‘It’s not about the books’ at Shettleston Library

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‘HERE, hen, where’s yer best murder mysteries?”

It’s a question of the sort you hear a lot when you spend a day in a library in the east end of Glasgow.

Crime fiction seems top of the tree here, although there has been a recent craze for the Fifty Shades Of Grey novels. “First the daughters were taking them out,” laughs one of the librarians, “then the mothers, then the grannies. They say it’s responsible for a baby boom.”

Library employee Richie Hannah. Picture: Donald Macleod

Library employee Richie Hannah. Picture: Donald Macleod

Shettleston Library is a rather grand, massy, dignified, sober building, built in 1925 of red brick and blonde sandstone, with the famous Glasgow crest – bird, tree, fish and bell – carved above the wooden front door. Its many large windows are protected, presumably from vandals, with a steel mesh to which, on occasion, curious magpies cling. They are attracted, perhaps, to the shiny pink spines of the Mills & Boons, with which this library is well-stocked. Should you ever desire a copy of Powerful Greek, Unworldly Wife or The Infamous Italian’s Secret Baby, Shettleston is the place to come.

Once a byword for serenity, libraries have become, of late, the arena for a war of words, as councils make deep budget cuts. Scotland had until recently escaped the worst of the library closures affecting England, but last month came the news that Moray Council was to close seven of its 15 libraries, prompting outrage – and there is concern that there is more of the same to come. Many of Aberdeen’s libraries have been under threat of closure, and across Scotland there have been significant reductions in staffing levels, opening hours, book buying budgets and mobile library provision.

The latest cuts were announced last week in Shetland, where £135,000 has been cut from the libraries budget over the past two years. Meanwhile, library use across Scotland seems actually to have been increasing during the economic downturn. The overall picture is everyone serving a greater need with lesser resources.

Meanwhile, Terry Deary, author of the bestselling Horrible Histories series, has broken ranks with the many writers protesting against the cuts, saying, “Libraries have had their day. They are a Victorian idea and we are in an electronic age. They either have to change and adapt or they have to go. I know some people like them but fewer and fewer people are using them and these are straightened times. A lot of the gush about libraries is sentimentality.”

Could he be right? Are libraries out of date? Are we sentimental about them when, really, we should be hard-headed? The best way to find out, surely, is to spend a day in a library and talk to the people who use it.

It is a bitter morning of freezing fog, almost malevolent in its intensity, and before the library opens there is already a small queue of old ladies, stamping their feet against the cold, and waiting to have their borrowed Ian Rankins stamped as returned.

Inside the library it is warm, bright and pleasant. Above the counter is an old stained glass depiction of St Mungo, and against one wall a display of famous Shettlestonians, including the football pundit Archie Macpherson, photographed in his 1970s pomp. The computers, always in high demand, are busy with people applying for jobs, or checking Facebook, or both – often they cannot afford broadband at home. A plump middle-aged man nods, dozes and snorts over a copy of the Evening Times. Liz, a woman in her mid-sixties tells me that she first came here as a wee girl; later she brought her son and daughter, and now she brings her seven-year-old grandson. Esther Coumond – here with her daughters Eden, 6, and Elisha, 5 – is from Ivory Coast, via Paris, and says she is keen to improve her English; the girls already speak with a Glasgow accent, which she likes just fine.

Scotland has the highest level of library use in the United Kingdom at 61 per cent, according to a report by the Carnegie UK Trust. There are more than 500 libraries in Scotland, 33 of them in Glasgow, including the Mitchell, which – with its great green dome glowing in the darkness above the motorway at Charing Cross – seems emblematic of all the wisdom and grace which the city, at its best, can offer.

Libraries, it seems to me, are not simply places where you go to borrow books. They are profoundly social spaces, and some of the greatest stories are to be found, not on the shelves, but among the people who peruse them. You can come in for a blether and hear from auld Alex, who as a young man was caught up in the Ibrox disaster and on that day lost the use of one of the valves in his heart, or from Margaret, a single mother – borrowing a book on coping with anxiety – who brings her kids to the library after school so they can spend quiet time together without the distraction of telly or housework. Library users, just like library books, aren’t always in mint condition. They – we – carry marks of age and use. We are faded and slightly foxed.

