Libraries as refuge

When you’re a child let loose in the world, there are only so many places to go. Shops, you quickly learn, harbour a cruel and unfair prejudice against customers whose pecuniary resources extend only to fourteen copper pence in a Winnie the Pooh purse. However expertly an eleven year old face plays out the internal dilemma of whether to buy this or that travel hairdryer, somehow the woman in Boots always knows.

The same goes for cafe owners and their supernatural intuition that a lone child drinking a glass of tap water isn’t about to be joined by a table of high rollers who’ll order their weight in bacon butties no matter how convincingly she implies their imminent arrival by theatrically tutting and checking her fictional watch.

Parks are out by dint of the milling older kids whose capital-lettered activities you’ve learnt about in school videos. You could catch Shop-Lifting. Smoking. Peer Pressure. Drinking or Drugs just by looking at them. Ditto the bus station, even if it is the hallowed site of that vending machine a boy in year eight says once spontaneously released its entire crop of Drifter bars and Lucozade tablets like a late autumn apple tree hit by a strong gust.

But there is a place. Somewhere that, like home, when you go there they have to let you in. As long as it’s not before 9am, after 5pm or a Sunday.

Once you adopt the town library as your refuge, you’re paired for life. The relationship you start with that municipal brick building will outlast every other. Boyfriends, girlfriends, best friends and spouses will drift in and drift out, but the sense of inner calm you derive from functional shelving and plastic-coated paperbacks never leaves. You’re a library dweller, a literal card-carrying member.

Unlike the world outside, the library doesn’t judge you. Your face isn’t too round, or too freckled for the library. It doesn’t think your thighs are too dimpled in your PE shorts, or that your socks make you look like a virgin. When you use “hark” in a homework story your English teacher makes you read out to rows of lounging insouciance, the library doesn’t trip you up on the way out of the classroom and spit the word in your face for the rest of term. The library never slows down its van when you’re walking home in your school uniform to ask if you’ll suck its dick.

Instead, it armours you. With words like “insouciance” and “pecuniary” and stories about girls your age whose brains were their prize. Girls in Sweden who could lift a horse above their head, and red-headed Canadian orphans with scope for imagination.

It fills you, an empty test tube, drop by pipette drop with other countries, ages, worlds and minds, setting off a chain of fizzing chemical reactions that once started, won’t be quelled. Each heavy thud of the date stamp on another book leaf adds something new to your evolving concoction.

The library will always welcome you. If you’re overwhelmed at school or in new towns and unfamiliar countries, stepping inside one is like breathing into a paper bag. There’s serene comfort in their systems, the way that their ordered shelves temper chaos with anti-chaos. Unlike the unknowable diktats underpinning the world of teenage girls—shadowy, shifting laws policing who’s allowed to like what and who is and isn’t your friend that week, day or hour—the rules of a library are blissfully transparent. Be quiet and read this. Take it home if you like. Don’t spill anything on it. Bring it back on time. Repeat as required.

Nobody evaluates your every move in the library. You’re not being continually assessed and found lacking. The posse of twenty-something men standing in permanent guard over comic book and record shop counters don’t exist here to smirk at your choices and tell you how wrong you’re getting it.

Librarians aren’t gatekeepers. They’re the ones holding the gate open. For you. For free. Whoever you are. Poor or rich, kids or pensioners, the unemployed, unwell, lonely or overlooked. This is all yours, says the library, no strings attached, because you have value. You and your mind are worth the effort.

From the day I received my first out-of-library request, a book picked from a shelf miles away, packaged up and posted like a gift by hand unknown, to me, an economically inactive kid with no power to elect or participate, I stood a little surer on the ground. Fourteen copper pence in a Winnie The Pooh purse or no, I knew the library had my back. Perhaps the adult world would too.

Which is why when these places are threatened, the arguments transcend statistics about book-borrowing and frequency rates. When a town’s library is closed down, a service hasn’t just been taken away, but a message sent. One that sinks in under a child’s skin with alarming speed.

You’re not worth the bother. Stay at home. Google it, but no, not here. Just buy books, like everybody else. And anyway, what do even you need them for? Why is it our problem if your parents haven’t been clever enough to provide you with a safe place and the resources you need to embed yourself in the world?

Whatever the numbers, whatever the bottom line, when a library closes, we can’t possibly quantify how much else is shut down with it.