World Book Day: Without libraries we are less human and more profoundly alone
Councils threaten libraries with closure and then rely on volunteers to keep them open. But professional librarians are the key to a healthy library
by Nicola Davies
When I was little I loved everything about public libraries. The echoey floor, the ever so faintly dusty air, the ritual and rhythm of book stamping.
We had plenty of books at home, but home books all came to me through my parents. They were already chosen, domesticated. Library books felt different, wild as tigers. They came to me straight from the world. When I walked into the library I felt I was walking across the tundra or the steppe, into the jungle or under the sea. I could roam the shelves, choose whatever I wanted, and find out about anything. I could live inside any story. It made me feel powerful and free.
Back then I had no idea that librarians did any more than wield the ink block and tell noisy children to be quiet. I imagined that the books flew onto the shelves, like birds coming to roost.
I didn’t realise that the intoxicating diversity I so adored was carefully created, and made accessible and attractive to me by talented librarians.
Librarians are far more than stackers and catalogers. They are creative curators of their book collections. They review and renew their flocks of books, adjusting what they have to fit their readers, highlighting certain sections and topics to reflect the world. They are on hand to guide and encourage, to foster relationships between books and people. Subtly, quietly, inexorably, they weave individuals into a community. They make a library shimmer, as if the books were the scales of a dragon flexing as it folds and flies.
A healthy library, like a healthy habitat, is diverse and dynamic. Like species in a rainforest or fishes on a reef, the books on the shelves shift and change, with time and season, so that every week there is something new to discover. A healthy library invites the eye and mind to wander round.
This book habitat does not happen on its own – it is created by librarians. Librarians are the keystone of good libraries. Without them, dust gathers, book collections are not refreshed, readers do not feel enticed and beguiled, relationships between books and people dwindle into nothing.
We’ve all seen libraries like that. The places where you walk through the door and a sepia tint descends on your soul. The very idea of choosing a book from the dingy shelves seems the epitome of pointlessness.
Libraries get like this because they have lost their keystone. Someone with a spreadsheet decided that the internet was now a library so librarians were not needed.
Community libraries can be wonderful places, and volunteers do tremendous work stepping up to preserve them in the wake of government cuts. But libraries are a public service. They must be properly funded, properly resourced and properly staffed, with trained and expert full-time librarians. Councils cannot assume that they can threaten libraries with closure and then rely on volunteers to keep them open. Without librarians and the libraries they make we are less alive, less human, more profoundly alone.
Nicola Davies is a children’s author and former presenter of The Really Wild Show. Her latest book is The White Hare.
Source: The Guardian