WHEN I was growing up in Prestwick, back in the 1970s, there were two emporia of delights on the same otherwise unprepossessing street. The first was the Electric Bakery, whose shelves buckled under the weight of butterfly cakes, coconut madeleines and chocolate eclairs; on special occasions, you would be allowed to pick six of these of these treats and carry them home in a box tied up with ribbon. The second, a few doors along, was the library. Its shelves buckled under the weight of similarly indulgent fare: gripping detective stories, tales of orphans triumphing over adversity, sweeping historical sagas. There was ritual here too: the reading of blurbs and the stamping on of the return date.
But you could go to the library any time you liked and gorge yourself for free; and the high you got from tasting other lives lasted longer than any sugar rush. The library was a refuge and a source of sustenance, and if, at the age of ten, you’d told me one of those two pleasure domes had to close then, sure as pineapple cakes are pineapple cakes, I’d have chosen the bakery.
Physically, Prestwick Library was nothing special; it wasn’t a grand red sandstone building like the Carnegie Library in neighbouring Ayr, but it had a smell – dust jacket with hint of carpet tile? – I would happily have bottled and worn as perfume. I spent hours on that floor gobbling up fiction: Anne of Green Gables, Flambards, Across the Barricades, so that Prince Edward Island, Essex and Belfast felt as real to me as my own backyard. The sinister boulders that stalked Marianne’s Dreams, stalked mine too.
Years later, when I had three children under seven, Pollokshaws Library in Glasgow, in the shadow of the high rises, provided a different kind of escape; on sodden days, when long hours loomed, dreary and structureless, the four of us would flee a house strewn with dishes and nappies and head for its warm vibrancy. There, we would set up camp, the rain rising off our jackets, and the boys would climb on the wooden train and bring book after book for me to read. If we timed it right, a library worker would gather the children round and read to them all and, for a fleeting moment, I’d close my eyes.
Libraries are like that; they have a way of embedding themselves in our psyches. They have evolved over time of course (even if they are freeze-framed in our own minds). Today, there can be almost as many computers as book cases and a reverential hush is no longer de rigueur. But whether they are housed in exquisite palaces of learning or unsightly prefabs; whether their users are discovering Dante or Dan Brown, these repositories of knowledge continue to bind communities and provide a portal to other worlds.
In her new anthology, Public Library and Other Stories, Ali Smith intersperses her own short stories with others’ reflections on the importance of libraries. The contributions, from Kate Atkinson, Jackie Kay and many more, are diverse, but running through them all is a conviction that – in their inclusion, their expansiveness, their communality – libraries somehow represent the best a society can be. “They are the last democratic free space we have. You don’t have to have any money, it doesn’t matter where you come from, what age you are, what you believe in. None of that is asked or relevant. You can still walk into this space and use it like everybody else can,” says Philippa Cochrane, head of reader development at the Scottish Book Trust.
The trust’s annual Book Week Scotland, which starts tomorrow, will see events from tea parties to talks by authors taking part in libraries up and down the country. Yet sadly, in the age of austerity, the service is increasingly at risk. In her anthology, Smith says 1,000 libraries have closed since she first began to write the stories seven years ago (the vast majority in England and Wales). North of the Border, we are comparatively lucky. The Scottish Government sees libraries as one of the keys to greater social cohesion, improved literacy and closing the attainment gap. It funds the Scottish Libraries and Information Council (SLIC), commissioned the National Strategy for Public Libraries and set up a £500,000 public library improvement fund.
But the council tax freeze – and the predicted cut to Scotland’s block grant in this week’s Spending Review – means local authorities, which are responsible for running libraries, have little choice but to further reduce provision. In Fife, birthplace of Andrew Carnegie, 16 closures have been mooted. Other local authorities are looking are cutting posts and opening hours, with school libraries a particularly easy target.
Earlier this year, Unison published a report, Read It and Weep, on the stress faced by staff expected to expand services while numbers and hours are being cut. The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland described school libraries as “standing on the edge of a cliff” and accused councils of failing to understand their benefits.
“We are not talking about what they are doing in England where volunteers are running [public] libraries and they are completely annihilating them as a concept from whole areas,” says SLIC’s chief executive Amina Shah. “They are still very much supported as part of the preventative spend agenda. That’s what we’re doing within the national strategy: trying to articulate that these nearly 600 hubs across the country can be used and are valued in so many different ways.” Unison reps, on the other hand, have questioned the point of the Scottish Government’s drive to make every child a library member, when cuts will make them less accessible.
