My love affair with libraries

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My love affair with libraries started more than 35 years ago when my parents first took me to our local library and registered me there. To a child who read voraciously this was a gift that kept on giving. To know that I could walk up to the shelves, pick up a book, any book, and hand it over to the nice librarian to have my card stamped and take it home with me to read was intoxicating. On each visit I always checked out the maximum quantity of five and there were times, in the school holidays, when my parents would have to take me twice a week to keep up with my reading demands.

Looking back with an adult’s eyes, I don’t think it was a particularly attractive library, with its fluorescent strip lighting and cheap shelving. But it was beautiful to me.  I felt a thrill every time I crossed the tiled floor of the foyer in the Victorian municipal building where the library was housed, walking past the librarian’s desk to the children’s section where I would choose my next reading adventures with more care than I applied to any other decision I made at that age.

Then I moved away, to university to read English Literature and Language where (in that pre-digital age) a library once again became the centre of my life. I haunted the book stacks there, working my way through bound copies of Blackwood’s Magazines to find contemporary reviews of Victorian novels, reading up on literary theories and criticism and generally enjoying the fact that I could read for many hours a day and call it ‘work’.

Once I started paid work (for a publisher, you may be noticing a theme developing here!) I didn’t visit libraries for a while. I was earning so could afford to buy books (particularly with my publisher discount!). Then my husband and I moved to Australia and the local library became a lifeline once more while I was looking for work; free books to read, somewhere to while away the hours between interviews, free Internet access, a book group where I could meet people.

But the most significant library to me was the one I joined when we moved to Raleigh NC in the US. When we first arrived my husband started his job straight away, but I couldn’t work to start with as I had to wait to be allocated a social security number (which took six months in total, long story). This meant that I was six months without a bank account, a state drivers license, a job. In other words not many ways to fill my days. Luckily there was an amazing library only a 15-minute cycle away, at Cameron Village. This place saved my sanity. The library felt so welcoming, the staff were incredibly friendly and helpful and it had a truly amazing array of books over two levels. |i went there two, maybe three times a week.And it hosted so many book groups! I joined four, yes four, book groups. Meaning that I got to meet up with people who were as passionate about reading as I was every single week. And was introduced to books I would never have picked up if not for them.

After moving back to Melbourne (and rejoining my local library!) and living there for a few years, we finally moved back to the UK but to Cheshire not my native Oxfordshire. So once again, I was in an unfamiliar town where I didn’t know anyone and I was freelancing from home therefore not meeting anyone through work. So what did I do? You guessed it. Joined the local library. And I have also been working my way around the amazing libraries that Manchester has to offer: Central Library, John Ryland’s Library, Portico Library, and Chetham’s Library (oldest public library in the English-speaking world), to name but a few.

Okay, so I am not sure how to end this article as really I just wanted to witter on about my love of libraries and didn’t really have an end point planned when I started this. So why don’t I finish by saying that if libraries aren’t used, they disappear.

Visit your local library. Support your local library. Love your local library.

 

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Can you ever own ‘too many books’? …

Decisions, decisions

Up to last month I would have unhesitatingly said ‘No!’ Impossible! I could never have “too many” books. What a thought?!’

As far as I am concerned, I ‘AM’ my library; I have been building my collection for over 20 years. Crime fiction, art history, literary criticism, history, literature, popular, lexicographical, the list is endless.  Luckily space has not been a constraint for me as wherever I have lived I have always had space for my books. Although sometimes I have had to get a bit creative: I have turned spare bedrooms into a library. And the drawing room. And the dining room. And well, sometimes the bathroom. In fact, let’s just say that I am an expert at putting IKEA Billy bookcases together and leave it at that. Of course I dream of the day when I have a beautiful bespoke library and/or cosy reading nook surrounded by books; in fact I have a Pinterest board devoted to book shelving!

A couple of years ago I owned over 1100 books. And I was all set to keep going. But then I relocated back from the US (my third international relocation in seven years) and I realised that I just couldn’t justify the expense of shipping (and insuring) over 30 boxes of books – again. Sighing, I managed to convince myself that a small cull was the only way and donated/sold maybe 300 books. It was a wrench but as I had found books much cheaper in the US (than Australia, where I was living before) I had been buying indiscriminately and joyfully for two years, so I targeted those books and the cull wasn’t as heartbreaking as it could have been.

Three years on we are moving again, this time to England and the 800 books I had shipped back to Australia from the US have somehow increased in number again. So once more I have to give myself a stern talking to. Do I really ‘NEED’ all these books? Can I really ship/insure them for a fourth time which would mean that I will have spent more on shipping my personal library, than the cost of compiling it?!

And let’s be honest, I am not going to reread all 1000-odd. So why do I want to keep them all? Why am I finding this cull so hard? Part of it is book lust – I like looking at them; I receive a huge amount of satisfaction from just standing in front of my wall(s) of books and looking at them, browsing them, dipping into old favourites. Part of it (and this does not reflect well on me) is that I am proud of the number of books I have – ‘Look at me, I’m a big reader’, that’s what my shelves say to anyone visiting my home. And part of it is that I just can’t let go of a book once I have read it. Books are friends, they are companions. One of the reasons I have taken my library with me on all my moves is that they are a constant, a familiar ‘place’ that I can recreate no matter where I live. They are a source of memories (books given as gifts, books signed by authors, books bought when travelling, books bought as a result of recommendations from friends), a source of comfort (there really is nothing like rereading an old favourite, curled up with a cup of tea in a comfy chair). And, obviously, they are a source of entertainment which I needed when I was new in town and hadn’t had the chance to meet people (usually by joining three local book clubs!).

But I have to cull. I cannot ship over 1000 books internationally again so I made a rule and it’s a simple one. Any book that I have read and have no intention of rereading I decided I had to discard. But it’s not simple. Because every time I find a book I haven’t reread and that I have no intention of ever rereading, I find a reason to keep it. I like the cover. I like the author. I ‘might’ read it again, who knows?

So there I was, a couple of weeks ago, on the floor in my study surrounded by piles and piles of books in the ‘to ship’ area and one lonely pile in the ‘to donate/sell’ area trying to follow my simple rule and I had an epiphany. Maybe I’m ready to make the move without all of my books. Maybe I can just take my favourites and my reference books and ‘let go’ of the rest. After all, I am moving ‘home’, I don’t need my ‘comfort blanket’ this time. And suddenly I was at peace with my book culling. The piles and piles of books transformed themselves from friends into a mixture of friends, colleagues and distant acquaintances, making it much easier to sort them. And so I packed my acquaintances and colleagues into boxes and took them down to the local charity stores, the secondhand bookstores and handed them out to friends with a light heart.

And anyway, I can always buy some more when I get home…