When was the last time you ventured into your local library? Perhaps it was when you were accidentally blown in by the rain and hung around for thirty minutes staring out of the doors until the storm clouds cleared. Or perhaps it was when you had to kill a couple of summer-holiday hours with your children. You dragged them along, shoved them into the hands of the library staff, then sank back into the blessed sanctum of your mobile phone. And when they were done, you hustled them out again without a backwards glance. You probably didn’t even bother to thank the nice librarian gamely hoping you’d take a moment to notice the carefully laid out new book display. Perhaps it’s time to get reacquainted. There’s not much at stake, after all… Only the future of the known galaxy.
It is currently Libraries Week, a curated schedule of events aimed at bringing us into the libraries – big and small – that grace our towns, cities and villages, a means of reacquainting us with that which we may have begun to take for granted. After all, most us grew to adulthood in a country where it has always been a given that we will have access to a place where books will be readily and freely available to all, regardless of class, creed, race, gender, ability or background. Libraries are the most egalitarian places on earth. When we step through those doors – a magic portal, of sorts – we are all reduced to a single simplistic equation; saints and sinners, penitents and procrastinators, we are all welcome.
Yet, how long will those doors remain open to us?
It is no secret that libraries are under the cosh. Years of sustained cuts, staff shortages, the advent of the Internet, all have taken their toll. A 2016 Guardian article by Simon Jenkins tells us that more than 300 libraries closed in recent years, with 8000 librarians hacked out of the system. The blame for this is placed (by those who hold the purse strings) on falling public usage and book borrowing. But this is a reductive argument of the type that ends with a society shooting itself in the foot. Yes, less people are coming into our libraries, but should our response be to shut more libraries, thus perpetuating a vicious cycle that, in the fulness of time, will reduce us to a dystopia where libraries have become as rare as shrines?
I am an author. Like most authors I have my own library tale to tell. I grew up in a household where my father did not read and thus could not appreciate the value of buying (fiction) books. The notion of me approaching him and asking for hard-earned cash to buy a ‘made-up story’ made his eyes bulge. Which meant that it wasn’t until I hit the library system that I was finally able to step into a world of books that I had hitherto believed out of my reach. It was here that I discovered Watership Down, The Lord of the Rings, and Terry Pratchett’s wonderful Discworld series. It was here that I discovered the thrill of browsing shelves and serendipitously encountering books that enticed me with gorgeous covers or intriguing blurbs. It was here that I discovered that I too wanted to be a creator of words and not just a consumer.
Inspired by those early library forays I wrote my first novel aged seventeen and sent it off to a couple of agents, fully expecting fame and fortune to beat a path to my door. There was, of course, one small problem with my cunning plan… the book was terrible. Over the next twenty-four years I wrote six more (rejected) novels until finally my ‘debut’, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, the first in the India-set Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series – featuring a retired Mumbai policeman and his baby elephant sidekick – was published. It became a Times bestseller and a Waterstones paperback of the year, setting the foundation for the series and my career as a novelist. Throughout this period libraries remained my go-to place for inspiration, for a quiet place to write after work, or to reflect on life in general when it gave me the occasional boot to the nether regions.
Just over a year ago, I was approached by my local library in east London and invited to institute a weekly reading and creative writing group. As someone in full-time employment, and an author contracted to deliver one novel a year, I was hesitant to take on such a commitment – how could I possibly justify the time? After all, though, like every author, I knew that libraries are an essential part of the literary ecosystem, at that time, I did not see any tangible benefit to me. How wrong I was.
The past year has been nothing if not revelatory. I have discovered how libraries actually work, and how they can be made to work. I have discovered how hard the people who run them have to fight to preserve what they have, how inventive they have to be (on shoestring budgets), and how passionate they are about the mission to which they have dedicated their lives. I have delivered talks in libraries around the country, from Perton to Rainham, in buildings as beautiful as Glasgow’s Mitchell library to far less grandiose venues – including half-a-dozen prison libraries. I have spoken to audiences ranging from book lovers to movie buffs to wide-eyed children armed with toothy smiles and plasticine. I have run workshops and short story writing competitions; I have met varied and wonderful members of local communities to whom the library is a haven, a home away from home, a hub of social life. Having mastered the intricacies of shelving one rainy afternoon I earned my honorary librarian spurs. In short, I rolled up my sleeves and got involved. And the benefits have flowed both ways. As an author I have felt welcomed, initiated into a not-so-secret society of inspiring folk working their tails off for the good of us all. Through all of this, I have been amazed at the resilience of my librarian colleagues. As a lifelong comic book fan, I find myself likening them to that other band of renegade misfits, the Guardians of the Galaxy.
