Libraries: 'Hands off our doors to learning'

The Independent on Sunday has been inundated with stories about the role public libraries have played in readers' lives. Campaigns to stop councils from closing as many as half of their libraries are gathering pace, as public figures protest furiously about 'cultural vandalism'. They share their memories with Nina Lakhani


Colin Dexter

Author and creator of Inspector Morse

"When I was a boy, there were three books in our house: the Home Help Doctor from 1886, a Victorian 'Mills & Boon' novel called Jessica's First Prayer, and Sacred Songs and Scores by the American evangelists Moody and Sankey. As a lad, joining the library was a right of passage, and it was when I joined Stamford Library in Lincolnshire at 14 that I started to work my way through all but one of Hardy's 17 novels. The last one I'm saving for old age. A free public library service was one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century. Literature opens doors, and here we are shutting them. It is so very sad and demands a U-turn from government, not just for the children and old people who use them, but because we have a cultural tradition to protect. The Government talks about people power; well, the people don't want libraries to shut."

Sandeep Mahal

32, grew up in the West Midlands

"My parents came from the Punjab in 1950 and they couldn't read or write. They did encourage me to read, but we grew up in a home without books as they couldn't afford to buy any. My first exposure to choosing books for pleasure was the monthly mobile library that came to the school. As a teenager, I made the move to Pear Tree Library in Derby. Though my parents were strict, it was the one place I was allowed to go, because it was safe. I was there every day, choosing books, meeting friends. I married young and moved away, but by chance became a library assistant, got my own mobile library, and then the chance to go to university and train as a librarian. I now work for the Reading Agency: we want everyone to have an equal chance to become a reader, but we can do that only through free public libraries."

John Bird

Co-founder of 'The Big Issue'

"l wanted to join the library when I was six, in 1952, but my father wouldn't let me because he'd borrowed a book in 1932 which he hadn't returned. He thought they'd come after him. I could hardly read and write anyway, but I developed a passion for books and would shoplift them, look at them and hope it would get through by osmosis. I learnt to read and write in Ashford Young Offenders Institute at 16, when a screw started bringing me books from the prison library, which Hillingdon Public Library stocked. He would help me with words I didn't understand and eventually I finished my first book: The Scarlet Pimpernel. My confidence and comprehension leapt up and from then on I was a reader. When I came out, I was obsessed with libraries, particularly Fulham, where I wrote most of my autobiography.To increase ignorance and illiteracy, we should tear up libraries. Then kids can go thieving as much as they like."

Ian McMillan

Poet and presenter of 'The Verb' on Radio 3

"One of the main reasons that I've managed to make my living as a writer and broadcaster these past 30 years is Darfield Library. I joined as a lad, going across the road from the junior school. Mrs Dove gave me some tickets and I was away, leaping into Biggles like a man in the desert jumps into water. Over the years I've borrowed books from the library, I've taken my children to the library, and when I joined my grandson in the library he was so excited he wet himself! And now, in a stunning act of cultural vandalism, libraries are going to be shut. I don't blame the councils. I blame the Government who can't stand the idea that something can be free at the point of entry, and so, classless. Libraries can be meeting places; they can be debating halls; they can be places where lives can be enhanced and changed. We should be opening new ones, not shutting them down. Now, I wonder, where I got that radical idea from? Ah yes – the library...."

Vincent Umenyiora

68, born in Nigeria, has lived in Bethnal Green, east London for 14 years. Since retiring as a security guard, he has written a book on African politics, using the resources in his local libraries

"I have a state pension and cannot afford the internet at home, so I travel to two libraries every day, Hackney Central and Holborn, to use the internet for research, type, scan the newspapers, comment on articles online and use the reference books. I need the library resources. Actually, I learnt to use the computer here, but I also like the peace and quiet. If our libraries closed it would leave a lot of people stranded, and have a grave impact on my life."

Mavis Cheek

Author

"Without libraries, I'd have been dead in the water before I began. I grew up in two back rooms in south London. My father wasn't around; my mother worked long hours in a factory. We put shillings in the meter for electricity, struggled to find the rent, and such frills as books were very far from priorities. But both my sister and I were encouraged to use the library in Wimbledon and I can still remember the thrill of going home on the trolley bus with new books. I read and read and read – no one at home ever said, 'Put that book down and do something useful.' Reading was recognised as A Good Thing (my mother had, in the 1930s, acquired her own, small Everyman library, which she lost when the bailiffs came), and the library was regarded as something of a church for learning. I still regularly use the library here in Marlborough. It will be a crime if these places are closed. Books and reading expand minds; only a fool would think that libraries were expendable."

Becky Grant

29, from south London, helps disabled graduates to find work

"I grew up in a household where reading was like breathing. As well has having bookshelves that were crammed full – double-stacked where possible – from the age of three, I visited my local library in Putney every week. The sheer variety of books enabled me to end up with a reading age of 11 by the time I was six. I credit it with giving me a passion for literature that helped me survive school and do well academically, in spite of being disabled. I am partially deaf, and have worn hearing aids since I was two, which meant I was horribly bullied at school. But books don't judge you. The library became a peaceful refuge, and I became a total bookworm. Without my library I never would have read, or bought, Margaret Atwood, Douglas Coupland, Diana Gabaldon, Jackie Collins, Jilly Cooper and many more. I don't have kids yet, but when I do, I really hope that libraries will still be around for them."

Sam West

Actor

"I joined my local public library, Battersea Rise, when I was seven. My parents [actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales] took me – not all parents do. I read Watership Down a couple of years after joining, and it floored me. With no idea how to replace it in my affections, my mum took me back and we returned with The Hobbit and that was that. But libraries must be there for children to find by themselves, and to have a quiet, safe, free place to study if life at home is too noisy. With the threats to Sure Start and the scrapping of EMA, it's useful to remind ourselves of what libraries mean to children: not only a place to work but also a free treasure trove of picture books to share and a place to stumble on new stuff. A child can get through a different picture book every night at bedtime. How many parents can afford to buy that many?"

Robin Ince

Stand-up comedian and co-host of Radio 4's 'The Infinite Monkey Cage'

"The strides up the three steps of the mobile library in my Hertfordshire village seemed enormous to my five-year-old legs, but the effort was worth experiencing the splendour within. I have a misted memory of the children's books I borrowed, but the first clear recollection was when I was six and decided to borrow a book on Adolf Hitler. Later, the monotony of cashless days in London was broken up by borrowing books on serial killers and sexual outsiders. And there was the occasional rental of a foreign film I thought might make me a better human being. Now I sit with my three-year-old under cats in hats, and Charlie and Lola."

Adele Parks

Author

"I grew up in Teesside in the 1970s; I didn't really like being a child. I was chubby and lived a few miles from my primary school which was unusual, and this was enough to make me into a bit of a loner – certainly lonely. However, one hugely positive factor about my walk home was that my mother would stop off at Egglescliffe Library almost every evening so that she, my sister and I could exchange handfuls of books – books we would read in 24 or 48 hours. Libraries in those days were austere; still, I could be on an itchy carpet one minute, then be riding in Enid Blyton's wishing chair, on Heidi's Alp, or having tea with the Little Women in Massachusetts, the next. My library was a haven, my visits there the high point of my day. My confidence grew through reading and I learnt that being the same as everyone else shouldn't be the goal. In my library, I began to understand the power of entertainment, education, inspiration and escapism. Libraries taught me not to accept limits."

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