An idea as benevolent and democratic as a free library for all was viewed very dimly in Britain in the 19th century. The case for a national library service was framed in the language of patrician obligation ('we must').
Arguments raged back and forth in parliament over whether libraries would become sites of social agitation – books, you see, they turn people’s heads – or were nothing more than the best alternative anyone could suggest to habitual drunkenness amongst the poor. So the jewel of a civilised society came into existence in Britain in 1850 with little fanfare. There was a much compromised act of parliament, and perhaps quite a lot of grumbling about the taxes that would pay for it.
What are libraries? These days, they are municipal spaces where people can access the internet, rent films and books, attend community events, and print off a job application; but such a description is completely drained of joy. What else is a library? Well, for a start, libraries are full of books, and books are full of racy things. Now we’re talking. Books contain the whole world and everything in it, shrunk to fit in your hand – so libraries are where we go to travel.
The most recent count I could find – from 2012 – had the number of books in our public libraries in the UK at 92 million. Ninety-two million adventures, 92 million discoveries. Libraries are a retreat, a warm place in winter, a parenthesis, a hiding place. A place where you can release your children into the care of authors, a place where you are not entreated to buy anything, for once.
When I was a child our small rural school was visited by the mobile library van. It was a magical diversion, a clean and cosy place where everything was interesting and available. We queued up with our ration of books and watched with fascination the mechanical workings of the date stamp. The librarian was a feisty, harried woman – grey haired, moody, unpredictable, and not particularly fond of children. Her formidable presence made the books seem like friendly escapees as we took them away in our school bags. (Many years later, my dad worked in this library, and confirmed what I’d always wondered – the books do all fly off the shelves if you brake suddenly).
As an adult I visit much bigger libraries and wander down dark avenues of unfamiliar books. Libraries now seem exciting and romantic. They’re full of dark corners, velvety spines, golden serifs on old typefaces.
For a few years I have gone to the ninth floor of the Glasgow University library in the evenings after work. Here is peace. A place to write, uninterrupted. I sit at a desk that is perched before a wall of glass. The city is ahead and below. On winter nights the lights are thickly laid out, glittering orange with eggshell speckles of white. I read Alistair Gray’s 'Lanark' for the first time in this spot and discovered the city beyond the glass and there on the page. It was in the library that I found Doris Lessing’s collection of essays, 'Prisons We Choose to Live Inside', which toppled everything I’d assumed about work and achievement. She reminded me that I could read according to pleasure and impulse, rather than in the service of examinations.
It was libraries that got me through a time of heartbreak. I don’t remember much of that time except the perfect sameness each night of the 70s annexe filled with reference books, old computers and desks of treacly-varnished teak. Night after night the yellow lights buzzed above me, faintly lighting up the empty room, conspiring with my stunned misery. It was the only place I wanted to be: alone, writing stories that had nothing to do with what was happening in my own life – writing myself out of despair. I wrote about green gardens under heavy sun, houses full of light, stories of kindness and tenderness.
Really, libraries offer something quite radical. Something which has always been – and still is now – available to the rich and out of the reach of the poor. Time and space.
I have lived in Glasgow for a decade, studying and then working. I’ve lived in a succession of shared flats, borrowed floor space and spare sofas. A room of one’s own is a far-fetched dream for most – or to put it another way, a lot of us learn to do our best thinking in the shower. I treasure the time and space to read and write. If it weren’t for libraries, this most dear part of my life would have sunk under the demands of everyday life.
The most important thing a library can have apart from books, then, is desks and chairs, and the understanding that it is quite okay for a person to sit there engrossed in a book or scribbling in a notepad, from morning until closing time. (Personally, I like a library with a prevailing fearful silence, but we can’t have everything.)
Unfortunately libraries fall into that most unloved category of a service that costs money and provides invisible, unmeasurable and invaluable gains in return. Zadie Smith, campaigning in 2011 against the closure of public libraries in London, described them as nothing less than 'gateways to better, improved lives’. They give us knowledge, connection and wellbeing, and yet from their limping beginnings in 1850, they have remained underfunded and underestimated.
The most important thing we can do to preserve our public libraries is use them. Take the space and time that is yours – it’s there waiting for you.
I have finally got that 'room of my own’, in my 30s, and I sit writing in the mornings before the tall windows. My small collection of books sit on the shelf behind me. After all these years I keenly appreciate the heap of good fortune that I sit upon when I sit there, uninterrupted, tapping away on a keyboard in the midsummer sun. What’s best about my new place, though? There’s a library at the end of the street.