As part of my writing residency at Gillingham Library, Dorset, I collected people's memories of libraries. Though I asked for any memory of a library, many people (even those who are regular library users now) cast their minds back to childhood and reminisced about early visits to libraries. I've transcribed a selection of the contributions here. The result is a collection of qualitative data that presents a positive case for a prominent place for libraries in our society.
A selection of transcribed Memory Book entries:
My favourite library as an 11-year-old was in the ground floor of an old Georgian building a few minutes’ walk from my school. Wearing my blue beret I would walk there sometimes after school feeling very grown up. I love the wooden turnstile gates inside and the floorboards that you had to walk quietly on to preserve the hushed silence. One of my favourite books was Daddy-long-legs and its card made its way into my own special ticket holder in the hallowed box!
A Love Affair
When I was very young I went to Greenwich Public Library. Two half-glazed oak doors with shiny brass round handles led me into an Aladdin’s cave of book treasure. The parquet floor was polished so I tried skating to the low wooden book boxes. The red boxes were filled with tall picture books. I sat on a three-legged wooden stool and read aloud. No one told me to be quiet so I sang the imaginary words. When it was time to leave, they said I could take the books home – and that was how I fell in love with libraries!
I remember my mother and I visiting a library when I was about seven. I loved Enid Blyton books so my mother wanted to save money as I got through them so quickly. I asked the librarian if she had books by Enid Blyton but didn’t know how to pronounce Enid’s first name. The librarian looked puzzled and said she had no idea of an author by that name. I went home very disappointed!
I remember the mobile library van that came to our village. How could they cram so many books into such a small place? We kids had to line up and wait our turn to pick a book. Later the village got a brand new library, many more books and places to sit but sadly the van was never seen again.
Gillingham Library extended its boundaries when I discovered it had a writing group. Whilst I love reading, you have to acknowledge that in order that you can read something somebody first has to write it. And I like writing too.
The Power of Words
As a very small child I used to go to the library that was near my home. We didn’t have much money so I didn’t have many books of my own. Here was a wonderland of books to look at, to hold and devour. At first, it was the ones with pictures that held my attention but as I became a more proficient reader, the power of the words themselves were what kept me returning form more. I still have my love of books and own many, but still love coming to libraries wherever I am.
My one and only memory of the British Library was when I went to see the Magna Carta exhibition. That in itself was terrific. But what stuck in my head even more was the remarkable, private, no entry, members only, GLASS centre piece. Several floors of precious books, so carefully and respectfully looked after. An architectural joy and a magnificent resource.
Saturday mornings, off to the library, a small girl, staggering along with a heavy bag of last week’s books. It was a long walk for little legs but that didn’t matter. Handing them in, collecting the tickets, the little envelopes, smiling shyly at the nice ladies. And then the choosing, straying into the adult section for ‘books for mummy’ but not really, for herself. How clever to ask Mum to apply for her own 6 tickets so she herself could carry home double the books! Mum never, ever read a book, even when Billy Cotton was on the telly.
When I was a little girl – probably about five, my dad bought me a second-hand version of Snowball the Ponyby Enid Blyton. In the years to come, I remember visiting my local library in the High Street where I lived and practically devouring everything she wrote from the Secret Seven to the Famous Five, the Adventure series and Malory Towers. The Naughtiest Girl in the Schoolwas my favourite book. “I bark, I bite, I hate everybody!” All pretty old-fashioned now but still have some appeal.
When I was little I lived in Leytonstone, a suburb of East London, where there was an excellent library. My mum, a great library user, used to take me with her, in my preschool years. I can remember the smell of the leather chairs to this day. While mum chose her books, I would press my nose to the glass doors that led to the children’s library and wish that I could go in and choose a book for myself. But you couldn’t join until you were five, and I was only four. It seemed a lifetime away…
We had a very small library at my primary school. I didn’t care, I loved it anyway. I used to sit in there on a bean bag and read during playtime (if we were allowed). In 1994 we were very lucky to get a visit from Dick King-Smith. He was one of my favourite authors and I got him to sign my copy of The Hodge-Heg. I still have that book and it’s one of my most treasured possessions.
Libraries have always been part of our family life. I remember taking our three children when we were allowed fifteen books each. The sixty books we borrowed were returned, three weeks later, having been devoured voraciously. I have an overdeveloped shoulder muscle due to carrying library books.
