The first time I lied about my age was not to buy alcohol, to jump on a ride at Chessington World of Adventure, or to join the army.
It was to get a library card.
At my local library you had to be 13 to get an adult card. I was a precocious/pretentious 11-year old and bored with the ‘Kids’ section, desiring darker and more complex fare. The librarian looked at me sceptically, asked if my mum was okay with it. I nodded at a woman (not my mum) over the librarian’s shoulder who smiled reflexively and so the librarian shrugged and added me to their database. He handed me my shiny new ADULT library card and I was in. (FYI, I think my first loan was Dick Francis’ Nerve. I enjoyed the horse racing and the murder. I skipped all the kissing).
To me then as a child, and now as a slightly more mature adult, libraries are an almost perfect microcosm of what civilised society has to offer. Think about it.
First, there are books. Loads of books with their lovely book smell and their words and stories and ideas which you can read for free.
I had a varied education – I changed schools a couple of times, didn’t learn to read or write until I was eight – so libraries filled in the gaps. When I discovered a love of writing when I was 16 (18 to Kent County Libraries), I went to the library to read the plays of Harold Pinter, Terrance Rattigan, and Caryl Churchill. Without access to these books I certainly wouldn’t be the writer I am today.
Secondly, libraries are often incredibly warm and when you live in Glasgow (as I did for 12 years), this is exactly what you need. With the closure of so many centres for young people and other vulnerable groups, the library is an essential sanctuary. (I’ve always felt that libraries could do with more sofas but then I imagine everyone would fall asleep…)
Third, libraries are meeting places. There are Adult-Ed classes, internet-literacy classes for the over 65’s and song groups for babies and parents. In my local library there is a group of carers who meet every week to talk about looking after their relations with cancer. I love that. It speaks to the generosity of what a library can mean to people.
There’s something wonderful about the silence in a library. You are being quiet so that others may enjoy their books or think their thoughts. As the world becomes more and more a place of noise and advertisement and phones, the library is a space where pieces of silent paper and ideas still reign.
Recently, when my daughter was born, I had to give up my office at home and so I went to work in my local library. It was brilliant. I could write all day at a desk by the phonebooks, and when I got stuck, wander around, picking up books at random, looking for inspiration.
I feel like if libraries didn’t exist, we’d need to invent them.
By Oliver Emanuel, March Writer in Residence