Permit me to elucidate.
The Guardians of the Galaxy (for those of you unfamiliar with the characters) are a gang of misanthropic spacefarers who, in spite of the dark forces ranged against them, conjure up ways to save the cosmos. It is in the intriguing cast of characters that populate the Guardians’ team that I discover reflections of the wonderful (and enigmatic) library staff that I have come to know.
For instance, there is Peter Quill, Star Lord, a half-alien half-human hero with cosmic awareness… Well, is this not precisely the description of that singularly brave soul given the thankless task of running a library in today’s environment? Cosmic awareness is practically a necessity for the job, as well as a certain out-of-this-world ability to juggle budget, staff rotas, customer ‘experience’, political bartering, and the not inconsequential problem of ensuring the library does not become a homeless shelter.
And then there is Drax the Destroyer, indestructible green-skinned giant. Every library needs a Drax, a surly bouncer whose role appears limited to shelving and filing – of what or where is rarely questioned – but who is brought into the fray whenever a bow-legged drunk stumbles through the doors, or a particularly chatty knitting circle must be reminded of the virtues of silence (preferably on pain of being picked up by the scruff and hurled into the street).
Next, there is Gamora, self-proclaimed “deadliest woman in the galaxy.” This is not a librarian that you want to get on the wrong side of. But it is the Gamoras in the system who, with an icy glare and a flick of their administrative wand are able to put visiting council bureaucrats in their place or conjure up little miracles when all seems lost. They are the motor at the heart of the engine, indefatigable, resourceful and ever reliable. If you find yourself having to organise that last summer reading challenge session but discover that, budgetwise, all that remains in the petty cash tin is £2.18 and a mouldy biscuit, it is Gamora you turn to.
Groot is a living tree, an alien plant monster, whose lack of verbosity – his only line is “I am Groot” – is matched only by his sunny disposition. But surely this is our ever-smiling librarian doorstop, a perennially friendly face at the front counter? Come winter or summer, come stroppy entitled businessmen or obnoxious teen, he is unfailingly polite as that most eternal of greetings falls from his lips like a stone tart:‘Welcome to the library, how may I assist you?’
Last, but not least, there is Rocket Raccoon. A surly alien genius who happens to look like a cuddly raccoon… Meet our library volunteer. Without this band of ever-willing brigands – on hand for busy days and seasonal events – the system would crash. Because, contrary to the message being sent out by government-enforced staff cutbacks there are simply not enough trained people in the system.
Make no mistake: librarian is a skilled role. Most librarians have completed a course of study (usually a degree) in information management or librarianship accredited by CILIP, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. It is also a role of trust. Librarians are entrusted to work with and for members of the public, of all ages and backgrounds, and to do so with a smile on their faces and a song in their hearts. In some ways, they are like taxi drivers, only with better banter, and with the added advantage that they don’t expect you to tip them. The first step in saving our libraries is in appreciating the people who work in them.
So what does this all amount to? After all, it’s pointless complaining about a problem if you cannot also propose a solution. For me that solution lies in many quarters. With politicians and local councillors who make funding decisions and must decide what sort of country they wish to leave behind, twenty, thirty or fifty years from now. The solution lies with libraries themselves. They must (and are) evolving to become community hubs, with coffee shops, playgroups, and a full schedule of talks, events and activities ranging from Zumba to art displays. At the same time, they must advertise their traditional wares – as well as books, and creative spaces, libraries are home to vast and varied sources of information not available on the Internet. In particular, they are a font of local information: maps, magazines and periodicals, microfiche of local newspapers. Last, but not least, the solution lies with us – we ‘ordinary’ members of the public. There is no point bleating on about libraries being closed down if we are not willing to do something about it. And that something is to dust off our library cards, get down to our local library, and engage. Attend events, participate in activities, introduce your children to the library and the amazing people who work there and, most of all, borrow books.
It is time to reacquaint ourselves with all that libraries have to offer. There’s not much at stake, after all… Only the future of the known galaxy.
Photos: Delivering a talk at Perton Library in Staffordshire, and filing books at Manor Park Library in east London.