Friday, 4 February 2011

How Libraries *Really Did* Change My Life

To support Save Our Libraries Day tomorrow, I thought I’d return to the subject of libraries and why they’re important. If, like me, you've signed up to all the relevant email, Facebook and Twitter feeds about the threats to our libraries, you might be starting to feel the teensiest bit of fatigue about the subject. So rather than launch into another polemic about cultural vandalism and short-term thinking (because Philip Pullman has already done that so much better than I ever could), I’m going to take the advice on the exam paper and “give examples.” What follows are three turning points in my life, three ways in which libraries changed me as a person:

  1. Libraries Helped Me to NOT Become an Intellectual
    Like many writers, I had an enthusiastic English teacher at school. Several, actually. But one I remember particularly was a guy in his early twenties who taught me in year seven. To be honest, he was more enthusiastic than technically proficient – the only comment I used to get week after week on my homework was “Good Stuff.” But he was young enough not to have been ground down by the system and ambitious for his students.

    The pivotal moment happened when he took the class into the library to choose reading books. He’d clearly spotted my potential and wanted to get me onto something more challenging than The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. I picked up a copy of Douglas Adams’s The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and my teacher was aghast. He implored me not to read such populist material, waving an Aldous Huxley book in my face, talking animatedly about the kind of “important” books he’d read at university.

    But despite his obvious enthusiasm, I wasn’t persuaded. I wouldn’t budge. Being in a library, having such a range of books at my disposal allowed me to self-select – it gave me power over one small area of my life.

    Looking back now, I wonder how much Sue Townsend made that decision for me. By making Adrian Mole look such a gauche fool in his pursuit of intellectualism, perhaps she set my mind against the idea. But I had a feeling that my path was to stay close to popular culture, to give it the same focus and attention that other people brought to high art. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted.

  2. Libraries Helped Me to Meet My Wife
    It’s true that I didn’t actually meet her in a library, though that would have been cool because University libraries are a hive of sexual tension. All that quiet studiousness and teenage hormones! And I'm not the only one who thought that - check out Tina Lemon’s blog post.

    But in every other way, libraries brought my me and my wife together. She was, after all, studying for a Library and Information Systems degree. All of our mutual friends were librarians. It was inevitable that our orbits would collide.

    Later, after Claire finished her degree, her library job supported us through my final year. Thanks to her and thanks to libraries, I was able to eat, work a 12 hour day at University and get a First at the end of it.

  3. Libraries Helped Me to Write My First Novel

    It’s hard to find time to write, especially when you have a demanding full-time job. A few years ago, when I realised that I wanted to be a writer, I selected lunchtime as my best chance of squeezing out a few words. But then I faced the problem of where to do it. I couldn’t stay at my desk because I was shy, and besides, someone was always going to interrupt me with work-related queries. Sitting outside was an option, but highly weather-dependent. A café would cost money and the nearest one was in the food court of a noisy shopping centre. Luckily, not five minutes walk from my office, there was a public library.

    Every weekday for two years, I spent an hour in that (comparatively) calm environment; writing, researching and watching the world go by. A library is a brilliant place for a writer, because so many resources are at your fingertips. Feel like you’re out of touch with the market? Spend half an hour checking out the latest titles in the fiction section. Want to know common surnames in the Glasgow area? Look at the phone book. Want to get a better handle on human nature? Listen to how people talk to each other, to the library staff, to their children.

    At the end of that period, I had a novel, a whole list of agents’ names (thanks to free access to the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook) and an amazing sense of achievement. One library made all of that possible.

So there you have it – three examples of how libraries changed my life for the better. Tomorrow, I’m going to take my family on a library crawl, visiting and taking out books from many of the threatened libraries in the Oxfordshire area.

Please, please visit your local library too – maybe something will happen that will change your life.


You can see the photographic evidence from our Library Crawl here.

Dave Cousins also made a very similar trip in his neck of the woods - read about that here.


  1. I remember those University libraries, too!
    Good post, Nick

  2. You definatly made the right choice with Douglaa Adams Nick! The second I finsihed my lit degree I ditched all the high brow stuff and have read kids lit since, it is better in soo many ways.

    You forgot to mention how useful school libraraies are for staying in out of he cold during lunch hours!

    As for tomorrow, I'll be at the library, with my kids as a volunteer for the fantastic free activities going on there. Hopefully some of the children from the primary school I work at will be there too. I may have mentioned it once or twice!

    The first proper attempt I ever made at a novel (at ripe old age of 19) was about a librarian, it was very funny but possibly had a little too much blood for publication! (It did make a few editors laugh though)

    I couldn't imagine my life without a library in it!

  3. Great post Nick. I like number 2! And 3 – I did the same thing in my lunch breaks for a good few years, carrying my novel around on a floppy disk, and praying what I'd written would still be on it by the time I got home! Now I work too far away from the library and have to write on a bench by some allotments, or under a canal bridge if it's raining. Hope your library tour goes well, we'll be doing the same over here.

  4. I still have a long list of books people keep telling me I "should" read. Most of them will never be crossed off the list. Life is too short to read like that.
    And I fully understand about finding somewhere to write as well!