Saturday, 10 November 2012

IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT THE BOOKS- Save the Library campaign

Pete Rimmer has brought to my attention this posting by Sean McPartlin  the full posting can be found here          .  The writing is distinctly superior to our usual standard. I hope you will follow the link and read the full posting


In 1959, when I was 7,  I moved to Southport, in Lancashire, and stayed in the suburb of Birkdale.

At the end of our road there was an imposing Victorian building which became very much part of my everyday routine. Going to the shops, the station, or the bus stop involved passing it, and to a young lad it was a fascinating sight.

Set back from the road, it had a parking area in front of it, used as a taxi rank, and at one end a building with  a huge clock tower.

By the time I moved there, most of the building was unused. It had been built in 1872 as the Town Hall for Birkdale, the buildings at the other end comprised a police station and courts and a fire station, and between them, completed in the early years of the century, was a Carnegie Free Library.

However, by 1912, Birkdale had been subsumed by the County Borough of Southport and these civic buildings became surplus to requirements, hence their unused state in the early sixties.

However, the Library remained open. And it was much to my benefit. Most Friday nights, around 6.30, off I would go to the Library  - initially accompanied by my mother, but quickly, as it was only about 100yds from our house, alone.

It was quite an experience for me initially. You can imagine the appearance of Victorian grandeur, high ceilings, carved plaster work, dark stained wood panels and glass partitions. The very smell of the place was atmospheric – dry paper, polish, dust, and that indefinable aroma of books.

The children’s library was separate to the adults’, on the left as you entered the building; the grown up section, to the right, was out of bounds for a few years yet.

I grew to love those Friday evenings, especially in the winter. Out into the cold, my breath on the air, pushing against the heavy door, a blast of warmth, and then the enveloping silence of the shelves.

There was an excitement in searching to see if a certain ‘Famous Five’ or ‘Secret Seven’ book was on the shelf this week, as I worked through the titles by authors like Enid Blyton: The Sea of Adventure, The Rilloby Fair Mystery, The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage. Scanning the shelves was part of the thrill, and I soon came to enjoy books by other authors – the ‘Flame’ series by Eric Leyland, “Jennings” by Anthony Buckeridge, “Billy Bunter” by Frank Richards, Richmal Compton’s ‘William’ – and books long forgotten by authors such as A Stephen Tring, Lawrence Meynell (the same person!), books about cricket that still resonate –“Out in the Glare” by G Appleby Terrill and ‘Playing for the School’ by Jack Hemming.

Many of these books were written pre-war, but such were the worlds that they created that I never really noticed the anachronisms; the ambience was so perfectly created that even the rarified atmosphere of Edwardian upper middle class society seemed perfectly accessible. Did life really change so little in the middle of the twentieth century? Or was I captured by the strangeness of it all. As an only child, I certainly found friends in the characters in these books, as their mannerisms and expressions became familiar to me.

Then, three books chosen (only three! The agony of putting back one or two books, hoping they would be on the shelf next week!) there was the comforting thump, stamp, thump of the somewhat forbidding librarian as she issued the books for the two weeks I knew I wouldn’t need, and a brisk walk home, to start the serious business of getting lost in these somehow familiar places.

We don’t recognize the value of what we have while we are having it I suppose. I look back now and am thankful for all that Birkdale Library gave me. The comfort of reading and the practice of regularly extending my vocabulary was a painless and even enjoyable way of attaining the skills that would help me when study became important. A career as an English teacher, a life in which writing – published and unpublished – has featured, a house always filled with books, always another to be read, all of this, I suppose, was influenced by those happy Friday evenings in that imposing building.

But, as my son said when I mentioned this to him, “It was not just about the books”.
The ‘free libraries’ endowed by the wealth of my fellow Scot, Andrew Carnegie, made a bold statement in many ways. Carnegie himself, on libraries, said:

“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.”


“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.”

In a sense, that original Carnegie Library in Birkdale proved the point – physically, as well as in its contents and opportunities.

It was a grand building that made a statement; in that library, with all its hushed tones, dark wood, imposing stonework, you couldn’t help but know you  were in somewhere that mattered. Books, and all that they implied – about knowledge, learning, self reliance, choice and self discipline -  were to be taken seriously. In the old fashioned  architecture and hushed atmosphere of that library, I learned so much about what is important; I found a part of myself; I prepared, unknowingly, for my future.

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