Kate Rhodes on her love affair with libraries.
A Library Love Affair
Something criminal is happening to the library service. And Iâ€™m not talking about crazed librarians bludgeoning borrowers to death with blood-spattered copies of Paradise Lost, (although that would make a fun premise for a thriller.) Itâ€™s the huge reduction in public funding which concerns me.
I would never have become a writer without access to an endless supply of free books. My love affair with libraries began when I was twelve years old, the moment I walked through the door of Blackheath library. The rooms smelled of leisure and excitement, dust gathering on a million pages. After that first visit I called regularly on my way home from school to pick up battered novels by Dick Francis, Ian Fleming and Patricia Highsmith. I judged whether to borrow a book by the number of stamps inside the cover, allowing popular opinion to guide me. Surely Casino Royale must be worth reading if hundreds of people had borrowed it? And the library stocked an infinite supply of yellow-jacketed Gollancz thrillers, every one more glamorous than the worthy books school teachers rammed down our throats.
Libraries became even more important when I reached university. The campus was a wilderness of badly deigned Sixties architecture, harsh winds funnelling between tower blocks. But the library was an oasis of quiet, well stocked with American literature. Within weeks I was obsessed by Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Salinger. Iâ€™d sit in a window seat for days, churning out essays, ignoring the sea of concrete outside.
I carried on using libraries avidly when I started to write. The neighbours in the flat next to mine in Shad Thames played jazz from mid-afternoon until late at night, and my local library became a hiding place. Iâ€™d rush there as soon as I finished teaching, and the librarians would smile at me kindly when it grew dark outside, reminding me that it was time to leave.
Iâ€™m still a regular borrower at the excellent library in Cambridge, my home town. Much of my first novel was written at a table in the crime section on the ground floor. Occasionally blood curdling shrieks would emanate from the childrenâ€™s section, but no violent crime was being committed. It was just kids at storytelling workshops, re-enacting sections of The Gruffaloes and Where the Wild Things Are, with great enthusiasm, which brings me neatly back to my first point. On a selfish level I mourn the decline in library funding, but it saddens me even more that future generations will have less opportunity to read books which inspire them.
Still, there is some comfort. Cambridge author Alison Bruce has been nominated for a Dagger in the Library award, which has kept my dream alive. Maybe one day, Iâ€™ll follow her. I would love nothing more than to see my own books grow dog-eared in my local library, worn out from constant use.