Life-creating libraries

‘It turns out I have a local authority lending library in part to thank for setting me off as a writer’

Library

Some years back, at the dawn of the internet, Ben Elton joked about the idea that this new technology would primarily be used for learning. The idea that young people would be thrilled by the knowledge now at their fingertips struck the comedian as unlikely. “Like a library, you mean,” was the punchline. Because, as he pointed out, you always saw young people skipping around libraries marvelling about the amount of knowledge freely available to them.

I suppose the joke stuck in my memory because what he described wasn’t far off my juvenile attitude towards libraries. Nowadays, like so many people, I have less need of them: when almost any book can be ordered for the price of postage, the library comes to us. But in those pre-internet days libraries were life-essential, even life-creating. And so, although I don’t remember skipping around it, the local lending library was certainly where I began to discover the answers to some already-emerging life questions.

Like every other warm local authority building, the corners of that practical modern building tended to be filled with old men filling out their days by eking out the free newspapers. Students waited to use the couple of bulky computers that were already there for public use. But for that dedicated number of us who would be back each week, with a fresh pile of books to return or renew, and a new pile to get stamped and dated, this was still the place to meet all the people from history you would like to meet.

It was there that I first started to work out the story that would become my first book (Bosie: A Biography of Lord Alfred Douglas). At some stage—and slightly worrying about the reaction of the book stampers—I had taken out the works of Oscar Wilde and then book after book about him. One had a lurid, not to say rude, cover and I remember feeling certain as I passed it over the desk that some siren would go off and every eye in the building turn on me. But I got away with it, and after a time found out the tale of the other person in his story.

Having not been taken out for some decades, Sonnets by Lord Alfred Douglas was listed as existing in some reserved stacks in another county, only able to be delivered, with a small surcharge, in a number of weeks. For all the advantages of this age of accessibility, that is one of the things that we have lost—the thrill of postponement. In any case it turns out I have a local authority lending library in part to thank for setting me off as a writer.

But that first library was not only a source for books. It was also—slightly miraculously it now seems—a tremendous resource for musical scores. For if books were hard to buy in those days, musical scores were—still are—far beyond the realms of affordability. And here, in a suburban London council library were stacks upon stacks of them. All the great operas, symphonies, oratorios and string quartets, with separate sections of solo instrumental and vocal music. How would I have managed to get to know these works if I hadn’t been able to borrow them for free and crash my way through the easier ones in piano reductions? Only looking back now do I realise how lucky I was to have had the opportunity not just to get all the classics but to access a good selection of serious contemporary music: bulky scores of Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies operas, huge works of Messiaen and Tippett. I wonder how many of these have survived the subsequent culls?

For if that is the worry of every borrower, it must be the horror of every author. Every now and then a trolley would be filled with books which were no longer needed and could be bought for 20 pence—volumes that had not been borrowed for a designated period and were thought to have been superseded or replaced. A barbaric thing in a way, for the fact that something has not been taken out for a long while should ordinarily be (as those Sonnets proved) the best reason for a library to hold it. In any case, that is how I acquired—and am still encumbered by—a full set of Virginia Woolf’s diaries and letters.

I wasn’t surprised when I heard that the library I once borrowed from each week turned some time ago towards the computer-oriented model of library accessibility. Nor was I surprised to hear more recently that the library was slated for closure by a council blaming cuts. I suppose the next generation of budding bibliophiles are indeed now skipping, unrestrained, among the book stacks of the internet. Though where the people eking out the day’s papers in the warm will now congregate I have no idea.