Better Read Than Dead – the joy of public libraries

In 1839, in the midst of a half-century of post-Napoleonic political ferment and  incipient revolution, English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined the adage “the pen is mightier than the sword”, implying that the written word is more effective than violence as a tool for communicating a point. It’s no wonder that the straighteners, the autocrats and the fundamentalists want to ban and even burn books. In his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953 at the height of America’s McCarthy anti-communist witch-hunts, Ray Bradbury wrote: “The problem in our country isn’t with books being banned, but with people no longer reading. You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them”.

But, encouragingly, reports of the demise of the written word in the form of the humble published book are exaggerated and premature.

Which brings us to keepers of the flame – the torch of knowledge and not the bearers of the fore-brands,  the people who look after our public libraries. Oscar-winning documentary-maker Michael Moore once said admiringly that librarians were a more dangerous group than he had realized: “You think they’re just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything. They’re, like, plotting the revolution, man.”

To the American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, libraries were temples of learning and self-improvement. “A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people,” said Carnegie, who put his money where his mouth was. By 1929, he had paid for the construction of more than 2500 libraries, most of them in the USA.

Back in the day … 

I reckon I was visiting libraries even before I could read, but that could well be my mind playing tricks on my memory. But once I commenced grammar school, the local library, but a short walk away, was a world of wonders. Yardley Wood Library, in south Birmingham on the quiet northerly extension of busy Highfield Road, between a small housing estate of postwar prefabs on the east and a large expanse of recreation field at its rear, was the fount of my early education and my general knowledge of the outside world. As a teen, I’d stay weekends at my Aunt Mary’s house in the inner city on the border of Moseley and Balsall Heath, and the Victorian grandeur and shadowy interior of Balsall Heath Library became yet another “garden of earthly delights”. This library is the featured picture of this post. The tall chimney on the left belongs to the immediately adjacent Balsall Heath swimming baths, where my uncles and aunts who shared our home would take their weekly baths (even if they didn’t need them, as the old saw goes), where I’d go in my weekend sleep-overs,and where when struggling with my Boy Scout swimming test, I’d push myself through the pool. Although I now live in a land blessed with beautiful beaches, I still hate being in water any deeper than my bath!

Yardley Wood Library, Birmingham

I’d browse the stacks, thumbing through art books and atlases, encyclopedias and illustrations, and I’d always have three or four books on loan, with a particular interest in history, biographies and historical fiction. My reading was eclectic ab initio, from the early adolescent “he went with … “ great explorer adventures by Louse Andrews Kent and the many books of H Rider Haggard, both quite politically incorrect and vulnerable to ‘cancellation’ in today’s prescriptive cultural climate, to the relatively anodyne French ‘soft-porn’ of Anne Golon’s Angélique series to Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don and its sequel The Don Flows Home to the Sea, which introduced me to Russian history and politics and a youthful dalliance with The Communist Manifesto and the Communist Party.

Eventually, as I studied for A Levels in the late ‘sixties, I entered Birmingham’s cavernous Central Library in the heart of the Second City. Opening in 1865 and rebuilt in 1882: it was a magnificent edifice within and without. I recall it when I rewatch the Game of Thrones episode in which would-meister Sam Tarly enters the Citadel in Old Town for the first time. This Victorian relic was replaced by a brand new, brutalist building in 1974 (which I never saw), and this too was closed in 2013 and replaced by the present Birmingham Library  – which I visited when I was in Birmingham two years later.

Birmingham Central Library

The interior of Birmingham Central Library

The William Shakespeare Room reconstructed atop the new BirminghamLibrary, 2015

My alma materMoseley Grammar School boasted a small but diverse library that beckoned during lunch breaks, with its high, wooden-beamed ceiling, it’s wrought iron balcony and the spiral staircase that led up to the landmark school tower in subsequent years, the library was closed for safety reasons, but a recently completed renovation project has brought it back into use as the photo of former pupils gathered therein on the occasion of Heritage Day 2022 shows.

I’ve written fleetingly of this library before: “ It was one of those beautiful late-spring evenings that you would get in the England of youthful memory. The evening sun poured through the gothic stained glass windows of the school library – it was one of those schools. A group of lower sixth lads, budding intellectuals all, as lower sixth tended to be, gathered for a ‘desert island disks” show-and tell of their favourite records. Mine was Wishin’ and Hopin’  (by (Dusty Springfield). Then it was on to the next. Clunk, hiss, electric guitar intro, and: “My love she speaks like silence, without ideas or violence, she doesn’t have to say she’s faithful, but she’s true like ice, like fire…” I was gone, far gone. So was Dusty”. From Whats Bob Got To Do With It?

