t be allowed to treat the library like a creche these days, but she knew that I’d been looking forward to this all week and no way in hell would I leave the hallowed space of the library and go elsewhere.

It was staffed by steely eyed, large bosomed, prematurely aged matrons, who wouldn’t allow any nonsense in their library and would certainly have intervened if anyone had bothered me, so that was our routine every Saturday. My mother would see me in and then I knew I had at least an hour, sometimes longer, to browse the books and decide which six I was going to take home for the week. Once that important job was settled, I would snug down on one of the old window seats they had and pick the thinnest book to make a start on. Very often before my mother returned, I would have finished that one and put it back on the shelf, picking another one to replace it.

To me, the library was a magical place, stuffed to the ceiling with all these amazing portals to distant worlds that I could just pluck off the shelf and not only read, but take home with me. Bear in mind, this was before the days of the internet and kindles, instant streaming and endless amusements at your fingertips. No, back then, it was books or TV. Well, TV was restricted to an hour or so after school and a few hours on a Saturday morning, whereas books… ah, books were available any time of the day or night.

I read all the time. A complete bookworm, there was always a book or two in my bag (the one I was reading and a back-up one in case I finished it quicker than expected), and I would read anywhere. At school in breaks and lunch, on the bus, waiting in queues, even walking between classes I would somehow manage to read a few lines. It’s a wonder I didn’t destroy my eyesight with the amount of torchlight reading under the covers I did, and my mother knew if she wanted to punish me for anything all she had to do was forbid me to read.

I left school, started work, got married and had a place of my own. Suddenly, my reading time was seriously curtailed, sandwiched in around work and married life. I still read a lot, just not quite so much as before, and my life filled with other, more grown up, pursuits.

Then my marriage began to disintegrate and suddenly I had time, lots of time, on my hands and I was deeply unhappy. Once again, the library became my refuge. Unable to concentrate on serious literature, I would fill my bag with as many trashy novels as I was allowed to check out in one go. Craving escapism but lacking the attention span to stomach anything weighty and unwilling to read anything that didn’t have a guaranteed happy ending, Mills & Boon and Harlequin became my go to books.

I always get cross when people belittle a genre, claiming it to be trite or unworthy, and maybe it’s true that some genres don’t require as much effort to write or read. But all literature has its place, and during that year those bags of chick lit I would guiltily carry home and consume were lifesavers. Never let anyone shame you for your reading choices, the world is large, and we are all different, there is room for every style of book and reader, and different books fit different times of your life. Perhaps that is why I’m a multi-genre author, because I recognise that the story is the thing. It really doesn’t matter what genre it is, if the tale is a page turner then that’s all that matters.

So, back then, libraries were a sacred and important feature of any town or city and were used by all ages and by people from all walks of life. Students checking out factual books to use for school and college assignments, people borrowing how-to manuals and cookery books, bored housewives looking for an escape from their humdrum life and people simply enjoying the written word.

Then the world changed. Information became available at the touch of a button in the comfort of your own home – there was no need to make the trek into the library and spend precious time scanning the shelves and wading through books. Kindles became a thing and suddenly a world of literature and non-fiction was available without ever having to leave the house. People got busier and had no time to read, and for a while it looked like the library was going to go the way of the bathhouses of old.

But then something happened, in that most libraries realised they were going to have to evolve and evolve fast, if they wanted to survive. Suddenly, your local library was where you went for so much more than just books, you could borrow films and music and even artwork. You could go there to use the internet and to photocopy things. Groups were started using the spaces in the library. When Miss F was young we used to attend the Music and Nursery Rhyme group plus a Children’s Reading Hour in our local library, which, by now had been relocated from the draughty and rather daunting old building in the town centre to a smart, purpose built building a few minutes away.

The rule used to be strictly no food or drink in the library, but suddenly every library had a coffee shop, where you could meet friends and buy tea and cake. Our library also has a number of conference and meeting rooms that can be hired for local events, and I myself have both attended and given an author talk in one of them.

When Miss F was little, we would visit the library at least two or three times a week. Children’s books are thin and quickly read, so a bagful wouldn’t last us very long and the promise of a slice of cake in the café was always an incentive for good behaviour. I remember once, a long time ago, when Miss F was still in her pushchair, we were wandering around Woolworths – which hadn’t yet closed – when we spotted the most wonderful fancy dress outfit hanging on the wall. It was that of a pirate queen with a fabulous layered purple and black skirt, a velvety black waistcoat with white frilly sleeves and collar, a proper pirate hat and a cutlass.

We looked at it. We looked at each other. I could see that Miss F really, really, wanted it and I really, really, wanted to buy it for her. But it was £10, and I simply didn’t have the money in my purse to pay for it. Back then, things were tough for us and money to waste on luxuries scarce. Reluctantly, we left the shop and wandered to the library, where the entertainment was free, and I could buy her a gingerbread man for 40p. Engrossed in the important task of selecting her books to take home, Miss F suddenly tugged on my sleeve in great excitement.

