I learnt to cook in the library. Not literally but the library has been there for all of the major developments in my life and by my late teens, a mum with no money it was natural to learn to cook, borrowing a new book each month. Turkish, French, Chinese, Italian. I slavishly ate what I read. I bought olive oil in tiny glass bottles in the chemist, used the EU mountain butter to make flaky pastry for tinned EU beef pie.
I’d always read, stealing away to the library as often as I could. The librarian in the posh side of town was not welcoming to an unaccompanied child with once-white socks pooling around skinny ankles, the elastic a long distant memory. Once assured of my trustworthiness to bring the books back she would occasionally smile, offering me something she thought I might like. Alan Garner, J.G Robinson, Nesbitt, Wyndham, Barry Hines, and the classics, Little women, Call of the wild, Wind in the willows. I adored Judy Blume, disapproved of by the librarian who thought it too American.
An awkward child, books saved me from the unfathomable negotiations of other kids. In a book, I always felt safe.
I learnt to parent in the library, borrowing books when as a teen I discovered I was pregnant, trying to hide my shame by burying Miriam Stoppard amongst Terry Pratchett’s.
Later, books of baby names, terrible twos and how to talk to teens paved the way. I read to my babies, snuggled in with toddlers, entered Hogwarts with my tweens. With ten years between the oldest and the youngest, older teens laid sleepily on the ends of beds as they re-listened to picture books told to their siblings. ‘We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one.’
My kids all joined the library, my youngest at just 4 days old. Pushing her in, still shuffling slightly, her brothers ready to swap their books.
I planned my wedding at the library, borrowing books on alternative ceremonies and how to write your own vows. This was the 90s, we got married in a field and had a rave afterwards. In the library, I leant it was a criminal offence to tell people we were getting married as we didn’t have a licenced registrar. A sign was put up saying, ‘This is not a legal wedding.’ The library saved me from jail time.
I learnt about music too. Though the upstairs lending library, full of classical music and men in macs was a little intimidating, I’d push through to the CDs, at the back. Before Spotify and streaming, here was the only real chance to hear new music. CDS were £15 apiece and who could afford that?
The library was a gateway to a world I wasn’t aware existed. Books about things I would never know, never learn. But books about everything you’d need. I learnt to garden, grow veggies, discovered world politics, religions, history, feminism. All these different ways of looking at the world. Everything you needed to get along as a still awkward, still skint, woman of the world.
I was talking to some woman about the library recently and straight-faced she said ‘Yeah, but libraries are a bit old fashioned, aren’t they? I mean you can get a book for a tenner from Amazon. And if you want to know something you can Google it.’
She couldn’t understand that a tenner was a lot when you didn’t have much. It’s a mountain of money to spend on a book when you were worried about what’s for tea and if you can put the heating on? And what if you didn’t like it? That’s what she couldn’t understand. What if, by some mad scheme you’d found a tenner to spend on a brand-new book and then you didn’t like it.
‘Just give it to the charity shop,’ she said missing the point.
The library gives you the space to try new things, new books, new stories, new hobbies, without worrying about the expense.
I learnt to sew and knit from the library, not all of us can learn from our grandma’s knee.
And that’s the point of the library. It doesn’t care who you are. It doesn’t care how much money you have or if you have a granny that sews. The library is there for everyone. The democratisation of culture and information and stories. It doesn’t matter if the book you borrowed was no good because you can take it back. It doesn’t matter if you take a punt on a writer, you’ve never heard of, discovering your new absolute favourite.
Libraries have been there with me in all the stages of my life. From cradle to grave I will always love the library, will always mark that silent hush as you enter, even if in the kid’s section they are gleefully singing along ‘Going on a bear hunt.’
Libraries are an act of political resistance, a fist raised in the air that says all are welcome here. No conditions, no need to pay. Come on in, even if it is sometimes only to get warm. Use the computers, browse the shelves, borrow a DVD.
The world is always yours in the library.