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


"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


"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


"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."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?