Going to the local public library with my mother and checking out books with my very own library card is one of the most vivid memories from my childhood. It felt so grown up and powerful, to be able to take whatever books I wanted, to then go home and spend time reading, sometimes slowly savouring every new word, other times devouring a book at breakneck speed, just to find out what happened next. Choose Your Own Adventure Doctor Who books were a favourite, along with Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, and The Hobbit.
At secondary school, the school library very quickly became my sanctuary, a safe haven away from bullying threats in the playground or lunchtime football games that I didn’t want to play. It was a comforting, quiet place to explore new books and old favourites. I recall one lunchtime reading all of Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvelous Medicine, and went to my afternoon classes feeling giddy with the thrill that I had devoured a whole book in only an hour. That story was now inside of me, like some big juicy secret, and no-one could take it away. I felt sure that my classmates would be jealous if only they knew the wonderful story that was now stored inside my head. I went to the school library every lunchtime, and got to know all the shelves, the different categories, and the other kids that also hung out there. One of my classmates spent all his lunch hour reading reference books, storing away facts and figures to boost his already overflowing fountain of knowledge. He was the smartest kid I ever knew, and I was constantly trying to get better grades than him (I never succeeded, I had to be content with second place).
Visits to my local public library continued during my teens, although I now went there alone rather than with my mother. I used the library to try out new genres, to explore unfamiliar authors, and to seek out books that would somehow help me discover who I really was, or lead me down some path that I just couldn’t find by myself. Like most teens, I was self-obsessed, and needed to find books that spoke only to me. I wanted to be deep and meaningful, but despite my best efforts, I remained wallowing in my own shallow pools of self-importance.
My world was too small, I needed to venture further afield. I read books at the library about these mysterious things called “a gap year” and after reading all the ones I could get my hands on, decided that, yes, a gap year was most definitely for me. I read about volunteering in foreign countries, and using library books as evidence, I talked my parents into letting me go, aged 18, to live on a kibbutz in Israel for three months that summer, as soon as I’d finished school.
After college, I lived in Japan for three years, and although there were libraries there, I couldn’t use them, because I was unable to read any of the books. There is nothing quite as frustrating as being in a foreign library, surrounded by books that you can’t read. Instead, I’d make monthly trips to Kyoto, to go to the few book shops that stocked English books. It was a poor substitute for going to the library.
Upon returning to England, I once again spent many hours in my local public library, but now it was to use the computers, so that I could keep in touch with my new friends around the world. The library became my internet cafe, and the books suddenly didn’t seem so important any more.
Another gap year beckoned, this time in Vancouver, Canada. As soon I was able to, I joined my local library there, and took out books to read on the beach, on the bus to work, to read anywhere, really. That Canadian library card gave me power that I hadn’t felt since I’d been a child.
A six-year adventure in the United States followed soon after, and once again, getting a library card was top priority. I remember going to the local public library, with my official documents to prove that I was eligible to get a card. The lady behind the desk probably had no idea how much that library card meant to me; here I was, in a new town, in a foreign country that I had decided to call home, unable to work yet due to my visa situation (I was there because my wife is American) with lots of time on my hands. That card gave me access to free music, free magazines, free books, free knowledge, and a place to go to hang out when I had nothing else to do in those months before my work permit was issued.
Within a few years, I ended up working part-time in that library, initially as a shelver, and then as a library assistant, working alongside that very same lady that had issued me with my library card. I became a father, and took my sons to the library every week, to attend the wonderful story time. I formed friendships with other parents. We even had breakfast in a diner every Wednesday morning; a group of us exhausted parents and this large brood of noisy babies and toddlers, before all going to the story time together. That public library became the centre of my world; not only as my part-time workplace, but as somewhere I could rely on, where as a stay-at-home dad, I knew my kids and I would always be welcome, whether we’d be there to enjoy the air conditioning on a hot day, or just to get out of the house for an hour. There would always be friendly faces who didn’t mind that my two-year old was playing noisily in the children’s section, or that my newborn was crying. And yes, there were books, and magazines, and CDs and DVDs, all ready for the taking, all improving my quality of life in immeasurable ways. And it was all free.
Later, my family relocated to England, and one of the hardest parts of leaving the United States was saying good-bye to our wonderful public library. It’s been two years since we left, and we still miss it. Of course, there are public libraries here, too, but they’re different; not only smaller, not only further away from our home, not only less well-stocked, but with fewer staff and less funding. However, I’m still thankful that the public libraries are here. We need them and use them and value them. We visit every couple of weeks, letting my sons take whatever books they like, just like I did when I was a young boy.