Our new CEO, Sue Wilkinson MBE, marks National Libraries Day by telling us about the role libraries have played in her life.
A childhood immersed in library books
Libraries have always been important to me; how far is the nearest public library is one of the questions I ask Estate Agents when I am moving house - and it is always interesting to see if they know. I have never learnt to drive (I know!) so being within walking distance or a bus ride of one is very important.
As a child I went to the library in Barnsley at least three times a week. The old library was in the Civic Hall which was an impressive building in the centre of the town. The children's library was upstairs and I can still see in my mind's eye where my favourite books were on the shelves.
I loved a series which was about the childhoods of famous people - The Young Elizabeth Barret Browning; The Young Elizabeth Fry; The Young Victoria - its only now I realise that all the ones of the series I read were about the childhoods of women. My father was very clear that his daughters were all going to be able to stay on at school and go to university but it was an unusual view and one that clearly bewildered some parts of my extended family. They could see why boys might go to university, but girls? I think that one of the things which appealed to me about this series was seeing what these women did and how they managed to do it in the face of either opposition or resistance.
Another set of books I loved was The Young Traveller series. These books were about 2 children (a boy and a girl) spending a year in another country - sometimes with their families and sometimes with other people - because of their father's work. I remember wondering where their mother was while they were staying with friends or relations and what she was doing. It took me ages to work out why I loved some of the books but not others. I eventually realised they were all by different authors!
Sneaking books from the adults' section
Three times a week and five books each time meant I got through the children's section long before I was officially allowed a card for the adult library - and in the 1960s they were very strict about such things. I therefore had to persuade my father (who generally took me to the library) that either he didn't need all his books or that he might want to read some of the things I was interested in.
Despite being a historian himself, he didn't share my early passion for Jean Plaidy and Georgette Heyer but I loved their books. I still find that whenever I end up knowing some bizarre fact about a period of history I have never studied, the source will be one of their books. Now of course its Dorothy Dunnett, S. J Sansom and above all Hilary Mantel that I read when I want historical fiction - but I still owe a debt of gratitude to Jean Plaidy and Georgette Heyer. Some of the books I got from the adult library were, of course, books my parents recommended. The ones I still endlessly re-read are the books by Caryl Brahms and S. J Simons - my particular favourites are No Bed for Bacon; Don't Mr Disraeli and Bullet in the Ballet.
Barnsley's new library was opened whilst I was still living at home and, as I got older and could go to the library on my own, I found myself using it as a place to study as well as a place to borrow books. It was also a good place for meeting boyfriends! You could tell the absolute truth about where you were, see him, and come back with a fresh pile of books to read. What could be better?!
A rich reading experience
What we didn't have then of course was reading groups and all the social activity around reading which is part of what every library is doing today and which I would have loved to have had when I was growing up. Reading was a solitary experience for me - and I still completely cut out the world when I read - but how much richer is the reading experience now when there are people to talk to about the books you love and people to recommend them for you and to share them with.
Today of course I am both a buyer of books and a borrower. I am one of those people who will often buy a book after having read a library copy just to be sure that I can pick it up and re-read it at any time of day or night. Although I don't haunt the library in the way I did as a child, it remains very important to me - as a place, as a community centre and as an institution. It has to be there for all those who are hungry for access to books and information and as a place where you can talk about books and learn more about the process of imaging and creating them. The best libraries are wonderful places; the gateway to new worlds and new ideas.
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