As a child, my local library was in a tin shed – it smelt musty and the librarian was fierce – but it was full of books!
So many things have changed in libraries over the years. Having experienced everything from mobile library vans to the British Library, for me a library covers everything from dusty leather-bound tomes to singalongs for toddlers, from absolute silence to chattering, from having to climb up a ladder to sitting on big cushions on the floor, from totally book-filled shelves to computers.
As a child in the 1950s and 60s I remember the awe I felt when entering the library. It was enormous, with marbled floors and hugely high ceilings. Upstairs was the art gallery and paintings lined the stairwell. There were so many books that I didn’t know where to start. I still have that feeling that life isn’t long enough to read all the books I want to read.
My grandmother read books all the time. She would come out of our local library with armfuls of books and always managed to read them all. I grew up in the east London suburb of Redbridge and the buildings were from the 1930s. The library building was built in the same era and I remember passing through the leaded double doors when I was with Grandma, either getting out or taking back her books!
I forget quite what age I would have been when my mother joined us, my brother and I, as library members. It was quite a young age, and I think it might have been a suggestion from our school. My brother, unlike me, was not bookish, so many of my library visits were alone. For some years I was content with the children’s section, but then I remember as my interests led me to the adult part, especially my interest in family history, my visits lengthened as I sat in the library to read the books, not just in the reference section but any from the adults’ part. Eventually, I forget how, I learnt I was allowed to borrow adult books with my children’s ticket.
The library has always featured high on my list of pursuits. Whether it is a grand library in London or a local library, I have always found something to enjoy, learn from or engaged in a new hobby. My mother introduced me to our local library at an early age and the love of reading has continued right throughout my life. The library has a very special atmosphere all of its own. Some talking in hushed voices, heads buried deep in an engrossing novel, others engaged in their technical ventures and still more engaged in keeping pace with a hectic world.
I joined my hometown library when I was 18 months old. I have never looked back. I can still remember the smell of the library (in Brantwood, Essex, where I was born). It smelled of promise, excitement, adventure and books, books, books. I have lived my life with books and I can’t imagine a life without them.
My overwhelming memory of visiting the library is the first time I entered. A sense of excitement and wonder as I gazed upon the rows of books and the thrill of not knowing which one I would choose. This memory is from when I was a small child and even today, at the age of 49, I still experience the same thing whenever I enter a library.
The earliest memories I have of visiting the library are of regular trips to the small council-run building in Old Welwyn village, Hertfordshire. It smelt of floor polish and musty books. I’d have my school uniform on, grubby from the playground, polo shirt untucked and all the buttons undone so it was loose around my neck. I recently came across my Hertfordshire library card from that time, which, through various sort-outs over the years, I haven’t been able to throw away. Perhaps I’m keeping it in case I go back. I vaguely remember the card was scanned by a special machine – not a barcode, and not any other technology we see today. A light shone through a glass plate in the desk and read the dots embedded within the card.
It started with a cover, three lines of figures, no too brightly coloured, but in a line marching across the page. The cover belonged to Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Silver Branchand from this stemmed a lifelong love of history. I marched with The Eagles, slogged through mud and blood, found Maurice Druon, flirted with kings and princes. Old buildings, sturdy hardback books, new and old authors – libraries!
My few visits to the library have mainly been for writing workshops or talks with authors. Each time I have found everyone friendly and welcoming and enjoyed my time. So I have now joined the library online and will visit the Gillingham Library on a regular basis going forwards.
Did all my learning-studying in the Carnegie Library – Trinidad and Tobago. As a teenager this was the only place to study for my GCE O and A Levels. After leaving normal school I went to work as a legal clerk, I then decided to further my education. This is the only place where I could start to fulfil my dream: that is, the library.
I visited the library in Athens many years go. It was an amazing place. The books were displayed on reading cards, so you could look up the name and it would tell you which location to go to for the book It was in English and Greek. There were large numbers of books. They had a special area of ancient books which were in closed glass cases.
I have many happy memories of joining our local library when it first opened when I was a young child. I stayed as a member until I married and moved away. The choice of books was fantastic and gave me a lifelong love of reading.
My first memory of being in the library was from being a child in Shaftsbury. I remember getting my first library card and how excited I felt. Being able to browse the shelves and look at strange titles encourages reading and stimulates the mind. A place that will amuse, amaze, enrich, enrage, inform and intrigue.