Thursday, February 5, 2015

Why I'm supporting National Libraries Day

Saturday 7th February is National Libraries Day 2015, a day when we celebrate libraries and librarians, and remind everyone of all the things that libraries contribute to the community. 

I'm delighted to be one of the 2015 ambassadors for NLD alongside a host of brilliant authors including Jo Cotterill, indefatigable library campaigner Cathy CassidyCatherine Johnson, and newly-elected VP of CILIP, Dawn Finch.

Libraries offer many things: free access to books and newspapers, advice for readers and researchers, reference collections, internet connection, book events, community focus. 

That last one has been very important to me personally. I've had a library card since the 1970s. Since then I've moved about a lot: first to Oxford to study, and later to Germany and Belgium with my young family. In 2011 we  moved "back" to the UK, except we didn't move to England, where I was born, we moved to Scotland, which I had visited many times but where I had never lived. Each time we moved, one of the first things I did in the new place was to join the library. Each time, being a member of the local library has been one of the things that has helped me integrate into my new home. This is not a vague "soft benefit" as far as I'm concerned. These local libraries have made my and my children's lives happier and better. 

During Book Week Scotland 2014, for which I was also an ambassador, I wrote a love letter to my current local library, Strathearn Community Library. I think it says everything I want to say about why I love libraries, so I'm reposting it here. Please, love your library. 

Dear Strathearn Community Library,

I love you. We’ve known each other for three years now, so it’s about time I made my feelings clear. I think you’re the best ever!
I’m much older than you and over the years I have moved about quite a bit. I’ve lived in England, Germany, Belgium and now Scotland. Every time we’ve moved, one of the first things I’ve done when we’ve been settling into the new place is to join the library. I have a big collection of library cards now, starting with a very old creased cardboard one with my maiden name on it and running through to the latest one, which is yours, and has a barcode on it. I never threw any of them away, just kept them, like old love letters.
When I was a student, I joined the library to borrow textbooks and something to read when I couldn’t afford to buy novels. When we were abroad, I joined so that I could practise my new language skills without investing in a whole new book collection of my own. When we got to Scotland, I wasn’t a student any more and I didn’t need any German or Dutch books either, but joining the local library had become a habit by then. It was a bit like rolling up in a foreign city with all our worldly goods in a van and registering ourselves with the embassy.
When I first visited you, I was dazzled. The libraries I’d been using abroad had tiny collections of English language books; you have thousands. I wanted to take armloads of them home to read. No, not armloads. Truckloads.
After I’d calmed down a bit, I began to notice all the other things you have to offer. You have a great selection of graphic novels, ideal for tempting reluctant readers. You have lots of non-fiction and science books for kids, perfect for enquiring young minds, especially those who aren’t into fiction right now. You have internet access, audio books, magazine subscriptions, DVDs. You have a reading corner for smaller kids, with bean bags and picture books, and one for grown-ups, with comfortable chairs, the newspapers, and a coffee machine. Luxury!
The thing I love most about you, though, is not the modern stuff. It’s the local history section, over in the back corner. Because I’m new to this part of the world, I don’t have a past here. I’m finding out about my new home, just as I would ask a new friend all about their life before we met. You have so much to tell me! Folk stories, curious little snippets of history, amazing ancedotes of past lives.
One of my favourites is the tale of John Steedman, the timorous minister of Auchterarder during the Jacobite rising of 1715, who was too afraid to preach while the Rebel Army were in the neighbourhood. William Reid, the minister of Dunning, who was made of sterner stuff, swapped with him, and for several weeks gave the sermon at Auchterarder armed with a loaded pistol!
I love that story. It makes eighteenth century Perthshire sound like the Wild West!
I found that tale in a very old book. Thank you for keeping books like that safe, so that history stays alive, and we can read about more than just the big national events.
Thank you also for safeguarding a huge collection of issues of the (then) Crieff Herald, dating back to the mid-1800s. I’m using those to research World War One at the moment, but I’ve often looked through them before when trying to find out about other things. You know, I wasn’t born here in Scotland, but my husband was. When he was a very tiny baby, he lived in Crieff for a few months because his father was working here as a young doctor. So one day when I was looking through the old papers, I took a peep in the issue that came out the week after he was born. And sure enough, there was his birth announcement! It was funny to see his name there, but wonderful too. It made me feel as though we belong here just a little bit more.
I guess that’s what I love most about you. I’ve travelled all over the place, but when I visit you, I really feel I’m home.

With love,