'It seems bewildering to me that libraries should be under threat and yet they are' - Ian Rankin
I grew up in a village in Fife. There was no bookshop, just a newsagent’s with a rack of Sven Hassel paperbacks.
My parents weren’t great readers, so we didn’t have many books in the house either. What Bowhill did have, however, was a public library, thanks to the generosity of Andrew Carnegie – which was fitting, as he’d been born just along the road in Dunfermline.
That library became a wood-panelled oasis for me. I took out as many books as I was allowed, visiting weekly to exchange them for more.
I still recall my excitement when, aged twelve, I was told I could start borrowing from the adult section. I wasn’t old enough to see films like The Godfather and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but suddenly I could read the books. It felt illicit and yet it wasn’t. All those books took me out of Bowhill, allowing me to have adventures in new and enthralling locations at any point in world history – including the future if I so wished.
I fell in love with libraries at an impressionable age and I love them still. My latest book, The Dark Remains, could not have been written without them. That book is set in 1972 Glasgow, a world away from my experiences growing up in Bowhill. I researched the period by visiting a library in Edinburgh and accessing the archive of Scottish newspapers from the period. I was also able to look at maps and street plans, so that my Glasgow would be an accurate representation.
The novel itself was started by William McIlvanney shortly before his death and features his brilliant detective character Jack Laidlaw. I felt a responsibility to get the geographical and period details right in order to honour McIlvanney’s legacy. A library card helped me achieve that.
It seems bewildering to me that libraries should be under threat and yet they are. Scotland on Sunday is spearheading a campaign to keep them open and to make sure they thrive. I’m more than happy to support this, as I would not be where I am without the help of libraries and librarians at every step of the way.
My high school in Cowdenbeath had a wonderfully helpful librarian. My university library was a haven and a bottomless source of knowledge. Having married and moved to London, my local library in Tottenham provided the source materials that allowed me to set a novel in the US (a place I’d never visited). My sons grew up as regular visitors to libraries. Their parents still use them.
During the height of the pandemic more people than ever wanted to disappear into a book. The closure of libraries was a bitter pill. Now that we are emerging blinking into the light, we need those libraries more than ever.
This is especially true in communities that lack other facilities, such as IT, internet access and bookshops. Literacy is crucially important and there needs to be engagement from an early age. Getting parents and their youngsters into libraries is imperative. Once introduced to stories and books, those children will store away benefits that should last a lifetime.
‘Libraries gave us power,’ a singer once sang. We need to be there for them now.
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by Coronavirus impacts our advertisers.
If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.