Libraries, over two generations
When I was young, my mother took me to libraries. They shaped the texture of our week: giving us, even when we were poor — and my mum was, presumably, worrying about all sorts of things which she and child benefit could together just about protect me from — a quiet, calm space, equipped with free books, activities, and most importantly a community.
As I got older, the school library became a key part of my life. Now, I spend several days a week in the huge British Library, by King’s Cross St. Pancras, working on a PhD in English Literature. This would not have been the case without an early exposure to books made by possible by two things: the benevolence of the state, and my mum.
With libraries under threat across the UK, I wanted to ask my mother about our time in the library — and what libraries have meant, in turn, to her.
So: tell me about us and libraries. We started going when we lived in Middleton, right?
From when you were really small I would take you to the library and get books for you. As soon as you were old enough to choose books from the library you would choose for yourself. They would have story time. By the time you were two, you were old enough to sit in on that and listen. It was a big part of how we structured our week; it was all around free activities.
I always loved books, but when you were younger we couldn’t afford £4, £5 for a book.
How much were we on then?
£65 a week.
And we were paying off [your father’s] student debt, too.
So we’d go there weekly.
Yes. More than; I was studying, actually. When you were around twelve months, eighteen months, I wanted to do an Open University course, but I couldn’t afford it. The librarian said there may be sources of funding; they kept a folder that was full of bursaries and donations, and there was a woman in the area who had set up a fund for women under 25 to pay for educational courses.
I think I got £150. This was 1991, 1992. I remember being blown away by the fact I could do that. I bought one book, which was the set text, then everything else went through the library.
Of course, it was a smaller fee for the Open University then — at least, it was a fee a salaried person could afford. Now a foundation degree there can be something like £10,000.
But you’d obviously been going to the library since you were a child.
Yes. And when we were studying for O-levels and [CSEs], that’s where we’d go to study. We would order books from the library — text books and so on — and we’d sit and revise there.
You wouldn’t do it at home: our houses were tiny, they were noisy, you had no computer and no place to work.
The things I read as a teenager were so focussed on the school library. Because it’s not just what you put into the search engine or what you’re looking up, or calling up on a computer system; it’s coming across things unexpectedly. The value of the library for exposing you to “unknown unknowns” was so important to me.
I remember going into the school library the same way. You’d go in for a specific topic, or a textbook, and you’d find something alongside what you wanted. That book would maybe not be exactly what you were supposed to get, but that became its own education.
That’s the thing that scares me. If you shut down museums — which is what they’re doing in the North — if you close down Northern museums, move those collections to London, and then you close down libraries, where do you come across the things that are unexpected; that are outside your circle of knowledge, and outside of your social circle?
Just having a room — however big, but as grand as possible! — that’s full of books is never a bad thing. And I don’t believe you can ever replace it, or replicate it with technology. You’re never going to come across those things by accident.
But how do you justify that cost? I definitely feel like it’s justified, but it’s so easy to say it’s not.
You justify it by going: you’re providing upward mobility. I know our special correspondent Stephen Bush is writing about being young and accessing outreach in Tower Hamlets; he’s now covering politics for the New Statesman. You can make real and quantifiable argument in those terms, if you have to justify it.
I know we spoke about that Paul Mason essay in the Guardian, about the idea of intellectualism.
Oh, yes. There’s such a history of working-class intellectualism, and specifically a history of being interested in, well, things like history, or engineering, or local industry. Local families. People didn’t see it so much as being “academic”, but there was an idea that you’d be interested in things. I remember how people would know so much — there was always embededness.
My grandma, for instance, used to read some really trashy novels. They were historical romance books, featuring the Plantagenets. I remember reading them about aged 12, and they were a bit Mills and Boon, but from that I picked up the history of the Plantagenets, and then the monarchy generally.
I would never have done that on the internet, or via a Kindle. But she had these sets of books. Then I remember going into school and looking them up, because I used to help out at the library after school, and then I found out more and more about history.
The way those early interests recur is so interesting. You can lay that foundation of what will be compelling to you so young. I think it’s easy to forget that.
Yes. Books are amazing, in how they open up those worlds to you as a child. I don’t know how you compete with a computer. I don’t think we should try.
I suppose if you have the library and someone’s on the computer in the library, you’re still on a computer in a social space. A lot of people have said this to me in the course of preparing this week: the library isn’t just about the books, it’s a safe, social space.
For teenagers, it’s a space other than home, where you could work. Other than home that wasn’t recreational; it was industrious.
And there’s a cross section of the community.
Oh, yeah. Our library was always busy! There was the local history section, there was a room for funding and those sort of things, the genealogy section… and there were always people milling around. Then a children’s library upstairs, which always had children in, at any time of day.
I think it’s difficult in that now you have computers, in theory you’ve always got access to information; in fact, more than we had in libraries.
But for me, it’s always a bit like food. There’s so much fast food out there, you’re never going to get kids to eat healthily. I don’t know if it’s a good analogy, but for me the library is like a healthy diet; the whole ethos of the place is “be quiet, be respectful of other people, you’re here to work”. And sometimes you’d be bored to tears, thinking, “I really don’t want to do this essay”, so you’d end up picking up something else, but it was always a book. You couldn’t go that far wrong. It’s like going to a salad bar and going a bit wild — you still can’t go far wrong.
You know our family; there’s always been a reverence of books. It was hard, because the younger three [your brothers and sister] don’t have that same interest, and it felt like a huge loss for me. But I’d still take them to the library — they’d choose videos, but at least we were going into that space, and there were other people with their children using the same section of the library. It was still there for us.
Well, the obvious question, but perhaps the most difficult one to know the answer to, is how you think our lives would have been different without a library.
Without those spaces? Narrow. So, so much narrower. We would have been excluded; even further excluded.
It’s so good for poor people. At the library, it didn’t matter who you were. We went to a toddler group, which we paid for, and that was a big mix of people, income-wise. Even in Middleton: there were people whose husbands had relatively good jobs and they had two cars, or whatever. They were always at the library! It was a real melting-pot.
I saw those people there and we were on an equal playing field. They didn’t pay for their books either. We weren’t getting charity; we were just using the library.
I think it would have felt harsh, if we hadn’t had that. It would have made life a little bit colder.
There’s something about libraries which transcends even a love of books. They’re about a sense of society and your community.
I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s true. It’s why the notion of libraries being free is essential. Because every community has — should have — a spread of incomes. Schools are no longer that melting pot; they’re not, they’re separated out more and more, with private education and grammar schools. But the local library can be that shared space, and maintained to the age of eighteen, at least.
I just think that would be fantastic, to maintain that, in this age of income stratification. To keep that place alive.