In Praise of Libraries

stack of books

Libraries have always been a big part of my life.

I remember the excitement of finally being old enough to join the tiny library in the village where I grew up; the responsibility of having a card to look after; the solemnity of the ritual where I would approach the counter with my chosen books and stand watching while the librarian stamped each one with a return date.

(25 years later I am still slightly ashamed that I was once careless enough to lose a book from that library. Sorry sorry sorry. I have no idea where it went.)

At primary school I was selected to be a student librarian. It was a pretty unexciting job – one for those of us who were diligent and smart, but not popular enough to be elected house captain. Still, it won me a red enamel badge with gold lettering, which I pinned to my denim jacket with pride.

When I had exhausted the supply of books at primary school I was given special permission to use the high school library. What joy. What freedom. An hour out of school to walk across town and browse the shelves with the bigger kids. I would love to say that I took the opportunity to stretch my mind, to read the classics and push the limits of my knowledge. But I didn’t. Instead I went for the guilty pleasures of Sweet Valley High and the Babysitters Club, chewed through them all as quick and easy as gum.

Throughout my teens I continued to be a borrower of books, and the town library was my go-to place. I’d always start by looking at the posters in the hallway – art classes, wardrobes for sale, dog walkers wanted – everything that epitomised small town life. Then I’d head inside to the warmth and the quiet, to that special library smell of dust and damp umbrellas, to the company of tweed-wearing ladies with names like Janet and Linda and Margaret.

The summer between school and university, we left the Scottish Borders and moved up to Inverness for a couple of months. The library there was bigger; better than any I’d ever been in. I was drawn to the Scottish shelves, and would go home with great piles of poetry, short stories and novels.

But then at university, my love affair with the library came to end. It became something else entirely. I never went to browse anymore, to lightly run my hand along the spines. I never went for joy. Instead I went to use the computer desks, crowded around the edges of the room. I rushed there after lectures to get everything on the reading list,and felt frustrated when they were already out on loan. It became a place I dreaded going, that great brutal building in the corner of George Square.

Thank goodness for the Scottish Poetry Library, a peaceful place of escape just off the Royal Mile, where I could tuck myself in a corner with Simon Armitage or Edwin Morgan. By leaves we live. That may just have saved me.

What I had never imagined was how parenting would bring me full circle. After several years without stepping in a library  – except when I got married in one – DorkySon helped me rediscover their fun side..

When we lived in Edinburgh I would push the pram across to that creaky old building in Morningside. We would manoeuvre ourselves through the heavy double doors and settle down on a cushion for rhyme time. When the singing and the actions were over, DorkySon would crawl off to push the big wooden truck around the floor, while I would take my time and choose some board books to bring home.

In Harpenden, the library was the first place we visited. DorkySon sat and flicked through a car magazine as we signed up for our cards, impressing the woman at the desk with his ability to recognise logos and badges. The kids books were all housed in the carriages of a red wooden train, and the noisy role play that resulted from the toddler drivers and engineers was surely not conducive to a quiet reading experience for others. A few months after we moved there, a librarian told us that for health and safety reasons the train would be moved outside and filled with flowers. Poor DorkySon was distraught.

But then we moved again, and in Hobart the library became a regular stop off on our walks around the city. Before our belongings arrived from the UK we would visit every day or two to get a new pile of books. Once we were more settled and our boxes had caught up, it became a weekly visit. Every Friday morning we’d go and get twelve books, then head for a milkshake or frozen yoghurt. When we got home DorkySon would split them into two piles – six for Saturday morning and six for Sunday.

Now DorkySon is at school for five days each week, instead of just three. We have not yet found a way to fit the library into our new routine. He is too tired after school, and has too much to do on a Saturday morning.

But we must.

We must.

I don’t want him to forget how essential libraries are. How on wet days, dark days, difficult days, they are places you can retreat to. They are places you are always welcome. They are places that can feel like home.


My post about Motherhood and the Senses has been given a second lease of life by the lovely people at Elephant Journal, who have published a slightly tweaked version of it. I’ve also had a piece published at Mrs MuffinTop about imperfect parenting – surely the only kind there is.

17 responses

  1. I actually work from the library 3 times a week- there is a whole bunch of us, it is like an office! I saw in my council tax break down that we are all charged a hundred bucks for library services, so if people don’t make the most of it they really should!
    Thank you for sharing your beautiful thoughts x x

  2. We used to use the library so much when the children were younger. They used to go in clutching their cards and book bags and often the time spent sitting and flicking through books at the library was even more enjoyable as the reading at home. But then the librarians were replaced by machines and the library was given a ‘new facelift’ and lost some of it’s soul. We returned a few times but it was never the same and we haven’t returned in 2 years.

    I should be more proactive trying to find a ‘proper’ library again.

    Lovely post Ruth, brought back some good memories x

  3. Yay! This posts makes me so happy. Firstly because you mentioned the baby sitters club and sweet valley high, oh to be young again!
    Im actually completing my degree to become a librarian and it makes me feel all warm inside to see your love of the library come full circle 🙂

  4. Syd and I visit the library weekly, it’s part of our routine and we love it. Our library has the kids area set apart from the adult section and encourages noise and drawing and fun as well as ensuring I don’t go mad reading the same books over and over again at bedtime!

  5. somehow we perpetually have about 100 items checked out from the library. whenever i lug a big bag of stuff back, i end up refilling it & lugging a big bag of goodies back home.

  6. Libraries have always been an essential part of my life, too, and I made sure the same was true for our children. I’m sure you’ll work out a way soon to get to a library regularly.

    And now I have Little Free Library in my front yard, so I get to share my love of books with everyone who walks by every day! Heaven!

  7. I remember my first trip to the library too. I was so excited that I was finally old enough to get the kids membership. Unfortunately, I haven’t been in ages as our local one was always so loud and hectic that it really put me off.

  8. I wish we had a nice library in our town…but i will make sure i will let my girls know how important they are. lovely post as usual Ruth x

  9. I love libraries too. The smell. The quiet. That you can borrow and read and enjoy so many glorious books. I remember visiting the local library often when I was a child too and that authoritative (and quite scary) sound of the stamp – it was all very official. I love the sense of community around libraries too. Lovely post. X

  10. I hadn’t been to our local library in years, until earlier this week when I went on a school trip with Year R. It was so calm and peaceful, I wondered why we’d stopped going.

    I remember when I was younger going to the big library in Manchester and being completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of books and wealth of information available. In some ways it was such a nicer experience to search through a book for information rather than the internet. xx

  11. This is so spot on, Ruth! Having a library was, to me, like having a large circle of friends. As a shy child and teen, my social life appeared on the page – and there were so many books from which to choose. It was also a safe haven from bullying, honestly. I befriended the librarians (and still know several to this day!). And one reason libraries are so important to me? Because BOOKS are so important. I never want them to go away – and really dislike reading on a kindle/iPad.

    Oh, and I also worked in the library in high school. It was probably my favorite job ever, because everyone cared – about books, about reading, about learning. Still great passions in my life.

    Happy Easter to you three! xox

  12. Pingback: Our month in books: March 2015 | chatiryworld

  13. We too love libraries. It is a wonder that they are so under-utilised by so many, here in Australia. Even when we are overseas, we seek them out. A place to browse at non-English picture books or help a local with their English. In poor countries they are such treasured places, so very precious. The book boat we learnt about in Laos, takes books to children who have never held one before. Sadly, the funding for libraries is being cut all the time in places like the UK. Libraries are closing down, cutting back on new books, etc. So we all need to find the time or our children will not have the memories we have…

  14. Pingback: What I’m Reading – Ruth Dawkins Freelance Writer

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