I love watching children pull out the books from the library shelves but hate it when I hear a parent tell them to put a book back because it’s too young for them or is “rubbish”. Reading is not like eating food, so letting children choose their own books is not like letting them eat fish fingers every day. Reading “bad” books won’t spoil their appetite – it’ll make them want to read more and try out new authors and a child who’s allowed to read whatever they fancy is much more likely to grow up into a book lover.
Growing up in a small village, I don’t think I was taken to a library as a child, although we were given lots of books. But I remember the first time I discovered Heffers Children’s Bookshop in Cambridge – I was about ten and had just started going into town on my own. It was like book heaven and for the first time I could choose and buy them on my own, with no adult present. I still have some of the books I bought there: the Doctor Dolittle cost 21/- of my birthday money (and was very special), the I Spy Car Numbers was 1/- and the others cost 3/6 or 4/- (that’s £1.10, 5p, 17.5p and 20p in new money). How will e-books ever conjure up such memories?
Malorie Blackman, the Children’s Laureate, has attacked the government for failing to stop local authorities closing libraries. She says that “For children they provide an equaliser that allows everyone access to books, story-telling sessions, homework clubs; expert librarians who give non-partisan assistance and advice regarding books; and warm and safe environments within which to discover and explore the world of literature.”
Some time ago a friend who lives in the Cotswolds told me they were closing her local library but it didn’t really matter because everyone had lots of books in their own homes. If that’s a typical view in Gloucestershire, I pity the poor kids there who don’t have their own personal libraries. Well, here in Sandwell it’s a very different economic picture and perhaps that’s one of the reasons why none of our libraries has been closed in this latest round of cuts.
In a world that’s becoming more and more unequal a library is the one place where all children can discover the amazing books out there. (Plus free internet access and often free printouts for homework.) Who can put a value on that?
Yesterday I had a day off and decided to spend half of it in a pretty, very touristy little town not far from here. As always I planned to visit the local library and look for ideas to use in Langley (I love libraries).
It started badly. I popped into a little shop in the middle of town, bought a couple of things I didn’t need and asked where the library was. The young man laughed and said, “It’s right opposite but I don’t know where the entrance is! Afraid I’ve never been in.” I did find the entrance quite easily, although I’d missed it earlier, and the actual building is a beautiful historic one. But inside – what a disappointment!
I can’t say much about the children’s section as it was full of kids with a story and singing going on, which sounded fantastic. But the adult section left me cold. It was very clean and modern, with some low book shelves (they have to be low now for health and safety reasons), a few discreet book displays on small tables and some posters neatly pinned to noticeboards. You could see everything at a glance, which I suppose is meant to happen, but there was nothing to draw you in or tempt you to browse. There was no colour or mystery hiding round a corner. I went upstairs to have a look at the non-fiction but I took one look and walked out again because it was just the same up there!
Now, I know they want people to find things easily, and with fewer and fewer staff, that’s important, but don’t they realise that we want a bit of anticipation and adventure too? Garden designers are always talking about hiding things behind hedges to entice visitors to walk further and further into their gardens, so shouldn’t libraries be doing the same?
A lot of modern libraries manage to create beautiful, intriguing spaces with clean lines and fresh colour, so it can be done. It’s just that when it doesn’t work, you end up with a depressing place that nobody wants to visit.
We all know that reading for pleasure improves your vocabulary but research by the Institute of Education, London University, shows that it helps children with other subjects as well, because having a wider vocabulary means they find it easier to take in new ideas and concepts. I thought this was a really good message to get across in the children’s library, so I made a simple display – probably aimed more at the parents than the children!
My son Jack never uses a library, although he does like reading, and he and his flatmates, Gareth, Josh (above) and Steve, all love the Game of Thrones books. I asked Jack why he doesn’t go to the library:
Jack: I don’t know where it is…oh no, I’ve seen one quite near here.
Me: Why don’t you use it?
Jack: I don’t know when it’s open.
Me: If it was open after work or at weekends, would you use it?
Jack: Probably not.
Me: Why not?
Jack: I haven’t got time and I don’t read enough. Nobody my age goes to libraries.
Me: But you’d see a fantastic selection of books.
Jack: If I want one I use Amazon.
You can see I have a bit of work to do on my son!
Reading about how a book lover re-discovered libraries after several years made me think about the way we look at our customers.
It would be nice if libraries could attract more teenagers and young adults but let’s not forget that there are other important groups of people out there. Ok, most of our customers are older people or young families, but what’s wrong with that? Just because there are times in your life when you don’t fancy using a library, it doesn’t mean that you won’t come back to us later on.
Parents visit us to entertain their young children, older people come in to learn how to use computers or borrow books or meet people. If you’re unemployed you might come along to a job club or to apply for jobs or benefits online, or you might need a book at times of illness or bereavement. Or perhaps you just love reading and want to borrow books every week of your life.
I’m not saying we should stop trying to make our libraries fantastic places for teenagers to hang out in, but just that we shouldn’t be blinded by the cult of youth and undervalue everyone else.