“Mummy,”

“Yes?”

“That lady has dropped her handbag down behind the shelf.”

It took me a few moments to locate which shelf she was talking about. From her lower vantage point she’d been able to see the bag wedged down behind the shelf where it had fallen, and by the time I’d crawled under and pulled it out, the lady had gone. I picked up the bag, which was open, and noticed it was full to the brim with money. I mean, seriously bulging with cash. Carefully closing it so it wouldn’t open again, I took it to the reception desk and explained what had happened. They locked it in the desk and thanked me for being honest and we carried on looking at books. Ten minutes later there was a huge kerfuffle at the reception desk when a lady ran into the library crying hysterically, closely followed by a white-faced man who looked like he’d just received the worse news ever.

Curious, I watched as the receptionist patted the lady on the arm and took the handbag we’d found out of the desk drawer and gave it to her, before pointing in our direction and explaining something to the obviously relieved couple. They hurried over, falling over themselves to thank us and telling us how they were going on a cruise the very next day, their first one ever, and the lady had been to collect their visas, holiday cash and travellers cheques, putting them all in her bag. Loaded down with last minute shopping, she’d popped in to use the photocopier and hadn’t realised she was without her bag until she’d reached the next shop. Panicking, she’d phoned her husband who’d rushed up town and ordered her to retrace her steps.

I laughed and told them it was my little girl they should be thanking, as it was her who’d spotted the bag and not me. The gentleman then forced a crisp £20 note into my hand and despite my protests that we didn’t expect any payment for simply finding it, he was insistent. Some might not have been so honest, he said, and they wanted Miss F to know that doing the right thing would be rewarded.

So, what did we buy with our £20? You’ve guessed it, we went back to Woolworths and bought the pirate queen outfit and, on the way home, bought ourselves something nice for dinner.

I have very happy memories of our library, and, when I’ve needed it, it’s always been there. But I must confess, I’ve neglected it of late. A published author myself, I don’t have time to read the books I already have, let alone wish to borrow anymore, and my kindle is bursting with books that I need to read. I know I should make an effort to use it more, after all, use it or lose it is very true and I would be devastated should it close.

My own books are on its shelves, available for all to borrow, and it gives me all kind of thrills every time I see them there. It reinforces my belief that I am a proper author, honest, because look, there are my books in the library with all the other proper books.

Libraries also seem to be popping up in the strangest of places now as well. The iconic old red telephone boxes, mostly redundant with the mass use of mobile phones, have enjoyed a new lease of life fulfilling a wide range of roles ranging from defibrillator stations to, you’ve guessed it, mini libraries. There’s one in the village where my parents live, and I’ve donated a few of my books to it.

Ever since man created books – in whatever form they took – there have been libraries to keep them in, and you can judge the sophistication of a culture by how they treat their libraries. A society that venerates and cares for their libraries, is usually progressive and forward thinking, and destroying a library is usually an indication of a society gone wrong.

Did you use the library a lot when you were a child? How about now? Do you even have a local library, and, if you do, is it still a thriving hub of the community, or is it in danger of being closed?

The rest of this week has been uneventful, I’ve worked a lot of overtime, but it has been surprisingly quiet at work seeing as this is supposed to be our busiest time of year, which is worrying. Only receiving less than the legal minimum wage per hour, we all rely on our commission to pay our bills and when people blatantly come into the store merely to use our expertise and waste our time, then freely admit they’re going home to order online, well, it makes us wonder if we should start looking for other employment.

I had to do a massive food shop on Monday. In spite of all the money spent on food before Christmas, we didn’t actually have any in the house. Well, correction, we had stuff like crackers and nuts and chutney, but no actual food. To my joy, the reduced to clear section was full to bursting with meat and fish all at crazy low prices because they were on the cusp of going out of date. Gleefully, I filled my trolley but overestimated how much I’d be able to fit in my tiny freezer and ended up playing some sort of freezer Tetris, transferring stuff from bulky packaging into bags so I could squish them in the corners. I now have a freezer which is packed full of food and this has made me very happy. I wonder, is it a sign of being a grown up that I got so excited about a reduced to clear section? Seriously though, it has set the benchmark for all reduced to clear sections from now on.

Today I also made a couple of quite important bookish decisions. I emailed my publishers and confirmed that I do wish to buy back the copyright for The Book of Eve, and I unpublished my books Erinsmore, Lost & Found and Fixtures & Fittings. This last wasn’t an easy decision to make, but I’m not really selling them because I’ve stopped promoting or advertising them. There is much that needs to be fixed with them and by unpublishing them it will give me a proverbial kick up the backside to get them done.

So, that’s it for another week, thank you for patiently bearing with me through yet another ramble and if you have something you’d like to comment about libraries, or indeed anything, then please do so either below or on my Facebook or Instagram page.

Finally, I’d like you to think about the following…

I think mine would have to be – “She knew it was a bad idea but she did it anyway!”

Take care and have a great week.

Julia Blake