Rebecca Armstrong: Take a leaf out of her (borrowed) book

Louise Brown from Stranraer reminds us what libraries are really for
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The Independent Online

There is a group of people that gathers on a Thursday night in my local library. They sit in silence on the utilitarian chairs, never needing to be shushed by one of the resident librarians. These quiet visitors aren't leafing through the latest Sarah Waters novel, nor are they scanning the pages of a guide to building your own gazebo. They're here for a weekly meditation class.

Now, I am a big fan of meditation but I'm a much bigger fan of reading, and to me the only appropriate meditation that should take place in a library is the quiet contemplation of a well-thumbed paperback. Visiting the library to borrow a book, rather than to search for inner peace, explore the internet or pick up an arthouse DVD, seems to have become rather an old-fashioned idea. As a result, these temples to communal reading are dying out – and madcap schemes to turn them into multimedia hubs with ice blended coffees on tap don't seem to be helping to convince people to drop in for a browse rather than ravaging their bank accounts on Amazon impulse buys.

But this week an unlikely champion has emerged from the reading room. Louise Brown, from Stranraer in Dumfries and Galloway, has been crowned the unofficial queen of libraries thanks to an awe-inspiring appetite for free reading. Mrs Brown's approach is refreshingly non-possessive – not for her the cluttered bookshelves of the Waterstone's three-for-two addict – instead she is approaching her 25,000th borrowed book and hasn't spent a penny on any of them.

True, she is 91 years of age so has had ample time to clock up tens of thousands of volumes but nonetheless Mrs Brown's stats are impressive. In her 53 years of borrowing, she has got through at least six books a week, an average which has recently increased to about 12 volumes every seven days. Does the woman never sleep? While Mrs Brown is a fan of Mills and Boon ("for light reading at night") – titles that tend not to take more than a couple of hours for a dedicated reader to devour – she also enjoys sagas, historical novels and war stories, saying: "I like anything I can get my hands on."

Janice Goldie, the cultural services manager for Dumfries and Galloway, says she and her colleagues have not heard of anyone who has achieved anything like it. "We are fascinated to know if Mrs Brown's record can be beaten," she says. Surely this should be libraries' rallying call – challenge the nation to compete with Mrs Brown and embark on a Britain's got speed-reading talent contest.

Such a competition could remind us all of the quiet charms of borrowing a stack of battered bodice-rippers, murder mysteries and experimental novels from bright young things without having to open our wallets, except to remove our library cards.

The thrill of spotting a new title tucked between dusty old favourites, the satisfaction of curling up with a book that hundreds of other people have already enjoyed (with the dog-eared pages to prove it) and the knowledge that if one of this week's loans doesn't pass muster, you can give up and start something else, guilt-free, are what make libraries great. Louise Brown may be a tough act to follow but lapsed library-goers would probably have more fun trying to top her triumph than they would meditating their way to a higher state of consciousness.