Take Cirion Devine. “I come here every day,” he says. “This place saved me.” A tall man of 59, he has long grey hair and glasses, and is wearing a heavy green parka. He’s friendly and polite, with a survivor’s eagerness to tell his tale.

A few years ago, he was drinking far too much. Black-outs. Fights. Relationship break-downs. Starving himself so he could afford more booze. He feared for his life and decided to seek help, confiding in both priest and doctor. He was given medication to help him stay off the drink, but it wasn’t easy. He felt paranoid and alone, having changed his social circle, cooped up in the house and in his own head.

“Then one day I just decided, ‘Right, I’ve got to get out.’ I was looking for a safe haven. This was the only place I could think of. It was hard walking up the road. The paranoia was ripping at me. But I came in. One of the staff asked me was I OK, and I don’t know why I told her but I said, ‘Aye, but I’ve just taken this medication and I’m really rattlin’.’ And she said, ‘You’re OK. Nothing to fear coming in here. Nothing to hide coming in here.’ And that was me started. I’ve been coming in ever since.”

He visits the library up to three times a day, and usually has the maximum of 12 books out at a time, history and historical fiction. Shettleston Library seems to function, for Cirion, as an airlock between his home and the sometimes overwhelming outside world. It is, he says, “a retreat” – a place he can come when he feels the walls closing in. The staff ask him how he’s doing, tell him to take care, and he appreciates all that very much. He feels like he’s part of something. And he is. He is a member of the library.

Libraries are important places – they offer free books. But they are also symbolically important – offering an idea of community, equality and social good, an NHS of the mind. That is why libraries suit Victorian and art deco architecture – all those carved torches and copper angels and knowledge personified in stone make manifest the deep feelings that many of us have for them.

Each Friday, at 10.30am, the peace of Shettleston Library is broken by the weekly bounce and rhyme class – 25 or so parents and grandparents with infants and toddlers, singing along to The Wheels On The Bus and the like. One rather sheepish looking young dad, to whose self-consciousness I can relate, has his son’s name tattooed on his neck but can’t quite bring himself to do the actions to Wind The Bobbin Up.

On one level, bounce and rhyme is just a bit of fun, a diverting way to spend half an hour, but these classes are also opportunities for parents to bond with their children, to make new friends, and perhaps to improve their own literacy and numeracy. Glasgow Life runs adult literacy classes in Shettleston Library on Monday evenings. There are around 65,000 adults in Glasgow who have difficulty in reading and writing – and most of these will be in the poorer areas of the city. The Glasgow North East constituency, of which Shettleston is part, has the greatest level of child poverty in Scotland at 43 per cent. Again and again, you meet people who tell you that they cannot afford to buy books, and that they themselves are not great readers, but they bring their children to the library to read.

Giovanna, a 10-year-old with an I Heart One Direction bow in her red hair, brings a child’s simplicity to the issue: “The school library is quite small. And the shops are dear.”

The library, these days, is as much a community centre as anything else. There is a knitting circle, beginners’ computing classes, and volunteers who take books to the housebound. There is even a local history group, chaired by 79-year-old Tony Jaconelli, whose impetus for forming the group was some numpty who had the temerity to suggest that such an area wasn’t worthy of study. “No history in Shettleston?” he huffs, still outraged. “Get lost!”

There is, of course, plenty of history in Shettleston. And one can only hope, as far as the library is concerned, plenty of future too. It doesn’t seem to me sentimental to regard such places as important to the communities they serve, especially communities which are struggling in so many ways.

As half-five approaches, I get talking to the last borrower of the day. James is 66, a retired fork-lift driver in a wooly bunnet. He’s a regular, always arriving 15 minutes before closing and always, always the last to leave. He loves a gab with the librarians and is typical, I’d say, of the type of library user for whom these places are not just useful but vital.

“I live on my own,” he says. “This gets me out the house and gives me somebody to talk to. It’s no’ really about the books.”

Twitter: @PeterAlanRoss