Lori Anderson: Libraries are sanctuary of the mind

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has praised the role of libraries in helping to empower people in deprived communities. Picture: PA
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has praised the role of libraries in helping to empower people in deprived communities. Picture: PA
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We must use them or we will lose them, warns Lori Anderson, with numbers already beginning to fall every year

When I was young, a visit to the local library on a Saturday morning always meant a jaunt with my dad, sweetened by a bag of Woolworth’s pick ’n’ mix on the way home. I didn’t just go along for the sugar rush in the crumpled parchment bag, I was led by the promise of a feeling, a sense of calm that would pervade me when the faded aroma of old paper permeated my senses like a stain, not one to be rubbed out, however, but rather to sink into – even today, I will head to a library or museum when I’m feeling troubled, in search of a temenos, a sanctuary, for this is my church.

Andrew Carnegie's philanthropy saw libraries opening across the world. Picture: Getty

Andrew Carnegie's philanthropy saw libraries opening across the world. Picture: Getty

At primary school I had ideas above my station – I read Jane Austen, Evelyn Waugh and all the classics.

In secondary school my enjoyment of reading was thwarted by the yearly “book list”, the ten or so books that were mandatory every single year. For a time it took the joy out of reading for me, books became something to turgidly wade through followed by a reluctantly scuffed out book review. Now I rarely read fiction, I’m older, I’ve now lived a life sharpened by the vicissitudes of life’s slings and arrows, so I prefer to spend time in the comfort of something a little more absolute: science books and biographies.

My love of libraries remains undimmed and so I was pleased when it was announced this week that a series of pilot schemes will be rolled out in local authorities around Scotland designed to slip a library card into the tiniest of mitts.

Glasgow City Council has just announced that, from 7 September, it is to give a library card to every single child at birth, with the first wave targeting areas with low levels of literacy.

Other authorities will be handing out library cards to children when they reach three or four years of age, or on their first day at primary school.

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Nicola Sturgeon was quite correct when she said: “Our libraries are often the hub of a local community, providing vital access to information and resources that people would otherwise not have. Now, thanks to £80,000 Scottish Government funding, every local authority in Scotland will trial methods to give children automatic membership to their local library.

“Libraries can empower communities, often in our most deprived areas, where we know that young people can have lower levels of literacy and numeracy. Access to books and learning materials will help us to make sure that every child has the opportunity to get excited about reading.”

I couldn’t agree more and would like to think that the new scheme will be a success and that a new generation of young people will discover not only the joy of books but the blissful pleasure of browsing. For this is the magical activity overlooked by those advocates who believe that a physical library should be wrapped in uniform jackets to look pretty or be replaced by an electronic Kindle. Devices such as the Kindle and iPad have their place – and many a summer suitcase is a good deal lighter for their invention – but they cannot and should not replace a physical building, a common space staffed by knowledgeable enthusiasts and stacked with the literary wonders of the world. To browse is to wander around from shelf to shelf and allow oneself to be caught by a colourful binding, an unusual title or by the earlier works of a once loved author. Browsing is to cast a hook into an ocean of words and see what delights might emerge.

I’ve often gone to the library for one book only to emerge with something quite different. There is great joy to be had in the unknown. There is also that wonderful point of transition and growth when a child graduates from the picture books to proper literary children’s novels and then finally into what feels at first like the transgressive world of the adult section.

Andrew Carnegie was a formidable businessman who knew the importance of a library. In 1880 he donated funds to his town of Dunfermline and three years later a new library was opened above whose entrance was carved the wonderful words: “Let there be light”. His philanthropy would ensure that such beacons of knowledge were opened across Britain, Ireland and America, with 2,509 libraries opening between 1883 and 1929. Last year the Carnegie UK Trust carried out an Ipso Mori poll which found that 61 per cent of Scots used a library in the last year, a higher rate than in any other part of the UK. The sad fact is that attendance at libraries is falling across the country. In Glasgow numbers through the doors dropped from 4.4 million in 2011-12 to 4.1 million last year.

We should be aware that we will lose libraries if we do not use them. We are already in the throes of losing them and so I would like to suggest that anyone who loves books, who is happy to buy their own, either at Waterstones or Amazon, take a few steps back into their childhood this weekend and pay a visit to their local library.

The thrill may well come back, that pleasure of taking books home for free and the choice and range may surprise you. Even if you don’t find anything you like, your very presence will boost numbers and hopefully turn you into a socially acceptable repeat offender.