Library illustration
Library illustration

It would start with a distant rumble, just as the clocks struck three, then rise to a thunder of footsteps as the doors burst open and the whirlwind of small bodies blew in.

Colour-in sheets thrown into the air like confetti. Computer chairs ridden like bumper cars. The quiet of lunchtime replaced by the afterschool din, as at the far end of the library, the elders glancing up wearily from their newspapers half-annoyed and half-amused at their shattered peace.  

It didn’t look like much from the outside. But Newbiggin Hall Library in Newcastle, where I worked for four years, had a certain charm once you stepped in. Long and low, it had a glass atrium in the centre that on a good day bathed the shelves in dusty light. Karen, Debbie and Janice, the three senior librarians I worked under, created wall and table displays to keep the place interesting: Catherine Cookson for Valentine’s Day, Stephen King at Halloween, books about the wartime on Remembrance Day. 

Crucially, it was warm and safe and open during the evenings and weekends. One of the things I learned during my time as a librarian (or Information Assistant, to give my proper title) was the importance of having public places people can access outside ‘office hours’. For the kids, we were free afterschool childcare until their parents finished work; for the elderly, often already queuing behind the shutters at 9am on Saturday, a reliable source of human contact.

How often do you see both groups in the same place at once, not occupying separate realities but actually talking to one another, perhaps next to a wall display about rationing and spitfires? How often do you hear an old person saying to a passing, curious child they’ve never met before her name was Anne Frank?

One afternoon, a young mum walked in who was very distressed. Debbie took her to a quiet corner and listened. I don’t know what was said between them, but half an hour later Debbie had her sat a computer smiling and printing off pictures from Facebook. I’m certain neither of them glanced at a book the whole time. Whatever temporary role we were asked to play – counsellor, childminder, family tree researcher – Debbie would shrug and smile and say “it’s their library” as though that explained everything, and it did.

My favourite customer would walk in every Saturday morning slowly dragging a shopping trolley full of audiobook cassettes, which back then were inexplicably the size of shoeboxes. She had a voracious appetite for what we politely referred to as ‘romance’, and being deep into her eighties, was – in her own words – blind as a bat. Our ritual was to walk arm-in-arm over to the Mills and Boons section, where I would systematically shout out the saucy synopsis on an eternal quest to find a title she hadn’t borrowed before or, more realistically, had forgotten. 

“‘Liberty has everything: the mansion, the sports car, the diamond rings. But when smouldering stable-hand Marcus shows up at her estate, a roll in the hay turns into–’”

“HAD THAT ONE, SON!” 

And on we’d go.

Another older visitor found out I was studying literature at university and, because she had been an English teacher herself before retiring, started coming in each week with a poem or a book review or a literary essay she’d printed off on her home computer. We’d spend half an hour or so debating the merits of various writers as I stamped late books and repaired old spines (another lesson from my time in libraries: the awesome, multifaceted power of masking tape). 

None of these people – the kids with nowhere to go, the mums in need of relief, the older people who wanted to be listened to – would have made much of a dent on the official record of nationwide book lending, which like much else analogue declined with the onset of the internet age. This singular statistic was one of the main justifications for putting public libraries on the chopping block in the early days of David Cameron’s ‘new austerity’ – briefly rebranded ‘The Big Society’ – in 2010. Between that year and 2019, more than 800 local libraries closed down, 17% of all the ones we had.

I suppose the point I’m making – the thing I learned – about libraries is that they’re not really bricks, mortar and books at all, but spaces created for people who want to learn something: whether that’s the plot of the latest Jilly Cooper or just how other people in their community are thinking and feeling. Perhaps most importantly, they’re one of the only places left people can congregate without feeling pressured to buy something. Communal spaces that aren’t transactional by nature create a different atmosphere, engender a different kind of conversation. Libraries are our secular churches, our indoor parks, where people can find something useful regardless of class, age or how much money is in their bank account.

When I left Newbiggin Hall in 2010, plans to close its doors and replace the building with a much smaller lending space, staffed by supermarket-style self-service machines, was taking shape. This marked the residents out as among the lucky ones: for thousands of other people across the UK, local libraries have gone the ways of pubs and social clubs, bingo halls and youth centres; community hubs that never quite made enough money, replaced by… what exactly? There’s an account I follow on TikTok, run by an elderly man who shares videos of his lunch every day. Each new clip fills up with kind and encouraging comments from younger users. I find this inter-generational warmth heartening, but also sad: we had places for this, and we’ve let so many of them fall away.

But all is not lost. Many libraries not only survive, but thrive. Libraries Week started in 1958 and, like the institutions it celebrates, has seen off plenty of threats in that time – most recently Covid. Over the past 18 months library staff, like many public sector and small business workers, have adapted brilliantly to help keep their local communities together. Between 4-10 October, you can show your support by going to librariesweek.org.uk, using the hashtag #LibrariesWeek or just popping into your local branch. You never know who you might get talking to.

What did you think of this article? Let us know at editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk for a chance to appear in our reader’s letter page.

Image: Vicky Ibbetson/Penguin

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