When in Doubt, Go To the Library

“When in doubt, go to the library.’
— JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

I’ve recently been reading Ali Smith’s Public Library, and it made me think what a crucial role libraries have played in my life.

To begin at the beginning, both my parents worked in a library local to where they grew up. Because my mother had a university degree she became the children’s librarian, until she stopped working when she had two young daughters. My father left school young because his older brother was a lot older than him, so his parents were not eligible for a grant for his schooling, and thus could not afford to pay. My understanding is that he managed to find a job in a local library, this during the bad years of the Great Depression, when you took what work you could find. He was a very talented amateur artist and could turn his hand to most craft work, and I always thought of him as a frustrated artist.

The author’s father, with the author (left) and her sister

My father worked his way up to become the branch librarian, at which time he could indulge his artistic skills making show cases for the large display enclosure at the top of the library steps. He’d theme the books in a display and provide art work to attract attention. I’ll write more about this in a future post, where I hope to investigate the place of art in connection with our writing.

Growing up, I read my way through the huge children’s library and soon began on the adult library. By the time I went to secondary school, my father being branch librarian, I often called in to the library after school finished. I played concerts in the hall in the library with my sisters and later with my mother’s orchestra, after she had become one of the earliest peripatetic violin teachers in London. She’d wanted to teach when she left school but her older sister was already a teacher and her father said one teacher in the family was quite enough!

Music and words often vied for my attention. The library in Highams Park where I lived when first teaching was small. We spent 40 years in rural Wales where I taught cello in 27 schools each week. Our local library was inside the secondary school, so hours were restricted. My teaching saw me traveling, so I often used the larger library in Aberystwyth.

After a lifetime teaching cello, I began writing in retirement  and we moved to Orkney, one of the northern isles off the north coast of Scotland. The local libraries in Stromness and Kirkwall co-operate so that one can borrow a book from one and return it to either, or order a book from the other branch. The staff sometimes move between the branches for experience. They have an interesting and amusing presence on Facebook. They are also kind enough to stock the books of the many local authors, including my own short story collection.
This is the Wikipedia entry for my childhood library.

Paul the Archivist – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62860374

Paul the Archivist, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Before researching for this article I had not realised that my library had been used to show how our books were freely available, unlike the situation in Germany during the war. However, I encountered such a problem here in the 1950s in getting hold of a cello exam piece my teacher wanted me to study, as it was by a German Jewish composer. The British Museum came to my aid, loaning my library a copy for me to use!

My father followed the tradition, by having D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover freely available on the library shelves. But he kept Noddy and Big Ears books in the “pornography safe” where parents had to request those books for their children if they wanted them! My father did not want his own children to read them, and I’ve still not read any, as his view on good English use is one of which I approve.

I simply cannot over-stress the need for libraries, and the value they have for entertainment, education and life!

For related stories:

John writes about old books and childhood memories of books.

Kimberly writes about the human need for story.

Michael writes about how cool it is to write a book.

Sue talks about virtual book launches during covid lockdown.


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