A blog for everything bookish

Saturday 14 September 2013

Confessions of a compulsive book hoarder – rediscovering the library

Since I’ve not been buying books, I have been giving some thought to how I am going to satisfy my acquisitive nature without breaking my unbreakable vow. Since I have started Proust (yes, I have finally started) this thought has been rather more pressing as I am starting to realise that it will take me quite a long, long time to work my way through all 6 dense volumes. I am determined to stick to my plan, so I need alternatives and the most obvious alternative, the natural place for any book lover, is the library.

Glossop Library
I am very lucky, I know I am, because I have access to some very good libraries. It is shameful, really, that I haven’t been exploiting them to their full potential, particularly n the current climate where many libraries are under threat. The way to support your library is to use your library, I know this. And in the past I have been a big supporter of the library service. As a teenager I spent most of my Saturday mornings in the lovely library in Glossop, and I even did work experience there and it was marvellous. In fact I probably should have become a librarian and perhaps that would have prevented the bulging book shelves that I find myself lumbered with (as the most wonderful burden) now.  

When my children were old enough to hold a book, I took them to the library. I got them their own library card and we would go every 3 weeks or so, under the strict understanding that they didn’t get more than 12 books. It was always enormous fun flicking through the various boxes of books finding old favourites and new ones. Our local library is the one in Chorley, and often on a Saturday there would be organised activities like painting and colouring, and I remember how excited the children were the next time we visited and they found one of their creations on the wall. They loved self-scanning their books, or taking them to the counter and letting one of the library assistants scan and stamp them through, and they loved taking part in the summer reading challenges and collecting stickers and rewards, all complimentary and delivered with a real warmth and passion by the lovely librarians.

Chorley Library

Then we stopped going. I’m not really sure what happened, I’ve tried to pinpoint a particular reason but I can’t really figure what it is. I think, perhaps, that my children stopped wanting to go, they replaced their bookish adventures with more interactive ones: X-box, DS, the internet. Whilst I liked Chorley library, the only time I could really get there was a Saturday morning, and it was, at times, a bit of a pain with parking and such. All rubbish excuses, I know. For my own books, I started visiting Manchester Central Library, a glorious wonder-dome stacked with ramshackle shelves stuffed to bursting with a huge range of reading matter. Shelves and shelves of poetry, drama, literary fiction not easily locatable in the more provincial shelves at Chorley: Sartre, Saramago, Nooteboom. It was easier for me to visit, I could go in every day at lunchtime if I wanted and late returns were rare. My relationship with Central Library was something of a love affair. I would go there and scout the shelves, borrowing old favourites or maybe just browsing. Sometimes they would sell old stock, and I have a few treasures in my collection that came my way for a meagre 20p.

Manchester Central Library
Of course, as with so many love affairs, something went wrong. In this case, it was the renovation of Central Library. I honestly think that my buying habit stems back to the closure of that glorious building, all the way back in 2010. At the time the idea that the library could be closed for 3 years seemed inconceivable, it was so much a part of my daily existence. A new library opened on Deansgate, but it was so much smaller and a lot of the stock went into storage (or was pulped: the horror). Now those treasures were harder to find, the stock of poetry strimmed down to the bare minimum, the volumes on offer for 20p no more. There was something else missing from the new library. I am sure it is weird to call it a ‘soul’ but that’s what the old library had whereas this new one, nice as it was, was nothing much more really than a room with books in it. It wasn’t really a library, there was always something pop up about it, temporary. Now, on Monday, it is closing and the Manchester library is moving to an even smaller location, temporarily, until the renovated Central Library reopens in 2014. I am both excited and perturbed about the opening of the new library. I am hoping they do not strip the heart out of the building and turn it into one of those awful white marble operating theatres, all gleam and no substance (I am thinking of the horror post Manchester bombing when the developers turned the wonderfully warm and soulful Corn Exchange into that heartless hole that is the Triangle). I know it is just a building, but it is also much more than that. We stitch ourselves into these locations, they become a part of us and when they change, when what makes them special to us is gone, something is lost. It sounds silly, but that library meant a lot to me. It was a refuge, a sanctuary, an oasis of peace and calm to which I could retreat from the daily strains of my work. I am hoping that when it reopens it remains all of those things to me. I guess, in time, I will see.

In thinking about all of this I realised quite how much libraries have meant to me over the years, how in a world which is often so incomprehensible libraries have offered me meaning and understanding. Friendship, even. I have not often felt like I belonged, but I always felt that way in a library. No one watches over what you’re doing, no one judges your choices. You can spend however many hours there you want and you only get kicked out at closing time. It is quiet, but never oppressively so. People respect each other’s thinking time, their reading space, but no one complains if there’s a child squealing at something they’ve read or found, or running about with four books under their arms. It is a place where what they have to offer is knowledge, understanding, but it is never forced. You are, instead, allowed to discover it by yourself, in your own time and to your own agenda. If you want assistance, there is always a friendly librarian on hand to help and support you. Librarians are, on the whole, a friendly and warm bunch of people with a genuine love of books and reading. Their job is all about sharing, about helping people find and discover.

I think all of this makes me realise, too, how shameful it is that I allowed myself to lose that connection. Libraries have helped to bring meaning to my life and in return I turned my love of books and reading into an acquisitive greed, turning away from those places which had offered me so much without asking anything of me. But no longer. I am back to being a library-goer. I am taking my children too. They want to go (and that’s the best thing).

So, a couple of weeks ago, I found myself perusing the hallowed-halls of the Preston Harris Library, a lovely building with an adjoining museum which is surprisingly interesting and definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area. I took my daughter with me (my son was asleep, he was very grumpy when he found out we went without him). We were looking for a few things: The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin which I wanted to read as part of my Booker cycle (and have done, and will review though I haven’t written that one yet) and some books of poetry by Seamus Heaney whose death leaves a gap in the world of poetry that cannot be filled. I found almost everything I wanted, excepting a copy of the Shobogenzo, which I had seen in the catalogue but turned out to be book 4 so not much use until I’d read books 1 to 3. But still, it satisfied a need in me, and it reminded me that whatever books I want to read I can probably find them, eventually, at the local library. It only needs a little patience. I can be patient.
My book haul
Book lovers: support your library. They are often the unappreciated heart of local communities. A gathering place in which people can share knowledge, can learn, can develop new skills and interests. But libraries are under threat, and only boots through the door will change that. It is not just for people like me, the book hoarders, that libraries are an essential service. Libraries provide support for people who are unemployed, they provide computer skills lessons for the elderly and cheap access to the internet for those who can’t afford a home computer or broadband. They provide shelves of books about coping with cancer or bereavement or depression which you hope you will never have to read but, inevitably, one day you will. Or not; the important thing is that it's there, a free service, available whenever you need. It is a safe place to be, a warm friendly spot on a cold day. There is so much more to the library than just books, but without the book borrowers they won’t exist. Borrow a book today. Go on. It won’t hurt you but it might, just might, help preserve something marvellous.

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