Public Libraries: an SOS

“I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunk treasure.” Virginia Woolf

“Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.” Ray Bradbury

Public libraries in the UK are under threat: many are closing, others are having book funds and opening hours savagely cut; paid staff are being dismissed. As an author, a grandmother and a former librarian as well as a reader, I am appalled.


In the early 70s the well-known vodka manufacturer Smirnoff came up with a billboard ad featuring a rather wanton-looking blonde woman sprawled in a hayloft in a state of semi-undress. She wore a laced bodice like some of the heroines of the romance novels so popular with female readers. The slogan read I was the mainstay of the public library until I discovered Smirnoff. Desperate to banish the traditional image of our profession – one that depicted us as stern, owlish spinsters with clumpy shoes and hair in a bun, we welcomed the ad, with its clear sexual connotations. Posters of it sold like hot cakes among librarians. The Library Association, the normally serious professional body I belonged to, bought a job lot to sell. Like many of my colleagues, I had one up on the wall of my bedroom. We thought it a great joke but in fact it was pretty offensive, reinforcing rather than ditching the old-fashioned view of librarians as timid, prim and boring. None of the librarians I knew conformed to this image. Rather than patrolling our territory commanding silence, we were encouraged to make the public libraries we worked in lively, friendly places, attractive to young people in particular. But in the ad, only alcohol – or more specifically Smirnoff – was capable of unlacing the strait-laced librarian. (Though actually, I’ve a feeling Smirnoff meant their model to be a library user rather than a librarian, which is even worse.


Back then, when most bookshops were independent, when there was no Amazon and the Net book Agreement kept book prices fixed and relatively more expensive (e-books were barely imagined), most regular readers used libraries. I was the mainstay of my local library long before I starting working in one. I’ve never read as many books as I did in my childhood years between learning to read at five and leaving school at eighteen. The number of books I owned was small but two or three times a week I would head to the library and browse the shelves of this amazing treasure trove, bringing home each time the maximum number of books allowed. I would devour the entire output of Arthur Ransome, Geoffrey Trease, Malcolm Saville or whoever was my current favourite, pouncing with glee on any I had not yet read, disappointed when they failed to match their output with my prolific reading rate.


Later, as a children’s librarian, I had the chance to enthuse the children of the 70s about books. I ran story times, competitions and other fun activities. I chose the stock, read all the new books and made recommendations. In those days there was still an adequate book fund; local libraries – even in quite small communities – were open every day except Sunday and several evenings a week; they were staffed by professionals with university degrees in librarianship or one-year post-graduate diplomas. They were not endangered places as they are now. No one suggested they could be run by unqualified volunteers.


Now, as an author, I am told there is no money for new books, though of course I would be welcome to donate a copy of my book to stock. With local government funding being cut ever more, libraries are not the first priority. I agree that the demise of libraries is not life-threatening, as cuts to some other services may be, but books can truly enrich lives. They certainly enriched my childhood. I have visited family homes without books – homes not necessarily poor in the economic sense, but deprived imaginatively. The love of books must be instilled early in life. I remember my own delight in books and the pleasure of passing it on to my children by reading to them. Now I’m a grandmother, I see the wonder and imaginative power of books through the eyes of my grandchildren. The brilliant and wildly popular children’s author Julia Donaldson commenting recently on the withdrawal of school librarians in Argyll and Bute, said libraries gave all young people a place to read, to daydream, to think creatively, to grow intellectually.” We must fight for them.


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