National Libraries Day 2012

Fans of basic cultural amenities will today be celebrating National Libraries Day. A tide of support to remind those in power that it is a very good idea to keep as many of these places open as possible.

Of especial note this year is the publication of The Library Book a collection of writings from authors such as Alan Bennett, Julian Barnes, Zadie Smith and others,¬†exploring the importance of libraries through memoir, polemic and short story alike. Proceeds got to the Reading Agency‘s library readings programme.

For my own part, I’d like to chip in with two particular memories which, in their own small ways, hint at the greater good of keeping books available to all of society.

First, a memory from the early 1990s: Myself and my brother are visiting South Yardley Library, where we join a crowd of supervised children in a corner, all putting blindfolds on. We are given blindfolds too. As we plunge into a disconcerting world of darkness, we follow instructions to walk carefully forwards and duck under an unseen entrance.

To this day I remember the hesitant steps we took, as the storyteller guided this unexpected Fellowship down deep ravines, through thick forests and across dead marshes. At first, our imagination was stimulated with words alone, but soon our faces were being brushed by the tendril fingers of Ents or the trailing webs of vast spiders, as we stepped over bridges and crawled down mining tunnels.

Or perhaps we were simply clambering around strategically placed tables and chairs, scattered with cushions, dangling ropes and half-filled washing up bowls? Either way, what the clever organisers of that modest weekend amusement achieved with words and some basic props has stayed with me all these years later. It was as vivid an introduction to Middle Earth as anything Peter Jackson would conjure up a decade later.

My second memory comes from years afterwards, when academic libraries had become a familiar sanctuary for my studies. Searching for some book or other that the campus library did not have, I visited the public library on Canterbury High Street.

Inside, I was struck to see a familiar homeless man, who I was used to seeing begging on pavements outside, quietly engrossed in a book at one of the reading tables. With his scruffy unkempt appearance he was a striking sight in this context. I couldn’t help thinking how excellent it was that everyone, no matter how down on their luck, should have somewhere in the warm and the dry to while away some time picking from a selection of books.

Put simply: libraries can help the disadvantaged, and inspire the young. Reason enough to keep them open in my books.

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