What do libraries mean to children’s writers? To mark National Library Week, Principal Librarian, Gerry Peach, and Children’s Librarian, Linda Smith, wrote and asked. Here are some extracts from the letters they received which were mounted and displayed in Huddersfield Library earlier this month.
‘I had this very boring childhood. We lived in a boring house on a boring street in a boring town. School was boring. Every day was the same. I used to think, why does nothingexciting ever happen to me? Then I discovered my local library…’
‘I once wrote a book, set in South America, that centred on a tribe called the Kallawaya. But I had a big problem. My book was set in modern times and I couldn’t find anything about the Kallawaya written more recently than the 1920s. I hunted for almost a year, but had no luck until I went to a weekend conference in Nottingham.
Passing the time before my conference began, I wandered round the shops and came upon Nottingham Library. Without expecting anything special, I drifted into the building and over to the South America section and there was the very book I’d been desparate to find – an account of the Kallawaya written only a few years before.
Gibbering with excitement and desperation (because I couldn’t read the whole book then and there, and I had no more free time Nottingham) I leapt up to the Enquiries Desk, crying “Whatever can I do? I must have this book!”
And a wonderful, magic librarian gave me a temporary ticket so that l could take the book home with me, and post it back to Nottingham when I’d finished…
‘I’m still happier in a library than anywhere else. For me, it’s like that moment in a swimming pool when you finally slip under, the water closes over your head and a feeling of absolute peace and privacy comes over you. In my novel for children, The Granny Project Natasha says that, if the Public library did not exist, she would not want to exist either. That’s how I feel, still, after all these years.’
‘There they are, millions of people who belong to local libraries. What are they looking for, for heaven’s sake?
They are head-hunting. They want access to other people’s heads, brains, minds, emotions. They want to know what it was really like in the trenches of WWI – how to do Malaysian cooking – how to mend a moped. They want to learn about lush love affairs, astronomy, Sherlock Holmes, the new Ford or Fiat.
It’s all there in the local library, along with cassettes, records, magazines and help with Regulation C225/348/para vi (garden sheds, erection of). And if it isn’t there, they will get it for you. Fill in the card.
Also there – surprises. Can’t think what I want… Who is this? Never heard of her/him. Oh well, take it home, dip into it…
I need the public libraries. You don’t? Very well, close them. And while you are at it, close your mind. But over my dead body.’
‘When Jane Eyre gave me nightmares someone locked the bookcase, and got me a children’s ticket at a branch library just off North Finchley High Street. It took me a long time to get the hang of books that I could understand, and that long ago librarian knew just what to do with me, easing me from Tolstoy to Puck of Pook’s Hill, and from Ruskin to The Hobbit. By and by I discovered the possibilities of fun reading. Nevertheless, my life’s ambition is to blurr the distinctionbetween the two kinds of books by getting some dark depth into volumes on the children’s shelves of public libraries; – to share with young readers the pleasure of swimming in deep waters.’
Jill Paton Walsh
‘I’m an addict of libraries. If I can’t go into one at least three times a week, I feel twitchy and seriously deprived. I love everything about them: the books (of course), the quiet, the newspapers, the exhibitions of local art, the notices stuck up in the entrance, and the librarians who, as well as being friendly and helpful, also provide a fascinating display of ever-changing clothes and jewellery. I am against estate-agent-type uniforms for librarians. I am against cuts in the book-buying fund. I am aghast at the erosion of the School Library Service and I would feel easier about the proliferation of audio/video cassettes if I could be sure they were being bought as well as, rather than instead of, books.
But for all that, libraries are still the most wonderful places. I use the word advisedly: they are full of wonders and delightful surprises. The very best present you could give any child is a library card. It is the key to everything there is.
To everyone who reads this, the message is: make your local library a second home. Support it and all its works.’
‘L ovely days, hiding Just William for your best friend.
I n fear of being caught, by the stern librarian.
B iggles was the other star. Oh no, not Worrals.
R emember the smell of the floors? The squeak of the shoes?
A t eleven, oh rapture, flying up to the Big Library.
R eference library, supposedly swatting, looking for girls.
I t’s that tramp, not me behind snoring behind that paper.
E very time I go back to any Library
S cenes of my childhood return.’
‘When I was a child in our house there were almost no books. The only books I had were Sunday School prizes – handed out once a year – provided you got enough attendance stars on your little Sunday School card. Consequently, libraries mattered a great deal to me, so much so that, by the age of 12 or 14, I was a member – probably illegally – of three: Oldbury, Smethwick and West Bromwich. Often then at home I might have as many as a dozen or 15 books; I seem to remember that with a bit of wheedling you could often borrow four or five at a time.’
‘I was desperate to become a writer – but how could I possibly do so with not even a hope of what I thought of as “a proper education”.
“But there are libraries,” I argued to myself. “And if I make proper use of them, I can jolly well educate myself!” Which is exactly what I did, using every spare moment I had to study in various branches of the public libraries and also in the National Library of Scotland.’
My local library is still great… but things are beginning to fray round the edges. The book stock getting old, replacements are fewer, the opening hours are being cut, and people like me wondering what will go next, and what we can do about it.’
BfK’s thanks to the writers above for permission to quote from their letters – and apologies to all the others, just as eloquent and passionate, for whom we hadn’t the space. Special thanks, of course to Gerry Peach and Linda Smith for making this material available.