My Love Affair with Libraries
At the beginning of last month I applied for a part-time job in a library, and I’ve got the job. It’s ten hours a week, and the job title is Service Development Assistant. I’m rather drastically overqualified for this, on paper. But it’s a job that I really feel excited about. It’s a tiny rural library in a beautiful little town in the Yorkshire Dales, and it’s a bit of a blank canvas. There’s no storytime, no book club, and in general it needs a bit of tender loving care. And if there’s something I could genuinely care about, it’s books and libraries. I’ve always loved libraries ever since I was a child (it’s something I’m consciously encouraging in my own children).
While I lived in France a few years ago, I founded and ran a children’s educational organisation as a volunteer. The organisation taught English to expatriate British children, and was like a bilingual mini-school. It was tremendously successful and a real labour of love, and I’m proud of many things about it (it is still running without me, in fact) but perhaps the thing I’m most proud of was the children’s library I started. After the end of the three years of campaigning for donations and chasing around the countryside sourcing books wherever I could find them, we had amassed a library of over a thousand children’s books. It was a genuine source of happiness for me that even living in the middle of rural France, my children would be able to find James and the Giant Peach, Black Beauty, Harry Potter, Horrible Histories, the Famous Five, The Demon Headmaster and the Worst Witch, and that they’d share in a part of my own childhood in Britain that I’d truly loved.
At our local library in Northallerton, North Yorkshire, my sister and I would always borrow as many books as we possibly could, and my mum would bring along her library card, and dad’s, too, so that we could use up the allowance on all four cards. We brought home piles and piles of books, and we’d then spend a gleeful afternoon unwrapping and discovering each book, rather like opening presents on Christmas morning. If it was calculation on my mum’s part to try to encourage a love of books in us, it worked. I still have a Christmas present-like feeling about new books (what might be inside?) It may be why I feel an odd aversion to the Kindle. You lose the notion that each book is a package, a little box containing as yet unknown wonders.
When we moved back to the UK I took my son to the same library I used to go to every week, as a child. As we walked up the subway slope I had a lump in my throat as I watched him balance on the same wall, and jump off it at exactly the same place, that my 8-year-old self had done twenty-four years before. It’s something I never would have remembered without seeing him do it, unbidden. And as we entered the bright and colourful children’s section, a natural euphoria seemed to creep over him at the sheer feast of books laid out before him, ready to be explored.
My parents often tell the story that, as a child, I usually had three books on the go at once: one upstairs, one downstairs, and one on the windowsill half way up the stairs where I’d stop and read a few pages on journeys up or down. I used to absorb any book I could get my hands on. On reflection, I still do much the same. I currently have a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird open, upside down on my desk… and I’m in the middle of a particularly compelling novel-length piece of Sherlock fanfic on the computer (I still have very diverse reading tastes!)
A very small job in a very small library might not seem, to some, as the pinnacle of career ambition. It might be scoffed at by people who value success in different terms. But I think I’ve always put a higher value on the emotional satisfaction of a role and the ‘meaning’ that I feel it has, rather than the intrinsic success-value or status it holds. I do several small volunteer roles where I make a real difference, and I love the feeling of being of use. Also, it may yet be that I spent five years on a PhD which I’m never to ‘use’ professionally or academically (although I don’t think that’s yet a given), but I loved it, found it fascinating and regret not a single thing about it. The small number of hours in this library role also gives me time to care for my children and to continue to use the rest of my time to develop my freelance work in writing, translation and social media consultancy.
I may not have a book half-open on the stairs any more, but there was a little song that became a bit of a theme tune for my childhood: “Half way up the stairs is the place I always sit. There isn’t any other place quite like it. It’s not at the bottom; it’s not at the top. Half way up the stairs is the place I always stop.” Helping to support and develop this lovely little library, with the opportunities for instigating projects, using my creativity, and integrating the local community which it promises, is something I feel my childhood self, sitting on the stairs with her book, would approve of. And as good feelings about jobs go, I’m not sure they get much better than that.