Tag Archives: public libraries

Six Crimes against Library Books

The original version of this post was one of my earliest, written four years ago. At that time I included only 5 crimes, but since the assault on public libraries has been unrelenting I have added the worst crime of all: closing public libraries and preventing access to books. This piece focuses on the books themselves.

Libraries are under attack

Libraries are under attack and not just from this thing they used to call austerity but also from readers. I’ve quoted before from a very charming and poignant novel in a previous post about libraries in danger: Sophie Divry’s The Library of Unrequited Love. Damage Limitation. That’s how the French librarian narrator describes her mission, limiting the damage readers do – men readers in particular, apparently.

I don’t always manage it. They do stupid things all the time. Inevitably. They put books back in the wrong place, they steal them, they muddle them up, they dog-ear them. Some people even tear out pages. Imagine, tearing out pages when photocopies are only seven centimes a shot! It’s men that do that, every time. And underlining like crazy, that’s always men as well. Men just have to make their mark on a book, put in their corrections, their opinions. You see the pathetic comments they write in the margin: ‘Yes!’, ‘No!!!’, ‘Ridiculous’, ‘Very Good’, ‘O.T.T.’, ‘Wrong’. It’s forbidden to write on the books, that’s in the Library Rules. (22)

Despite her railing at the person (a man I think) who had a sleepover in the stacks for which she is responsible, Sophie Divry’s librarian has very positive views about libraries and their value.

I share this strong belief in the importance of libraries. I also find myself incensed (as well as inconvenienced from time to time) by the activities of my fellow library book borrowers.

Six things not to do to library books:

  1. Mark them. People, don’t underline your favourite bits with pen or pencil, and forbear from using a highlighter. It is not your book, and the rest of us do not want to know what you found useful, interesting or noteworthy about this book. Do not write your shopping list on the end pages, or your to do list on the title page. Do not add anything to the writers’ text.
  2. Damage them. It won’t stay open? Don’t crack the spine by bending the covers backwards. My shoulders don’t meet behind my back either. If necessary peer between the pages. Don’t damage them in any way. Don’t tear out pages you want to keep. Photocopiers were invented for you to copy pages. Don’t prop up your wobbly table by placing it under the leg, turn down the page corner to mark your place, drop it in the bath or throw it at your disgraced lover or partner.
  3. Leave important things between the pages when you return them. Never again will you see that bank note, dry cleaner’s receipt, oyster card, railway, concert or winning lottery ticket, love letter, Indian Takeaway flyer, business card. The compromising photographs, however, will reappear.
  4. Collect your toenail clippings in the open pages. More respect to other readers please.
  5. Forget to return them.
  6. Close libraries so that readers do not have access to them.

What response could there be to such bad readers and local councils? It is not good enough to suggest that we close libraries because everyone has access to on-line books nowadays. In the first place they don’t. Not everyone has access to the internet at home. If you have ever been in a public library you would know that the use of the on-line facilities is part of their attraction. And not everyone wants to read the books on-line. And libraries are not just about access to books, they have many other purposes, including being social places, although I think holding a sleepover in them may be going a little far.

Jungle Books via WikiCommons January 2016 by Katja Ulbert

Libraries and books open eyes to the world beyond the everyday, beyond the immediate and into new imaginary places and adventures. Neil Gaiman said this more eloquently and powerfully in his 2013 annual lecture lecture to the Reading Agency: Reading and Obligation. Note that word Obligation. Our society has an obligation to provide libraries.

Love libraries. Love library books. Love librarians?

Any pet hates to add to my list?

The Library of Unrequited Love (La Cote) by Sophie Divry was a gift from my sister. Published by MacLehose Press in 2013. Translated from the French by Sian Reynolds.

Related Posts

Libraries are in danger. Too much silly stuff is written about them in the media. For a refreshing riposte see this piece in Huffington Post by the American librarian, Rita Meade: A librarian’s response to ‘what’s a library?’

Libraries again and again; in this post I reported on the importance of libraries overseas, using the example of Nakaseke Community Library, Uganda and praising the work of Book Aid International.

Library Cuts are Pay Cuts. Really! This post looked at everybody’s financial impoverishment caused by cutting libraries.

