Monday, 20 August 2012

Let's ban all books and see what happens

I visit the library to return a book of essays on Henry V and hand over my three pound coins in the overdue fine.

I never read the essays, but I don't begrudge the three pounds. I feel I've done a citizen's duty: borrow the occasional book, drop it on the mantelpiece, then take it back a month late. It helps out.

I enter our small local library with a lot of love and fondness, but am I alone in doing that with a sense of resignation? Their days may be numbered and, short of strapping ourselves to the bookshelves, I don't feel I have much power in the end decision.

It's not helped, I know, by the fact that we now no longer visit weekly. It's not just the noise from the open planning or the computers whirring away. Nor the chatty, welcoming style in which they invite all comers to take part in library events. It's mostly on account of the obvious fact that the household Grit now has more books than they do. Admittedly, most of the titles living on our shelves also have their stamp inside - the one in small caps reading WITHDRAWN, followed by the librarian's hastily scribbled 60p. I probably only paid half, given they usually do a buy-one-get-one-free offer.

I don't know where the library will sit in my children's minds. For me, it's tied up with forbidden knowledge and illicit rule breaking, so no wonder I took to it like a place of aspiration and desire.

Where I grew up, we attended Sherwood public library every Saturday morning - except if it coincided with Christmas, when we went on Wednesday. It was an experience akin to attending church. I had to deliver myself promptly to my mother for morning departure wearing polished shoes and appropriate clothing. The library was a 20-minute walk away and the talk on the route would be on improving matters such as books to choose for a beneficial occupation of one's time.

Once arrived, the hushed rooms smelling of linoleum floor cleaner and old wooden furniture, I had to be relied upon to sit quietly in the secure children's section while my attendant adult went about their devotions in the historical romantic fiction aisle, returning to collect me 30 minutes later with a sniffle, slightly moist eyes, and an armful of hardbacks.

Most importantly for these early experiences, I was not allowed beyond the doors to the children's room, to wander into the grown up part of the library. I was told (unreliably I thought), that I was noisy. After some interrogation on this point, sure I wasn't that noisy, I wheedled out of my mother that the grown up section contained books with things in them that she wouldn't like me to see.

Well, that did it. The grown up section of the library became an aspiration, a destiny. It became a more desired goal than anything in the world; more yearned for than being able to draw a human face that didn't look like a caterpillar, more wanted than a Beano annual or the free gift strapped to the front of the Dandy; more desired than the innocence of childhood. I wanted the grown up library. It would be a rite of passage. It would mark my maturity and affirm my rightful place as a citizen who would not stop the world from working because they had seen things in books.

What did I expect to see when I finally got into the grown up library, I'm not sure. But I planned my illegal entry with precision. First I trialled out my shoes on the kitchen floor, walking across it on tip-toe, listening out to hear if they would betray me with a squeak. Reassured they would not, I then planned my escape from the children's section minute by minute.

I would tell my mother that everything was normal, that she could rely upon the fact that I wasn't up to no good, then I would wait until the librarian had her back turned. Unseen, I would slip noiselessly past her guardian desk, slide between the two sets of double doors, and enter the room of forbidden delight where the grown ups could look at things in books.

I did it, too. When I got in there, I pulled a book off a shelf in haste. In reflection, I clearly hadn't enough  courage to tip-toe very far down the general fiction aisle because I only reached the letter C. Wilkie Collins. To me he marked the edges of my bravery. I turned over his pages not quite understanding what it was that I shouldn't see, but hastily trying to see it before my allotted five minutes were up, and I had to return to relative safety with Stig in the Dump and the Finn Family Moomintroll.

My interest in making discoveries on the bookshelves of libraries has never quite left me, although I have to say the library isn't helping. In fact, these days it makes the delight of a thrilling discovery awfully difficult, thanks to the policy of removing all the books and stocking up on endless supplies of Catherine Cookson, DVDs, and How to Use Manuals for Microsoft Software.

Shark, Tiger and Squirrel are growing up holding books, living alongside them, and developing quizzical minds, I'm sure of that. They can pull down any book that catches their eye at any time, for any leisured reading or quick reference. I'm stocking up on young adult fiction in great anticipation of each moment.

But still, I could try them out with the old fashioned way of controlling the knowledge and demanding the pleasures of discovery are deferred. I shall visit the library and borrow my full fifteen-book quota, leave the stash of Catherine Cookson and Windows for Dummies on the mantelpiece, say don't look inside, then come back a month later and see if their pages have been surreptitiously turned.


Big mamma frog said...

Our shelves, too, are full of ex-library books.

Perhaps in the future, when libraries are a distant memory, all the old-uns (as we are no doubt destined to be) will have to gather in a secret place and make our own new society library.

Nah. I have a hunch that plot's been done (Fahrenheit 451, perhaps?)

Liz said...

"removing all the books and stocking up on endless supplies of Catherine Cookson, DVDs, and How to Use Manuals for Microsoft Software"

Don't forget, the Microsoft manuals have to be at least 5, if not 10 years out of date. I worked part time in a library for many years and despaired - the staff, whose knowledge of computers was quite limited, kept a Windows 3.1 book on the shelves in 2003.

Every time I visit my local library I struggle to find something on the shelves. I know what they do - a book looks old and tired so they bin in/sell it. Oh, it's out of print now? Oh well never mind, we couldn't afford a new one anyway ARRRGHH!! ;)

Grit said...

yes bmf, we will be old people in corners, quietly sniffing pages and groping for the touch of real printed ink on yellowed page. (Come to think of it, i do that now.)

liz, you've set me a challenge. next time i'm in the library, i'm seeing what is the earliest dated microsoft manual i can find.