Stephen McGinty: Library treasure within our grasp

Libraries prevent over-spending in bookshops, effectively bestow a pay rise, reacquaint one with the pleasure of waiting and are a goldmine of historical
romances, writes Stephen McGinty

Book borrowing may have fallen but library use is on the rise. Picture: David Moir

When an elderly relative moved into the Battlefield area of Glasgow, I rediscovered the joys of the library. As her flat was a short walk from the stone steps that lead off the street and into Langside Library, I decided to pay a visit. After you pass through the door, visitors are greeted by a long wooden counter staffed by the librarians. If one turns left this leads to the children’s department. If one turns right there is the phalanx of computers available for public use and bookable for periods of 30 minutes at a time. Skirt around and behind the counter and this is where the precious world of free books opens up.

First there are the three free-standing tables displaying the latest paperbacks, usually lightly sprinkled with a seasonal theme – last December there was a snowfall of festive novels – and it is here that I will usually make my first stop. My relative has developed a fondness for romantic novels of historical hardship, so my eyes are peeled for covers depicting pretty girls in soot smeared aprons, for which there is a growing trend. So similar are the novels’ covers that on a number of occasions I’ve attempted to check one out only to be told I’ve read it already. Behind the tables is a rotating carousel containing the racier titles such as Story of O and Lace, which have re-emerged following the phenomenal success of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Opposite the carousel of sin is the rack containing a couple of hundred finely curated DVDs – TV box sets of The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, the original BBC series of Smiley’s People, foreign language films by the likes of Akira Kurasawa, new American movies – available at a cost of £1.60 for one week’s rental. Every time I stop to flick through I come across something else I’d either like to see or that is worth a repeat viewing. By the DVDs is the magazine rack, where the latest editions of GQ, Empire, National Geographic and a few dozen other titles are available. Securing the latest edition is a lottery but should you wish a casual flick there are copious back-issues on hand.

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The aisles of stacked shelves are generous and clearly stocked with me in mind. Just as the weekly shop at Morrisons or Tesco has its own natural rhythm, with a distinctive route pre-determined by favourites and essentials, so is each visit to Langside Library. After perusing the new paperbacks I invariably double-back to carefully examine which of the classics I will not be taking out this week. Will it be Moby-Dick? No, I didn’t take that out last week. Well, how about Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky? Perhaps, but no, I’ll wait and not take it out next week. After that I usually wander up and down the aisles of fiction, usually on the look-out for a new novel I might have seen reviewed. Then I clank up and down the history aisles until I find myself at the two book cases dedicated to “literature” with their hodgepodge of biographies of writers, critical studies and collections of poetry.

A few years ago my passion for books took on a strange, twisted obsession which I took to calling “bookchemia”. I would focus on a new book – a biography of Norman Mailer etc, a massive new novel about Vietnam – and no sooner had I purchased it than I immediately lost interest in it. I found myself abandoning books half way through, then a quarter of the way through, then before the end of the first chapter. It was as if I could no longer find purchase or foot-holes on those giant literary edifices, so I switched to short stories and essays, and when even these were abandoned before their perfectly pitched conclusions, I picked up poetry. Surely no-one could put down a poem mid-stanza? Well, it seems I could. I’m pleased to say that my reading has returned, and it is the library that has rekindled my passion.

Economists in a report published this week have calculated the monetary value of various sporting and cultural activities and what came out on top was that regularly visiting the library is, in terms of satisfaction, the equivalent of a pay rise of £1,359. By comparison, playing a team sport has a value of £1,127. This is a remarkable return on investment, as our library service costs us each about £21.90 a year in taxes.

Yet the sad fact is that we, as a society, have largely fallen out of love with the library, as only 20 per cent of us can be described as regular users and 40 per cent of us completely ignore the service. We also borrow fewer books than we did in the past. Back in 1979 people in Britain borrowed two-and-a-half times as many books as they bought but now we pretty much buy as many books as we borrow.

Well, you may do and, as an author myself, all I can say is please do carry on, but personally speaking, my purchases have plummeted as my borrowings have climbed. A strange change has come over me. Where in the past if I wanted a book then I wanted it now, today I’m quite happy to pop into the library and ask the staff to order it for me. Then a week or so later I receive a phone call – the old postcards appear to have been phased out – informing me that my book of choice is waiting behind the counter.

I’ve rediscovered the pleasure of anticipation. I’d quite like to read the new Philip Marlowe novel, The Black-Eyed Blonde, written by Benjamin Black (who is really John Banville) and I know that I could download it to my iPad in the time it takes to read this sentence, but I’d actually rather wait and borrow it from the library.

I tend not to arrive at the library seeking a specific title, unless I’ve previously seen it on the shelves, which is just as well, as a report back in 2005 found that customers had roughly a 50 per cent chance of finding the book they particularly wanted on any given visit. It is the aimless browsing that I particularly enjoy. I’ve still never quite abandoned the delight that comes from knowing I can take home any volume that takes my fancy. It is this availability that has led me to pare down my own library at home to those volumes that I always wish to have to hand.

If you spend any time in a public library you can’t help but notice how important they remain for the local community. My visits seem to coincide with what must be a never-ending computer class for the technologically illiterate, of which I would count myself an honorary member in terms of ability if not actual attendance. Then there are the students sighing over text books and preparatory papers.

These extra-curricular activities may well explain that while book borrowing has fallen, according to the Scottish branch of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, visits to Scotland’s libraries have risen over the past decade. Yet libraries are still under threat; we borrow fewer books and the costs are rising.

A common complaint nationally is that not enough money is spent on new books, but I can’t complain about Langside, as almost every title I’m interested in arrives on the shelves. My admiration reached new heights when I walked in one morning to be confronted with a display of Hard Case Crime paperback novels, including Harlan Ellison’s first novel about which I’d long read but never seen an actual copy.

The green and blue cardboard library tickets of my childhood have long since been replaced by a plastic card, but it is still a key to a kingdom of riches. Economists may value a library at £1,359, but to me they are priceless.