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The Public Library by Robert Dawson

I find myself recently buying a few large books for leafing through. First it was one about women’s sheds: A Woman’s Shed by Gill Herz, photographs by Nicolette Hallett. The second featured the covers of Jane Austen’s novels in the last 200 years: Jane Austen Cover to Cover by Margaret C Sullivan. And then it was the subject of this post: The Public Library: a photographic essay by Robert Dawson.184 Pub Lib cover

I couldn’t resist this one having read a post by Maria Popova on the blog On Brain Pickings. You can read the post here and consider whether you would have resisted.

The book

The Public Library has a foreword by Bill Moyers, an afterword by Ann Patchett and other contributions from Isaac Asimov, Barbara Kingsolver, Anne Lamott, Dr Seuss, Charles Simic, Amy Tan and others. So many notable American writers, all reflecting on the wonder that is the public library.

In the United States – as in the UK – it appears that the public library is under threat. That means that the idea of the public library as free, accessible and local may not survive the next two decades. Robert Dawson is a believer in the free public library, clear about its significance in the States. What he says also applies to libraries in the UK:

Stoke Newington Library, London

Stoke Newington Library, London

A locally governed and tax-supported system that dispenses knowledge and information for everyone throughout the country at no cost to its patrons is an astonishing thing – a thread that weaves together our diverse and often fractious country. It is a shared commons of our dreams, our memories, our culture, and ourselves.

The project for his book is described at the start of chapter one:

The photographs in this book are intended to be a broad study of public libraries in America over an eighteen-year period. There are approximately seventeen thousand public libraries in the United States, and I tried to include the broadest range of them possible. My photographs capture some of the poorest and wealthiest, oldest and newest, most crowded and most isolated, even abandoned libraries. (13)

And so, what we get is 185 pages, most of them with B&W and colour photographs, showing the reader (the leafer-through) a very large variety of libraries – from the classical monumental building of The Handley Regional Library, Winchester, Virginia to the ‘Little Free Library’ in a replica of a school house on a post (think bird table) in Hudson, Wisconsin via the seed and tool libraries of California. Little Free Library is a community movement and you can find out more about it at www.littlefreelibrary.org I counted 15 in the UK on the website, but none near me in the South West.

A selection of libraries from the book

In the Main Library, Salt Lake City, Utah hangs a sculpture called Psyche, made of nearly 1500 small sculptures of books forming the shape of a head (p132).184 Psyche in Utal lib

Caliente branch library is situated in a former Pacific railroad station, in Nevada (p150). You can find libraries in a former gas station, bank, court house and church. A Library shares space with a liquor store in Minnesota.

In Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore, Maryland there is a chess room (p47)

The Chicago Public Library was created from the ashes of the 1971 Great Chicago fire. From England the library received 8000 books donated by Queen Victoria, Benjamin Disraeli, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold among others (p98).

In praise of the public library

And perhaps the story that resonated most with me was Anne Lamott’s account of the direct action by writers and readers in Salinas California when they heard that all three of their libraries were to close due to budget cuts. They held an emergency 24 hours read-in by a group of actors and writers. The press coverage brought in enough money to keep the libraries open for a further year.

This is what she says about librarians.

I see them as healers and magicians. Librarians can tease out of inarticulate individuals enough information about what they are after to lead them on the path of connection. They are trail guides through the forest of shelves and aisles – you turn a person loose who has limited skills, and he’ll be walloped by the branches. But librarians match up readers with the right books: “hey, is this one too complicated? Then why don’t you give this one a try?”

And about the threat to deprive the city of Salinas of all its libraries she says

Something has gone so wrong in this country that needs to be fixed, and we care about that. Books and reading are medicine. Stories are written and told by and for people who have been broken, but who have risen up, or will rise, if attention is paid to them. Those people are you and us. Stories and truths are splints for the soul, and that makes today a sacred gathering. Now we are all saying: Pass it on. (166)

Yes – that’s what we must do: pass it on!

