Read/Write South West and the joy of libraries

I said I’d post again before the daffodils came out in my garden, I looked away for one moment and there they were, and looking pretty weary after two days of brutal March winds.

We are experiencing a cold snap in the UK, no snow where I live, in the south west of England, but a deep frost on my car yesterday morning when I set out to go to Devizes Library for a writing workshop, the last of four I’ve run for Wiltshire Libraries and Carer Support Wiltshire, part of Literature Works’ Read/Write South West project, funded by Big Lottery – an initiative seeking to strengthen the support that libraries are able to provide their communities through creative reading and writing.

Frosty outside but beautifully warm inside the library, as it was in Salisbury Library last week for my workshop there, and I’m not just talking about the room temperature; is it just me or do you find libraries cosy and welcoming places? Is it the hundreds of thousands of soft pages of paper inside all the books which lend libraries a soothing and purposeful atmosphere? They tend to be carpeted these days – I seem to remember sharp-sounding, highly polished floors in the libraries of my youth – and there are comfortable chairs dotted around invitingly, and beanbags, and small tables to sit at, or to group together to create a pop-up workshop area.

And they really have been a perfect venue for workshops. Libraries are quiet, but not oppressively silent as they’re depicted in black and white films. Because of the way they’re arranged, in different sections, libraries are large enough to absorb the sound of pre-school children singing, a storyteller reading to them, mild chatter amongst borrowers and librarians and people working quietly at computers. For one of my workshops I was allocated a separate, meeting room and I think this was a less successful area to work in. Workshops in a side-area, discretely separate from the main library but still nestled inside the purposeful, calm bookish air, contributed to everyone feeling relaxed and focussed.

Of course, I do have form as a library-user. As a child and teenager I took out books regularly, then my visits became more intermittent and some library-free years followed. I became an avid fan again when my children were tiny. Storytelling and nursery rhyme singing sessions were a blessing on many a dull morning but even when there wasn’t an organised event taking place, the sometimes dreary pre-school years were often brightened up for an hour, sometimes two, snuggled in library beanbags while my children were absorbed in books. They either made their selection and toddled over for me to read to them or settled themselves comfortably in a child-sized ‘lounge’ and took as long as they wanted to study each page in great detail; these were their pre-reading years when they fathomed out whole stories by immersing themselves in detailed illustrations, or they invented their own narrative, out loud and with complete assurance, to themselves, a cuddly animal (lying around looking friendly in some libraries) a passing child or a sibling. How lovely it was for me and my children to take pleasure from being with books, no salesperson hovering over us, no advertisements flashing in our faces suggesting we buy something, no obligation to do anything other than enjoy books.

It’s very sad that in some places in the UK libraries are under threat of closure because of austerity measures in public funding. Last year, more than 200 libraries were closed. It seems incredible that our government doesn’t recognise how important libraries are for communities, not only as a means of ordinary people educating themselves through reading but also as a meeting place for diverse community groups.

I am still a library user, as are my two children, now 13 and 12, and as is my husband. Our family is so grateful for all that libraries have given us over the years. One thing I’ll do for certain this weekend is use my library card to take out a book. When was the last time you popped in to your library?

4 thoughts on “Read/Write South West and the joy of libraries

  1. sunnydunny says:

    I was a librarian for 35 years, finishing up in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and President of the Scottish Library Association, so I strongly agree with you. Libraries are wonderful places. Colin

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  2. Josephine Corcoran says:

    Wiltshire Council just managed to finish a grand scale relocation of our town’s library before the cuts began. It’s now housed in a very impressive building in County Hall. I often pop in just for a quiet sit down with a book but I’ve realised that I must actively borrow as well, to add to their statistics. Lovely of you to comment, Colin.

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  3. Robin Houghton says:

    What a great description you give of families using libraries, as ‘unpressurised’ places. I do use our local library and having the facility of searching online first and making reservations I find really useful. Although to be perfectly honest I miss the silence! Perhaps partly because I’ve not raised children, I’m less tolerant of noise in any form and find it distracting and far from relaxing! But I do see that libraries perform a wider function than they used to and that should be a good thing, so why they’re no longer valued (in the sense that our government is shutting them down) I don’t understand.
    In the future I can see the reading of physical books becoming a very elite occupation (I also see it going this way for handwriting.) The majority of people will consume everything electronically.

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  4. Josephine Corcoran says:

    I take your point about noise tolerance! I think most libraries are able to get the balance right by arranging quiet zones away from the children’s sections but I realise that this isn’t always successful. You make interesting observations about physical books and handwriting and your prediction is already being enacted by my own children, especially my son. There is still a massive need for babies and toddlers to engage with physical, not electronic, books, I think, and for them to hold crayons and pencils. Personally, I hope that the two technologies are able to continue to develop alongside each other. I would miss my books so much!

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