I got an e-mail from my local library this morning informing me that the latest library book I’d ordered was reserved and ready for picking up. I was excited; I’d been waiting to read this book for weeks and on a struggling, precarious freelance writer budget, if I bought every book I took a fancy to, I’d very quickly spend more than I earned.
I’ve long been an advocate of libraries. Recently in the UK, including my hometown of Sheffield, the local council have had to make severe cuts to library funding, causing several long-established and well-loved ones to close. Many local people have fought the closures, resulting in one local library becoming co-delivered, meaning it is run in partnership with local voluntary and community organisations and the City Council.
During the re-organisation, I signed petitions along with the rest of my family, to try to secure the safe future of our local library. It may not have seemed like such an important service to preserve to many people, especially when you consider how many serious issues there are in need of support. I did hear comments like that a couple of times, together with ‘books are so cheap on Amazon now, anyway – why not just buy them?’
But I disagree.
The way I see it, part of living in a humane and cultured society must start with such fine institutions as libraries. I remember back to when I was a new mum, taking my firstborn to the library at least twice a week, where we would attend baby and toddler sessions, listening to a story and making a craft. We would come home with arms full of picture books and plastic books to take in the bath. We would get about ten a time, sometimes ones we had already read, as they were her favourites. As my pre-schooler got a bit older, we would often borrow a DVD and spend a winter afternoon curled up back at home, snuggled up watching it together.
As my daughter grew, and was joined by a sibling, she took advantage of the book clubs and the summer reading challenges; attending workshops during the school holidays doing everything from Manga drawing to poetry sessions. She worked her way through her first chapter books, and now has a thirst for historical fiction. Seeing her discover authors I used to love (Thank you, Judy Blume!), and discover new ones for herself, has been a delight. And this has all been for free. There is absolutely no way I could have provided such wide reading access to my children if I had to buy all these books.
We have bookshelves full of books at home, of course: childhood favourites of mine and my husband; books from our various studies; newer books often given as Christmas and birthday gifts; the classics. We buy lots of second hand books. But there would have been no way of providing the kind of access the libraries have provided.
My eldest daughter is now almost 16, and has grown up reading hundreds of books. She is a good student and I credit a lot of that to how well read she is. She loves the library so much, she volunteered every week during her summer break last year, helping younger readers to follow the summer reading challenge she had enjoyed so much as a younger child. Her sister is now 8 and aiming to catch her up, enjoying in particular animal stories and fact books about animals and sea creatures (she wants to be a vet or a marine biologist, you know).
Something which struck me recently though, as I’ve been concentrating more and more on my writing and have been trying to expand my reading tastes by trying out new genres and themes, is how wonderful libraries are for writers.
I always knew they were brilliant spaces for readers, but I’ve found many wonderful books recently to support my craft. Whether it’s information about pitching articles or setting up a blog, or just discovering some beautiful prose or poetry to inspire my own work, I’ve been haunting the shelves of my local library weekly.
I’ve now given myself a library challenge, of choosing up to my card limit of books from one letter of the alphabet, whatever the genre or storyline, and taking them home. I’ve loved some, not so much others, discovering some great new authors along the way. And every one of them has taught me something about writing – both examples of how a piece of prose works well or not so well. All has been a useful education.
I realise some writers might be reading this and thinking that all this borrowing adds up to people not buying their books so much, and I realise that all artists’ need to sell work to make a living. I’m not trying to talk people out of buying books, not at all. But I think using the library has the opposite effect. Because in my experience, once I or my children have read a book they love, they often want to buy it, to keep forever, just like my old collection of Judy Blume books now adorning my daughters’ bookshelves. And once a reader discovers a favourite author, they are often very loyal and want to read every line they ever wrote.