This is the second of three more personal blog posts reflecting on librarianship, archives, and the power of words. You can also read part one of Key 23 and the Nth degree here.
Training as an infant school teacher brought me back to public libraries for the first time in ages. I’d stopped using them since the Internet had supplanted the local library as my source for obscure music, and I guess before that my last memory of a library was being brutally mocked by some badass teenage girls drinking round the back of one, the first time me and my best friend tried to get served in a pub underage!
As a teacher, school trips to the library were pretty anodyne – the best bit was the forced march three blocks or so from the infant school, the kids’ faces full of wonder as they held hands in pairs and went on a five year old’s adventure into the Big World of grocer’s stores and banks and traffic lights…then, the library.
It was an old building in sore need of refurbishment, overlit within by fluorescent striplights, walls painted the blank cream colour of a hospital corridor, and fitted with that curious, bristly tiled carpet forever associated with Britain’s more dismal civic spaces – probably not even the same colour throughout, with a patch of grey lingering in one corner where the fitters had run out of brown.
The librarians were nice, though – a reminder that librarianship as a profession is not synonymous with the walls that house it – and they put on a pretty good storytime for my class. Apart from a bit of behaviour management, I was free to wander the shelves for a quarter-hour and think back to the library visits of my childhood.
I don’t remember going to a public library in my own primary school days, tho’ I do recall our school’s own library. I loved it there. It had pot plants which gave it a wonderful fetid greenhouse stink, and I remember discovering The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy there when I was eleven, but also being furious when a teacher wouldn’t let me borrow the remedial readers’ books, which had an awesome sci-fi setting, because they were ‘too easy’ for me.
To this day, that notion of reading levels pisses me off. Sure, you don’t want kids to avoid challenging themselves, or to be discouraged if they bite off more literature than they can chew – but also it’s good to explore both fiction and non-fiction from the depths to the shallows. At the end of the day, it is only reading – if you get out of your depth, unlike swimming in the lake, you ain’t gonna drown. And sometimes all you feel like is a paddle.
My mum did take my brother and I to the public library as kids – that same grim, 1980s municipal space, resembling a midnight bus station of the soul, where the bad girls cut me and my best friend down to size – but to my 8 year old eyes it was wonderful. My mum is by no stretch of the imagination a geek, but she did introduce me to John Wyndham and Orwell’s 1984 – a handing down, perhaps, of her own mother’s socialist passion for H.G. Wells and the literature of ideas? I don’t know; that grandmother was dead before I was born.
But there was this glorious time in the library when I didn’t see the difference between Nicholas Fisk’s sci-fi for tweens, or Wyndham’s Triffids, or Alan Moore’s Captain Britain (which I loved with all the misplaced flag-waving passion of a boy growing up in the era of Falklands triumphalism and Thatcher’s swagger – given how subversive it really was, I clearly barely understood a word!).
That was the best of libraries for me as a child – a freedom to roam the shelves as I saw fit – and although I suspect a young Caitlin Moran would be the sort of girl to massively and rightly take the piss out of my plummy, privileged self (sniffing at public libraries and comparing them to bus stations!), I agree with her that libraries are a ‘cross between an emergency exit, a life raft, and a festival’ – or as Auckland puts it in its relatively poetic corporate-speak, ‘your place of imagination, learning, and connection’.
That’s true not just in public libraries, but also academic institutions. As I wrote last time on this blog, doctoral research in libraries and historical archives was a way of connecting with lives long gone, a magical retracing of the past through imagination and learning, striving to be worthy of George Eliot’s conceit in Adam Bede:
With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertakes to reveal to any chance comer far-reaching visions of the past. This is what I undertake to do for you, reader.
And this brings me on to the title of this series of posts, Key 23 and the Nth Degree, and my current role creating playful events in libraries… All will be revealed, next time!