It is one of those instances of serendipity we encounter on our journey through life that the first serious love of my life was studying to be … drum roll! …a librarian, and in time became the chief librarian of a major English university, whilst  one of my oldest London friends rose to a that position in the university I attended in the ‘seventies. How about that?

Moseley Grammar School, Birmingham

Moseley Grammar School library, 2022

Here in the now …

In Australia, if attendance figures are any indication, the public library is our most valued cultural institution. In the year to July 2018, about 7.6 million people visited Australian libraries – more than went to museums (6.7 million), art galleries (6.3 million), plays (3.9 million) or musicals and opera (3.5 million). But it was the return rate that really set libraries apart. Whereas at least half of those who visited museums or the theatre went only once in the year, three-quarters of library visitors went back at least three times, and one-third visited more than 10 times. Australians make about 114 million visits to public libraries annually.

Here where I now live in Australia, on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales, Coffs Harbour library is the mother ship with satellites at the outlying townships of Woolgoolga and Toormina – latter is named for Taormina in Sicily, the site of one of the most famous theatres of Greek antiquity. Our own shire has libraries in Bellingen, Dorrigo and Urunga.

I get to the library every time I’m in Coffs Harbour, just to browse the stacks (there is something there for everyone) and check out the history books – as ever – and the large collection of cds. I almost always come away with something I had not intended to read or listen too. It’s a calm and peaceful space, with friendly and helpful staff, and yet always quite busy – particularly at its free computer and wi-fi benches.

As a volunteer with Settlement Services International, before Covid 19 closed our office and cut the flow of refugees to Australia, I often took newly-arrived refugee families there as part of their orientation. I’d help them enroll and give them a brief tour of the facilities, and particularly the computers and the children’s section (which hosts regular and free storytelling and craft sessions for preschools kiddies), and encourage them to return – it’s such an excellent introduction to our language, society and culture.

Coffs Harbour Library

As the following essay shows, libraries are much much more than their books and their educational and technical resources and facilities. They are not just a reference service but also a place for the vulnerable and the lonely, a “shelter from the storm” for people of all ages and circumstances. In a world where social and community services are being ground down, and loneliness and isolation are endemic, libraries provide vital lifelines for all manner of folk. from elderly people who value the human interaction with library staff and with other visitors, to the isolated young mother who enjoys the support and friendship that grows from a baby rhyme time session, to people who want to play the ukulele (visitors can actually borrow ukuleles as one would borrow books), to people like me just seeking time out time in a peaceful and welcoming space.

© Paul Hemphill 2022.  All rights reserved

Postscript

I wrote recently about Moseley Grammar School in an article on JRR Tolkien:

“Learning more about the author, I was to discover that he’d grown up in Birmingham, my home town, first in leafy Edgbaston (the home of Cadbury and the Warwickshire County Cricket Club), where he’d attended the prestigious King Edward’s Grammar School – my own school, Moseley Grammar, was not in its league. He lived near Sarehole Mill, in present day Hall Green, around the turn of century, between the ages four and eight, and would have seen it from his house. The locale at that time was rural Worcestershire farmland and countryside and not in the Birmingham ‘burbs. He has said that he used the mill as a location in The Lord of the Rings for the Mill at Hobbiton: “It was a kind of lost paradise … There was an old mill that really did grind corn with two millers, a great big pond with swans on it, a sandpit, a wonderful dell with flowers, a few old-fashioned village houses and, further away, a stream with another mill … “  Sarehole Mill was just down the road from my school, and our sports field and cross country tracks were adjacent to it. On many a wintry, cold, wet and windy Wednesday afternoon, I’d stagger past it on a muddy track. How I hated wet Wednesdays; dry ones were for rugby, and I hated them too!”  From: One ring to rule us all – does Tolkein matter?

For more stories like this one in In That Howling Infinite, see Tall tales, small stories, eulogies and epiphanies, and on books and reading generally, see Better read than dead – books, poetry and reading.

One for the books: the unlikely renaissance of libraries in the digital age

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