I gave a talk last night at an event celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Rawdon Community Library. A once fiercely independent small town on the outskirts of Leeds, it was absorbed into Leeds City in the local government reorganisation of the 1970s but when, under financial pressure, the City Council looked to save money by closing a number of branch libraries including Rawdon, the community fought back.
They first launched a two and a half year campaign opposing the closure and when that failed to persuade the councillors, they went ahead and re-established the library as an independent, community-run organisation. Staffed entirely by volunteers and supported by energetic fund-raising and a handful of generous supporters, it has gone from strength to strength, and is a thriving institution at the heart of its community, providing not only library services but a lecture programme, coffee mornings, clubs and interest groups, meeting facilities for all sorts of other local groups, and they even provide a ‘Home Alone’ Christmas dinner, served in the library on Christmas Day, for those who are on their own.
So huge congratulations to them and all other similar libraries around the country but it prompted me to reflect on the role a public library had played in my own life. Quite simply, I would not be a professional writer today if it had not been for my local library. When I was growing up, it occupied the entire ground floor of a large Victorian building and was run by knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff who were always available to offer help advice and reading recommendations to a shy ten or eleven-year-old boy when I started regularly visiting the library.
There were shelves groaning with books, not just Dickens and Shakespeare and the inevitable Agatha Christies and Enid Blytons, but a wealth of other novels, non-fiction, playscripts and poetry. There I discovered Steinbeck and Hemingway, Beckett and Camus, dos Passos and Dostoyevsky, and also – because libraries then actually had reasonable budgets for new books – even newer writers too like the wave of ‘angry young men’ who were then transforming British literature and cinema.
Consciously or subconsciously, I learned something from everything I read, expanding my vocabulary, analysing structure, plotting, narrative drive, character development and the creation of a believable sense of place, and when I finally became a full-time author – not without many a deviation and wrong turning along the way – it was that voracious reading habit and those assimilated lessons that made me successful.
The love of books that those trips to the library inculcated in me has remained with me all my life, and it breaks my heart to think that, were I growing up in today’s Britain, with libraries closed or stripped of staff and run on a shoestring, as devalued and diminished as almost every other aspect of public life here over the last 40 years, it’s doubtful if I would ever have developed my love of books or become a writer at all.