Related post: Anne Lamott’s advice to writers: A Visit from my Inner Critic

The Public Library: a photographic essay by Robert Dawson published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2014 192pp


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Four reasons to save our libraries

Our public libraries are under threat, easy targets for council cuts. The main reason to save our libraries is of course their contents: the books. ‘Because everything changes when we read’ is the strap line of The Reading Agency. Look at the sterling work they are doing to support our libraries, including publish The Library Book, edited by Rebecca Grey.


Here are four more specific reasons to save our public libraries.

ONE: because they are much more than sources of books and information services.

A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen instead. (Caitlin Moran, The Library Book p92)

The books and the buildings, the services and resources offer all this and more to everyone, whatever age, erudition, wealth, class, colour, status, no matter what. Come in.

Library shelvesDSC00248

TWO: libraries nourished authors and readers. They are ‘places of incredible glamour, possibility, power, excitement and pleasure,’ according to Stephen Fry. Annie Dillard, writing in An American Childhood, describes her experience in Pittsburgh.

The Homewood Library had graven across its enormous stone façade: FREE TO THE PEOPLE. In the evenings, neighbourhood people – the men and women of Homewood – browsed in the library, and brought their children. (p81)

Here she found The Field Book of Ponds and Streams, and learned that other people in the city, despite the lack of ponds and streams, also borrowed this book. This is part of the mystery and wonder of libraries, the anonymous intimacy with other people who read the same books.

This was the most private and obscure part of life, this Homewood Library: a vaulted marble edifice in a mostly decent Negro neighbourhood, the silent stacks of which I plundered in deep concentration for many years. … I would never meet those Homewood people who were borrowing The Field Book of Ponds and Streams; the people who read my favourite books were invisible, or in hiding, underground. (p83)

Annie Dillard went on to write magical, close observations of life in ponds and streams, retelling the details of cycles and creatures around her home so that I felt I was peering over her shoulder at lacewings, muskrat, goldfinch and water currents when I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Val McDermid had a similar experience of devouring a library when she was growing up right across the road from Kirkcaldy Central Library. ’I would not be a writer,’ she claims in The Library Book, ‘if it were not for the public library system.’ See the comments on the popular Dovegrey Reader Scribbles blog from readers who would say, ‘if it were not for the public library system I would not be a reader.’

So save our libraries for the future authors now hunkering down among the shelves, and for the ones who will come after them and for the readers.

THREE: Libraries connect people. Here are two examples from fiction. The new British Library is the location for a short story by Toby Litt, and concerns a love affair conducted through the titles on the request slips for books. It’s called Rare Books and Manuscripts and can be found in an anthology of London writing: Diaspora City.

A librarian’s monologue in The Library of Unrequited Love, by the French novelist Sophie Divry, also concerns love among the stacks, but exploring in its rambling course the visitors, the purposes of a library, hierarchies among the staff, her work in charge of the geography section and so on. It’s charming, quirky and sad, and a very enjoyable gift from my kind sister.

Libraries provide connections with people who might be different in ways we recognise in ourselves, as Stephen Fry discovered growing up gay in Norfolk. And libraries provide connections to our past through memorials. My previous post was about an inaccessible library as memorial (Judenplatz in Vienna). This photo is of the war memorial in my local library in Stoke Newington, North London. It is a very long list of names.

Memorial in lib

FOUR: They embody communitarian and democratic values. Libraries affirm something important about relationships in the community without reference to economics. You want to read this book? Take it and bring it back in a few weeks. No charge. No deposit. And in that money-free transaction social value is affirmed not just between the library and the borrower, but between the library and its community.

And after the libraries are gone they’ll come for the other books, and then for the people who write them. Julian Barnes in The Library Book has a sobering story about a great event, the eponymous Defence of the Book, set in the future but echoing Niemoller’s famous lines First they came for

Who doesn’t love a library? People who cut council budgets, people who see libraries as ‘valuable retail outlets’, and people who abhor imagination, discovery and wonder. They don’t love a library. There are 4,200 public libraries in the UK. We must not lose them. Do you have another reason why?


And a couple of blog notes:

  1. The next post on this blog will be a review of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor, first choice for the blog reading group. Any recommendations for the next choice?
  2. My novel is out of its drawer and my short story sobered up. More on these soon, perhaps.


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