The Pool by Lynn Enright: What my local library meant to me

As libraries face closures and staff shortages, journalists and authors recall the local libraries of their childhood, and reflect on what they meant to them

Past the drunks in the park, across the road from the grimy bus station, my world would begin every time I walked in. I can mark stages in my brain opening up by my visits to Gorseinon Library: choosing my very own books for the first time as a child (hello independence!), finding George Orwell’s 1984 in the suggested teen reading section (hello literature!), gobbling up every single title in music (hello, The Cure and REM), and devouring a book called Writing For Magazines (hello future life: I renewed it 20 times).

A place of escape in a tiny Welsh town, I spent hours there learning, and ordered in so many titles for free – and still feel a rush of blood to  my head whenever I drive past it when I’m visiting home. Their loss makes me wonder how we can say we live in a civilised country. Without that library, I know, categorically, I wouldn’t have been me.

Libraries have always been places of safety and clarity for me. Growing up with questions about the world around, it was the Cardiff and then Bristol libraries that gave me answers and a voice. George Orwell on the third shelf gave me the strength to understand that some of us just saw things differently, and Sojourner Truth the faith my voice would one day be heard.

The idea that those experiences and the building that held them were a luxury is something that breaks my heart. I have benefited like many from amazing public services, but libraries have more than any of them been the making of me. Those buildings saved my life.

Saturday afternoons in Woking library were just part of life. I’d always be in the poetry section. I was mesmerised by just how they managed it. Anyone could write stories, or so I thought. After all, I was doing it all the time. But how did people sculpt those shapes out of words, get the words to sit just so, how did they know the absolute right word to use?

But it was as I got older that the local library really became a friend; somewhere I could go to finish my MA dissertation whilst working full time, miles away from my university. When I first moved out of my ex-boyfriends, broke Saturday mornings were spent in Daltson’s library, reading the paper, finding my bearings, keeping calm while I’d dived into a new life. When I moved to Deptford, knowing no one, the library became a place where I discovered reading groups and exhibitions and the hub of a community. Much like Dalston, I could go in there with a cup of tea and find my feet.

The state library in downtown LA is the thing of dreams. Old green leather, desks lamp illuminating an orange glow and constellations on the ceiling. This, of course, is not my local library. But its sumptuousness perfectly articulates how the l wish all local libraries could and should be – a brilliant civic endeavour, welcoming to everyone, dreamy and hopeful.

When I was a child my family moved around quite a lot and by the time I was 13 I had lived in two countries, three cities and five different neighbourhoods. Whenever we’d move to a new place, one of the things I looked forward to the most was going to the local library. There was something homely and comforting about libraries – whether in a sleepy village in the countryside or in a bustling city like London, I could always rely on the local library to be a constant.

As a child, my local library was everything. Some of my best friends lived within the pages of a novel, and it was a place I could explore the world and still feel safe. My parents couldn’t afford the books, and so without the library, I would never have found the stories. And without the stories, I would never have found the words to write Goats and Sheep.

My dad took me to our local library every Saturday morning from the age of about three and let me loose among the books. It was there, sitting on the red plastic bucket chairs, that I first made the transition from baby picture books to the Famous Five. With no Amazon and no bookshop in our village, it fed my rapacious hunger for stories over the next 13 years. It made me a reader and I feel so lucky to have had that chance; long may it thrive.

I was a booky kid without access to many books. I’d stormed my way through my mum’s hand-me-downs (What Katy Did, Little Women…) and read and reread my treasured Little House on the Prairie box set, the school library didn’t last much longer than the first year and I made light work of my mum’s Georgette Heyer and Jean Plaidy. By the time I was allowed to go to the public library on my own I headed straight for the “restricted” section. I owe a lot to Judith Krantz and Jacqueline Susann, Jilly Cooper and Shirley Conran – and a kind librarian who turned a blind eye to the fact that I was a titchy freckly kid who in no way looked 13.

There were no books in my house growing up, or very very few. We weren’t skint, but we didn’t have book buying money. It’s hard to remember now of course, that books used to cost more than 99 pence. We were library readers.

In a civilised society, keeping books confined to those whose parents can afford them is wicked. End of.

When my mum sat me down to tell me all about the facts of life, I told her I already knew all about it, I’d looked it up at the library. I went to the library three or four times a week as a child, stocking up on Baby-Sitters Club and Anastasia Krupnik and Nancy Drew books, as well as making some time for some autodidacticism… I even remember hanging around for a cheese-and-wine event for a local artist one evening…. My library card allowed the 10-year-old me a sense of autonomy, something you couldn’t necessarily find in a bookshop, even if you were wealthy enough. It’s about the time, the space, the privacy, the possibility.

Some of my most treasured memories as a child involve my local library as my mother would bring myself and my sister there every Saturday. We would cuddle in a corner and read for an hour before making that oh so important decision about what books to take out on loan. The building itself was beautiful, a converted old mill, with a river running underneath it. I would sit by the window and watch that river, book in my lap, and wait for my imagination to catch fire.

When I returned to my home town at the age of 26 to start writing my first novel, Only Ever Yours, the library became hugely important to me once again. I didn’t have enough money to buy all the books I wanted to read so I frequented so often the librarians knew me by name. It was in the library that I learned to see books as my friends, that I learned to see words as magic, and stories as portals into other worlds.

A new BBC report found that 343 UK libraries have closed over the past eight years. 


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