It started in Woking library. My mum would take us on a Saturday morning after dance classes and guitar lessons. My brother would photocopy pictures of Suede and Ocean Colour Scene from NME to plaster across his bedroom walls and I would wander into the kids’ section. It didn’t occur to me back then that she might take us there because it was free. I just loved being there. And that feeling of being somewhere simultaneously safe and full of potential has stayed with me ever since.
As I got older, this refuge from the world became quite useful. When girls at school got bitchy, I’d retreat to the school library, open a book and suspend reality until the bell pierced through.
Later on, in my twenties and studying for an MA, I’d go to Senate House Library after a day shift in Whistles. I’d find a table for one tucked away among the musty-smelling shelves. I’ve always known reading is a great pleasure but when I went into higher education I began to learn it was a great privilege too. Locked away in an art deco building for a few precious hours with books on Fitzgerald and Proust was a genuine thrill. I couldn’t believe my luck.
Shortly afterwards, I moved to Amsterdam. Amsterdam’s public library is modern and shiny and huge. It confirmed to me the things I loved about that city; that here was a space for everyone, and when I was lost in a strange place where I didn’t speak the language, I could get on a tram and sit in the library and feel part of something.
Fast forward several years later. I am now single and feeling lonely in London and so, without any thought, I’d spend Sundays in Dalston library. It felt as if the rows of books kept me propped up, gathering around me like supportive elders looking over a lost member of the tribe. I felt a solidarity in the solidness of the shelves and the books. I remember an old colleague asked me what I did there with a sense of confusion. My own bedroom made me feel starkly alone, cafes reminded me of other people’s company but the library made me feel there was somewhere I could be. I buried my loneliness under newspapers and comforted it with Cheryl Strayed and Rebecca Solnit.
Mostly, I don’t think book lovers can really explain why books make them feel the way they do. Like a shaft of sunlight on your face in the depths of winter, reading feels like both a retreat and a possibility – it both opens your horizons and reassuringly confirms the outline of who you are. Libraries are cathedrals to that feeling. And for all the words I’ve read in libraries, I can only find a few to precisely articulate how it feels when I sit and read in one.
Now, libraries feature heavily again in my life. And, perhaps as I get older and less self-centred, I witness with awe the role they play in other people’s lives too. I go to Peckham library regularly as a freelancer looking for somewhere to work and am moved to see the old ladies who come and sit with a paper, because it is warm and it gives them somewhere to go. I marvel at the rabble of kids who arrive for after-school clubs. I see how the staff caters for those with disabilities. The library is a place that Peckham’s extreme gentrification can’t touch and speaks to the community that was there long before people like me moved in. People of all ages find peace and quiet to study. I hear people come in and ask for directions or how to print important documents they need. It serves its community in so many more ways than only offering books to borrow, although that is a worthy act in itself. And after a decade of austerity, public services are in dire needs yet the humble library remains a lifeline – a free, warm, calm space for so many. It’s frightening to think we’ve lost 800 libraries since 2010.
We need libraries like we need the NHS. We need places that people know are there for them when they need it, regardless of income. The NHS is a source of national pride; libraries should be that too – a commitment to education for all. In some ways that sounds magical, or radical, like something AOC or Bernie would say but it should be very standard. A battle for libraries feels part of the bigger struggle that is happening right now –- the battle for the spirit of who and what we want this country to be, a reflection of priorities, a belief system.
But it also feels small, personal, every day. Because it is. From Woking to Dalston and Peckham via Amsterdam, these little moments in libraries have strung together like street lights guiding me on solitary walks home. When we’re in a library, that moment might feel unremarkable – barely even noticeable, perhaps, but its presence has been reliable, solid, consistent. Libraries have the potential to fill the gaps in our lives we didn’t know we had and do so seamlessly. Like the very best sources of support, we don’t see it, we’ve just come to expect it. And like all good love affairs, hours in libraries have been nourishing to me – little moments of bliss, they’ve protected me, comforted me, supported me, guided me, thrilled me, and set me off in directions I didn’t know I could go or realised I was brave enough to take. Your library will always be there for you.
Until, of course, it isn’t.