Why Libraries in Leeds are so important.
Ahem, as featured on today’s Guardian Leeds
“Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere…”
– Jean Rhys
For longer than I can remember, I have loved books. Not necessarily stories, but always books.
I think that my favourites are old, original artwork paperbacks that can be picked up in Leeds Market for mere pennies, but I am not a snob – while I prefer books with covers and pages intact, I’ll take whatever is available, old and charismatic; new and crisp; hard backed and noble; or cheap and cheerful paperbacks, slightly grimy or warped from a drowning in the bath, shared via a book meet or charity shop.
Or, I’ll take the transient, as in the case of library books. Borrowed books, social books.
Despite the solitary reputation that reading is sometimes allocated, I find that it is an intensely communal activity. Books are best appreciated, I find, when they are shared, not hoarded, discovered as a result of a recommendation, rather than merely picked up by chance.
Book clubs, travelling suitcase libraries, and meet ups to swap books are easily set up in a city like Leeds, but this is not the case everywhere.
At the age of nine, I moved to Zimbabwe with my family, and my whole relationship with books subtly changed. Already an avid reader, up until then, books had always been easily accessible – I had inherited plenty from my mother and aunts, the library back home had a large diverse range, and anything else could be picked up from a shop.
Available but not always affordable
This wasn’t necessarily the case in Zimbabwe. Where books were available they were not always affordable – reference and school books in particular.
There was a thriving second hand trade, but no guarantee from week to week that you would find something that gripped you. The local library network became a haven for me, and other addicts … sorry, readers.
It was neutral territory (though it is necessary to note that Zimbabwe was not as divided then as it seems to be now), where readers could come together regardless of disparities of income, ages, genders and ethnic origin. The social aspect of reading came to the fore, while other political considerations receded, albeit temporarily, into the background.
This bond between book lovers extends far further than the local area where the library is located. A group of innovative teachers coordinated with Ranfurly library, in London. This library collects ex-school books from all over the UK to be distributed internationally – for free.
One of the teachers involved told me that she still remembers the thrill of trawling through these, the excitement for her pupils, as she tried to pick the books that would best augment those already available. After all, for her pupils, their only access point to any books at all would come via the school, and libraries. This was by no means unusual, and still seems to be the case in many countries across the world. Indeed, a quick search online finds a number of different groups and charities that provide this very same service around the world.
The Miss Honeys and Mrs Phelps of Matilda (Roald Dahl) do exist and I have been lucky enough to meet them in libraries wherever in the world I’ve been.
Libraries in the internet age
Libraries provide a wealth of knowledge to people who might not ever be able to access them otherwise. This obvious, and simple premise remains vastly important in the internet age – despite many having the viewpoint that no information is valid, if not presented to us on a shiny screen.
Yet, even in relatively affluent countries, there are still people whom have never acquired fundamental literacy skills. In the three countries I have been fortunate enough to live in – libraries have run literacy schemes, amongst others, to promote life long learning, and assist anyone with the desire to learn more.
Online collections, such as Project Gutenberg, are invaluable, allowing for whole collections of out of copyright books to be made available freely, to anyone with an internet connection.
Leeds libraries: ‘an oasis of calm’
At the moment, before the cuts take effect, there are 53 permanent libraries in Leeds.
Many are small, with only basic facilities, others are mobile, consisting of a van, and enthusiastic librarian, while the Central Library – tucked between the Art Gallery and City Hall – is a majestic building and kitted out for a variety of tasks, with DVDs, CDs, technical manuals, educational tomes, outdoors chess (!) and fiction books available.
With bookshops closing down, belts tightening and life becoming ever more stressful, I consider my local libraries provide an oasis of calm, a peaceful environment, an escape as effective as books themselves.
“We read to know we are not alone.”
– attrib. CS Lewis