According to the national strategy, 61 per cent of the Scottish population use libraries. In 2013/14, they had 28 million physical visits, lent out 20 million books and provided 9 million hours of internet access. But their greatest supporters believe their worth cannot be measured in numbers alone. At their best, they can be a gateway to knowledge, an antidote to loneliness and a catalyst for change. In the library on the ground floor of the Olympia Building in Bridgeton, Margaret Houston, principal librarian with Glasgow Life (the charitable trust that runs the city’s service) is telling me about one man whose life was transformed.
“He had been homeless, then rehoused into the Gorbals and had spent the next year sitting at home drinking every day,” she says. “Then, all of a sudden, he thought: ‘I can’t spend my whole life doing this’. He found himself at the library – he didn’t know where else to go – and he was welcomed. Now he goes every day. He writes poetry and credits the library with saving him.”
With its inviting café and bright interior, Bridgeton Library certainly appears to act as a social glue in an area of multiple deprivation (although not everyone using it is local). At 10.30am on Friday, it is busy. At the back, a group of young mothers are singing “squeeze the lemons with a squeeze, squeeze, squeeze” as their toddlers dance and clap their hands.
Two young-ish unemployed people are watching YouTube videos and accessing Facebook at computers and a couple of older men are settled in chairs, a can of Irn Bru and a coffee to hand, reading the Daily Record and a biography of Johnny Cash (when not making Jack and Victor-style digs at one another).
The men spend two hours a day in the library before heading off to the pub and the bookies (with the crossword they’ve torn out of the paper). Jack – aka Robert Brown, a former shipyard worker who lives alone – comes in to find company, Victor – aka John McShane, a former lorry driver – to escape it. Brown likes thrillers – “James Patterson, I’ve read maest of his, though I’m going a wee bit aff them now, right enough” – while McShane prefers non-fiction.
The men like to listen to the mothers and babies at Bounce and Rhyme and sometimes sing along (or so they say). After it finishes, Pamela Hanlon tells me she comes several times a week with one-year-old Raina and her older sister, Shay, four, who is currently at nursery. She is proud her girls show such an interest in books, but is also glad of the opportunity to get out of the house. Montse Pascual, who has moved to Scotland for five years with her Polish husband, wants to pass on her love of reading to 14-month-old Marco, but also to improve her English.
Standing at a book case, with a clutch of thrillers and a How to Speak French manual, is Sheina Jamieson, an occupational therapist from East Kilbride who works in the area. “I will read the book reviews in the Sunday papers, then I’ll come in and request one, she says. “The staff will look to see which library has it and order it in. They’re very helpful and quite often they’ve read the books and comment on them, which is nice.” Jamieson recognises the value of libraries and the principle behind them. “I don’t buy books on Amazon because I think we should be borrowing and sharing them,” she says.
Though libraries such as Bridgeton have already expanded their membership by going out into communities to advertise their service, local authorities, SLIC and the Carnegie UK Trust are constantly trying to increase the number of people they serve. Glasgow Life recently launched a pilot scheme whereby every child born in the city is given its very first library card when its parents turn up to register its birth.
From the earliest days of the internet, libraries have also been at the forefront of providing access and training. Now jobseekers are expected to apply for work online or lose their benefits, this service is more important than ever, especially in a city where 40 per cent of the population are not connected. Library workers spend a lot of their time helping people to negotiate the system. “We’ve even got a number of digital volunteers in the community, people with IT skills who give up their own time to help,” says Houston. The Carnegie UK Trust also awards grants for specific projects through its Library Lab Initiative – a competition designed to encourage innovation. One of the schemes funded last year was Edinburgh’s Digital Toyboxes, which involves six boxes of digital equipment, such as 3D printers, being rotated around the city’s libraries.
One of the challenges for those defending libraries is that people with full-time jobs and plenty of cash are the least likely to use them. Policy-makers may be under the misapprehension they are obsolete because they haven’t set foot in one for years.
In libraries’ favour, however, is the fact that those who treasure them are only too willing to be evangelists for the cause. Author Louise Welsh, professor of creative writing at Glasgow University, is one such devotee. As a child, she moved around a lot, but wherever they were, her family joined the library and went once or twice a week. The library she has the most vivid memories of is the Dick Institute in Kilmarnock with its monkey puzzle trees and stuffed lion.
Today, when she is writing, Welsh will often take her laptop to her local library – the Mitchell in Glasgow – and enjoy the buzz of creativity around her. “Working in the house is fine, but the walls can draw in on you,” Welsh says. “The Mitchell has a reading room where lots of people work. There will be students or people exploring their family tree or people writing who knows what: all sorts of songs and plays and books.”
This reminds me of my own student days when the Glasgow University Library and the Mitchell were places in which I was both happily absorbed and happily distracted. Libraries are magical, enriching havens capable of fulfilling different roles at different times in our lives. Maybe, like the mysterious Room of Requirement in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, they are whatever we need them to be each time we seek them out. «