This year is the 70th anniversary of the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s annual Book Week, which runs from August 22 – 28. The following post was originally published by RendezView.
My love affair with libraries began when I was 10 years old. My parents both worked until late, so after school I’d take myself off to the local library to pass the time until we could all head home.
I vividly recall selecting the books I’d escape into for the afternoon with a level of childhood intensity usually only reserved for selecting the mixed lollies that would go into my bag.
Thrillingly, as I was such a frequent visitor, the librarians allowed me to have both my child borrowing card and an adult card so I could also devour the nonfiction books on dollhouse design and history they had seen me eyeing off. My heart would flutter every time I stalked the adult nonfiction section; I felt so grown up. Trusted. What new worlds were suddenly open to me to explore!
I’d then curl up on the carpet surrounded by my chosen titles and devour them all. Not just the words, but the smell too.
The scent of well-worn pages still makes me giddy and explains why, despite my love for books, I just can’t bring myself to embrace ebooks. I loved then, and love now, the mysterious connection to other readers who had also turned those same pages. An unexpected scribble in a margin. A shopping list left in as a bookmark. All were treasured bonds forged with others who also shared my passion for libraries; “I am not alone!”
When my sister and I changed schools later that year I was very much alone. I was shocked to find not everyone wanted to play with the “new girl.” I’d always taken my ability to make new friends for granted and wasn’t quite sure how to break into the existing circles of girls.
So I found refuge in my school library. I’d sit and spend time with fictional teen girls who seemed far more exciting anyway; Nancy Drew. Trixie Belden. These were my tribe. What would they have made of that note in the margin? I’d wonder. Could that shopping list be in fact a clue?
By the time I was in high school I’d found a real-life girl gang (of the non-detective variety) and was surprisingly rather popular. My recess and lunch breaks were still filled with words; but now it was all talking, whispering, gossiping.
Yet still I’d occasionally head to the school library when the politics of girl world seemed too intense. Sometimes I wouldn’t go to read or study; but rather to gently torment my poor library teachers. I’d pair up with some of the other library-loving-lasses and pose, as if dead, between the book shelves waiting for the librarian to find us.
This amused us far more than it did them; yet I recall them being rather patient. I suspect now that they knew for some, libraries serve not only as places that offer escapism between the pages of the books they house, but as safe havens to escape increasing adult responsibilities.
It may come as no surprise then that when I became a high school English teacher at a school with a high percentage of young people at risk, one of the first things I did was open an after school study centre at our school library. Any student who wanted to could stay back after school and have afternoon tea, then do their homework in the library with support from myself and the other teachers who joined the initiative.
What kind of kids put their hands up to stay back after school and hang in the library? Hungry kids.
Some were literally hungry and stayed back to eat peanut butter sandwich after peanut butter sandwich. For these kids, this was their only meal of the day and if the price they had to pay was books? Then so be it.
Some were genuinely hungry for learning. Many had been refugees and as English wasn’t their first language, they’d want to talk, and ask questions. “Miss, why is this? Miss, how do you say that? Miss, what does this mean?” Feed me, Miss. Feed me.
Some were simply hungry for attention from a safe adult. They’d sit next to me and just enjoy the quiet and calm. And I’d hug them extra hard when they left.
I read today about a wonderful librarian in San Francisco who has started a “Books on Bikes” outreach program. Alicia Tapia peddles around on her bike fitted with a trailer laden with books to areas that don’t have easy access to libraries and offers titles for borrowing. “Books do something for the human brain that nothing else can,” she says. “With books comes happiness, and people build empathy for one another. “
Oh how I love Alicia’s creativity and commitment. How vital it is that all young people have access to quality reading materials.
But oh too how I hope that we don’t ever see the demise of the bricks and mortar library.
Because it’s not just about the books. It’s about a space one can go to that asks not about your social standing or financial status.
Rather, it simply says: “All are welcome here.”