A Personal History of Libraries

Whitnash LibraryPhil: My first library was unsurprisingly the one nearest where I lived.

Whitnash Library wasn’t always in black and white but in recent years, the original late 60s building has been extended a couple of times. They’ve moved the entrance around the side too. This photo shows it as I remember. Nothing special but important to me.

It was where I attained my first library card. Not one of your fancy modern computer readable jobbies – a little yellow wallet about an inch wide that the librarian would fill with the ticket from the book I was borrowing. It would then be placed in a drawer, the book stamped with a return date and off I would go for some serious reading.

It was here that I borrowed my first book on railways, “Model Trains, Railroads in the making“. More importantly, it supplied me with every Famous Five and Secret Seven story that Enid Blyton ever wrote. I remember being allowed to go on my own to the library, which was handy as children were only allowed a single ticket. Adults got 3 green tickets as they could be trusted to keep more books at home. It didn’t matter, I could work my way through the shelves one volume at a time. The most important thing was the choice was mine. An adult didn’t need to help, I learned to look at the covers and decide if I wanted to read the contents. Sometimes I would borrow a book more than once and re-read it if nothing else appealed to me.

Leamington Library

Leamington Spa Library

Later on, my Mum used to take me to the big library in town. This was a real revelation - the children’s section was nearly as big as the entire building in Whitnash.

I think I started with most of the “Marmaduke the lorry” stories writen by Eizabeth Chapman. A bit like the Rev W Awdry’s Railway series, these centred on an old lorry called Marmaduke who, along with his driver, had adventures. Nothing earth shattering but pleasant enough for a child.

It was here that I first dipped my toe into science fiction with Patrick Moore’s “Mission to Mars” series. Since he was of a scientific bent, as well as enjoying the stories, I learnt a bit. For example, I was introduced to the idea of muscle wasting because astronauts who had lived on Mars for a long while wouldn’t be able to stand Earth gravity. In one of the books, it was suggested that the base be shut down and so those unfortunates who lived there would have to live the rest of their lives on a space station. OK, not rocket science (pun intended) but when you are eight, quite something to take in. Even tougher was trying to pronounce Woomera - these were British spacemen so they launched from our fields in Australia. I didn’t understand exactly what an empire or commonwealth was until this point.

After a couple of years, there was the inevitable frustration that my reading had advanced beyond the children’s section. Young adult fiction didn’t exist but my Mum let me use one of her tickets (she had 5, I had 3) for books from the grown-up shelves.

Leamington Library

Leamington Library Today

The library still exists but has moved around the corner to the Pump rooms into the old swimming baths. They’ve taken out the water and replaced it with books. The old changing rooms have gone too, I won’t miss them as they were horrible.

Anyway, I still drop in from time to time. The number of books has been reduced, although you can still order them from stock elsewhere in the county. I’ve had the Writers & Artists yearbook out a couple of times. The reference section is still pretty good and you can read quite a selection of current magazines for free. There are banks of computers and people to help you make best use of them. There’s also someone I once interviewed for a job in there but I hope he doesn’t remember me as he didn’t get it.

Occasionally I drop in for the atmosphere. You can go into town, wander into the library just to sit and read. I like that. It’s a good place to work if concentration matters or I simply need to be somewhere different.

What I like even more is that there are books to borrow for free. And events to get youngsters interested in reading. And staff who want you to read – they change the display of books regularly so you are encouraged to discover something new. It was because of this that I read Michael Rosen’s moving book “Carrying the Elephant” about the death of his son. It caught my eye and I read it sat in a comfy chair in a corner. I’d never have seen it otherwise. More recently, I picked up my first Stephen King from the shelves.

All the libraries allowed me to read. It’s not like I come from a home where there were no books, far from it. No matter how many books we had, I could always read more. My parents didn’t need to try to keep up with my voracious appetite for reading, it was there for free. I could experiment – if I didn’t like a book, there was always another. I was proud of my library card and certainly gave it a good workout.

This post was inspired by John Scalzi’s Personal History of Libraries.

His post was inspired by the news that Horrible Histories author Terry Deary thinks libraries should be shut down. I think Terry Deary is an idiot.

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5 Comments

Filed under Books, Phil

5 responses to “A Personal History of Libraries

  1. Mr Deary would prefer that you bought his books rather than borrowed them. Great post Phil, libraries are one of the great inventions of humans. My experience of libraries mirrors your own. Living in foreign parts it’s another thing I miss about dear old Blighty, along with Adnam’s Ales and fish and chips. As there was very little TV, Books offered a window on the world and set my imagination alight.

  2. Mr Deary would prefer that you bought his books rather than borrowed them.
    Which is the same as saying he would rather not receive the licence fees that libraries pay just as long as people living on reduced incomes don’t have access to knowledge outside of the schools he pans.

  3. Incomes reduced from what?

    • Incomes reduced from what?
      Reduced from a living wage to a minimum wage and a few top up benefits that don’t go together to make even the most basic diet not based on junk food affordable.

  4. Anyway, libraries are “free” (paid out of taxes) and are developing or closing but with so much available on line are their days numbered?

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