Monday, 21 September 2015

What Do Libraries Mean To You? by Sophie Claire

They've been in the news recently, mostly relating to closures or reduced funding, and this got me thinking – how important are libraries? Are they still relevant in the internet age when so many schools and homes are equipped with computers, and when Wikipedia has all but replaced the encyclopedia? And when money is tight, should they still be a priority for public funding?

Libraries have been a feature of my life at every stage, and I’m lucky enough to have studied in some of the most beautiful and historic libraries in the world. At Oxford University I was spoilt for choice between the famous university buildings such as The Bodleian, the faculty library (my favourite) or our college library which was open all night (and we made good use of this, sometimes working through the night to finish an essay on time). 
The Radcliffe Camera, Oxford
But it was as a child that the library had the most impact on me. My parents, like most people, were careful with money, and there wasn't much spare for books unless I was lucky enough to receive a gift voucher for my birthday or Christmas. So, for a voracious reader like me, the library was essential. It gave me the chance to experiment and explore different authors and genres: fairy tales and adventure stories, pink hardback romance novels, horrors (that phase didn’t last long), thrillers (that one lasted all through my teens), to name but a few.

Without my local library, I wouldn’t have had the varied grounding that later funnelled me towards the realisation that the books I enjoyed the most were all romantic in essence. I wouldn’t have developed a love of words, the feeling that there was a whole other world between the pages of a novel in which ideas could be explored, other cultures brought to life, and in which I could lose myself. 

"If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom." Neil Gaiman

I learned so much from libraries, and not just in the non-fiction section. Fiction too teaches us – about bygone events, about different people’s perspectives and predicaments, about humanity. What better way to learn empathy than to put yourself in the shoes of a character for 400 pages?

"Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave." Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird)

My local library has changed dramatically in recent times. It runs sessions for babies and toddlers, it has a soft play area with sofas where parents read to their children, a book group, a craft group, a writing group. It has computers and machines which clock my books in and out, meaning I don’t have as much reason to chat to the librarians any more – which is a shame. On the other hand, it’s easier to renew my books online.
John Rylands Library, Manchester
But some things haven’t changed. Remember the smell as you walked in, of dusty books and polished wood? The sacred hush of dozens of people working or reading in silence? The weight of a book in your hands as you read the blurb and decided if it was worth a try or not. As a child I used to find it hard to whittle the choice down to ten books, the maximum allowed on a ticket. I would carry those books home like treasure, impatient to start devouring them. And then three weeks later I'd go back for more.
Now, as I walk into a library and run my gaze over the shelves, I still get the same breathless feeling of excitement. So many books to read, so little time!

How about you? Do you use a library? What does it mean to you?

Sophie.x


Sophie Claire's novel, Her Forget-Me-Not Ex, is available in her local library (free) or on Amazon (99p on Kindle)

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