In Praise of Libraries

Newport Library in its new home

I was at an event in a library a couple of years ago, chatting with author Roz Watkins about crime writing. The library was Newport Community Library. No, not that Newport, the other very small ancient borough in Pembrokeshire. It is maintained by volunteers and donations because all around the country small libraries are being shut. Councils, struggling to economise, regard libraries as a luxury frill that can be dispensed with at no serious social cost, especially now that everyone, but everyone, has access to the internet and can get whatever they want online – which, of course, is rubbish. I buy books cheaply on Kindle and I research on-line, but I still regard libraries as a vital part of my life.

My books feature ‘detectives,’ who are not police but ordinary people trying to get to the bottom of mysteries, and frequently they make use of libraries, because where else would you begin to look? How many murders have been plotted and solved in libraries? Libraries are special, whether they are mighty National Libraries with security systems like the Pentagon or little community libraries like Newport.

Luton’s Carnegie Library

One of my oldest memories is of going into the Carnegie Library in Luton with my mother, an experience not dissimilar to walking into a church – a sense of dignity and awe, grand towering doors, a strange musty smell, and people being very hushed for fear of divine retribution. Silence except for the squeak of shoes and the rhythmic thump of the metal stamp on date slips as devout worshippers filed out past the stern lady deacons at the polished oak pulpit. A temple of books. I know the repressive atmosphere of the past is frowned upon in libraries now, but it did breed a sense of awe in me. Libraries were special. Awesome.

I went to university in Aberystwyth, theoretically to study history, though I’d already decided that all I wanted to do in life was write. When I was there, the old college on the sea front (a former hotel in mock-gothic style) was still stalked by students as well as office staff and it housed the library where I went to do my research. Magnificent, vaulted, galleried, everything a library should be. Shades of Hogwarts. And best of all, adjoining it was the documents library, more tiered gallery than floor, full of court rolls and chronicles, and blessed with a lancet window in an alcove, overlooking the wild raging sea. I spent a lot of time in that alcove, researching some documents, but mostly writing novels (which were never published, but you have to start somewhere).

Luton Central Library

When I finished my degree, I realised, with horror, since I hadn’t yet found a publisher who recognised my sheer genius, that I would have to spend the next forty or so years working for a living. I needed to find a job. The only job I could even contemplate was librarian. I pictured myself sitting in hushed splendour at a desk, writing away all day except when I had to look up occasionally and stamp a book.

Rather than stay at college and qualify as a librarian I thought I’d start as a library assistant and earn a bit of money for a change. So I got a job at Luton Central Library. The old Carnegie library had been demolished along with much else of quaint interest in the town, to make way for a huge Arndale centre, but a brand new library had been built, very 60s, opened by the Queen in 1963. All concrete, wide stairs, open space, glass panels and… a computerised issuing system. This was when computers were still flickering green screens in the hands of scientists.

I worked in the reference library, kept busy with books, magazines, cuttings folders, maps, leaflets, company reports, microfilms (maddening) microfiche (agonising), helping kids with their homework and foreign students with their English, searching for medical cures, chatting with the homeless who sought a warm corner on a cold winter’s night, advising on genealogical research, trying to come up with fool-proof instructions for photocopiers… It rapidly put paid to any idea of sitting quietly at a desk, writing away at my novels, but ah, the joy of having all knowledge, world-wide and local, at my fingertips all day.

When I left, in 1982, a new weird contraption had arrived in the reference library – strictly for the use of the chief librarian only. This was a sort of cradle that the phone receiver fitted into, and if the right number was dialled and a secret password entered on the library’s computer, it would be connected to library databases all around the world. Huh, I thought. Big deal. What I didn’t appreciate was that it was the first little wail of a new-born creature called the World Wide Web, which would do more than anything to undermine the value of libraries.

Of course it’s a delight to be able to google anything, and have such an invaluable research tool at my fingertips without having to take my hands off the laptop I’m writing on. But it’s not where I go if I want to browse for a new novel I might fancy, or check up on a fact of local history, or find out just about anything that predates the 1980s, or just have a break from shopping in an atmosphere that’s more cerebral.

More importantly, libraries are where people go who don’t have access to the internet or any idea how to use it. It’s a place where people who might have little other social contact, can meet and share thoughts. Google is private prayer; libraries are public worship. All through history, the library has been the demarcation line between civilisation and ideas on one side and philistine ignorance, bigotry and repression on the other. Bad guys burn libraries – and shut them.

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