“Kensal Rise Library, built by public subscription on a site donated by All Souls College, Oxford, was ceremoniously opened by Mark Twain in the year 1900.
It was closed by Brent Council in 2011 and sold to a property developer called Platinum Revolver.”
Ali Smith, Public Library and other stories
Your library? Shut down.
Youth Club? Shut down.
Refuge? Shelter? Park? Closed.
Your high street? Shut down.
Nightclub? Shut down.
Music venue? What’s one of those?
“A library implies an act of faith” Victor Hugo
That guilt you wear as you get older and adulthood presents the stark realities of what your parents did to attempt to create a happy, functional, full human is profound. It grows. I remember being annoyed at the incessant, ‘how was school?’. Every eye-roll, shrug and ‘Maaaam…why do you always ask me that?’ twinges now. I realise that every time I was asked the question, I was served another reminder that I was real and important. The guilt is particularly stark faced, as I am in my working life as a teacher, with plenty of children whose parents do not labour such interest in them. The behaviours that result from that neglect span everything from apathy to cruelty.
Nowhere do I feel this gratitude-guilt dichotomy as profoundly as when I consider my Mam’s belligerent adherence to her young children’s weekly trips to the local library. The children’s section was downstairs and I can channel the awe I felt walking past the grown-ups’ book shelves; looming Brobdingnagian as we ventured down to the brightly coloured cavern below, to sit on red plastic bucket chairs or lie on the floor, surrounded by books. Books, books, books. The delicious torture of limitation. What kind of power dishes out cruelty like a choice of only five books a week?
The below-stairs room was split in two. Bookshelves marked the half-wall partition between children’s section and, what I regarded as a small child as, the clever section. It was largely taken up by a vast table. I’m not sure if my memory has gifted that table its deep red leather surface or if that’s what the people sat at it actually leaned upon but the whole room was simultaneously inticing and intimidating.
‘When I’m old enough and clever enough,’ I thought, ‘I’ll sit at that table and read and write clever things’.
I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have experienced a childhood, an education, with and without the internet. Research homework was a very different ball game before Google. Research meant reference books and reference books meant the clever section of the library. As a thirteen year old, childish glee merged with faux-mature entitlement as I made my way to the library and downstairs once again; but now those red-plastic buckets reached my knee and it was heavy oak my eager-to-learn self would reside on.
Having been burned before, I realised that I’d get ruined for copying out of the encyclopaedia (it has to be ‘in your own words’). I’d been busted because the teacher had asked me what some of the complex vocabulary meant and I had no idea. There was no way I was getting caught out again so I heaved a dictionary and thesaurus down onto the grand table as well and, every time I came across a word I didn’t know, looked up it’s definition and then its synonyms and picked the one I thought most apt, sticking it in brackets, next to the challenging word.
The other people around the table were older than me. Some by a long way, some by less. I stared at them; marvelled at the towering walls of books like self-made carrells, part-isolating them inside their own intelligences. What were they working on? What kind of research homework did adults need to do? There were always smiles from them. Friendliness and comradery amidst all that depth and windowless academia. We shared in the weighty acceptance that the books we needed couldn’t even be removed; permanent residents who leant their wisdom during visiting hours.
At school, my teacher applauded my parenthetical insurance policy. The synonyms, for me, mitigated the risk of having to do the homework again (‘in your own words’). For my teacher they represented an exciting resilience and desire to broaden my understanding and vocabulary. ‘Putting the words’ meanings in brackets is such a fantastic idea, Rhian. Really impressive.’
At 15, the internet brought AOL chatrooms (15/f/Sussex, on an honest day). I can still hear the scraping, tinny dance of the notes that preceded ‘connecting’. Research for my A Levels was via Encarta and by university, I was downloading and rehashing whole essays to hand in.
This is just a tiny part of my history with libraries and books but it is part of the reason I was so affected by Ali Smith’s, ‘Public Library and other stories’. Smith’s book hit me hard, not just because of what I’ve felt inside libraries, but because what I’ve learnt from books, both inside and outside libraries, has everything to do with my capacity for caring. I am equal parts stuff I’ve learned from books and excitement about what I might next put in my brain.
The library my brain matured in is almost unrecognisable now but, thankfully, is still in the same building. But its opening hours have been massively reduced. It doesn’t open until 11am. But Mam would often take me and my brother there early in the morning. So instead of a 2019 young family making memories equivalent to those I’ve detailed here and those I’ve no room to, the doors are closed. The books are unread.
Since 2010, 737 libraries have gone. There are now 3,745 left. The risk of “library extinction” is very real. As councils are starved of funding, ever-more libraries become volunteer-only. When the job of staffing and running services falls to members of the community who are old or just busy (who can afford to work for free in these trying times?) then opening hours reduce, number and diversity of titles diminish and we all lose.
Libraries are not closing because of lack of use. They’re closing because the Tory government doesn’t care about our right to read.
Your library? Shut down. If not already, then perhaps soon.
Our new single, SHOP, is released 19.04.2019
"Fun, clever and puts libraries centre stage among all the precious things that are being destroyed to serve greed and austerity. We love it.”