Opinion: A visit to the library

Every Christmas Eve throughout my childhood, a mystery visitor came to the doorstep of our council flat and deposited a bag of children’s books before disappearing into the darkness. S/he never stopped to be recognised or thanked, and we never found out who s/he was, but I still remember the thrill of opening up another consignment of new reading every Christmas.

Even without our mystery benefactor, however, I and my three siblings would have been brought up with books. My father left school at 14 to be apprenticed, and my mother’s formal education was severely damaged by the Nazi occupation of Jersey while she was a young teenager. But they were determined that their children would succeed academically; our noses were kept firmly in our homework, and we managed without a TV until I was in my mid-teens.

My parents had books at home, though a small and somewhat eclectic collection. A 1930’s Enquire Within encyclopaedia contained pictures of steatopygic Hottentots, and athletic German girls exercising with medicine balls. A collected works of Shakespeare brought me to grief when writing A-Level English essays; I hadn’t realised it was a nine-shilling Czechoslovakian print with whole sections of the Bard’s iambic pentameters in the wrong places, possibly even the wrong plays. And there was a copy of Engels’ Anti-Dühring (my parents were members of the Communist Party) which I confess I never found the will to open.

It would have been a bizarre literary menu if it hadn’t been for our public library. All four Perkins children had library cards, and exchanging our library books was a regular and frequent routine.

In short, I was exactly one of those “children from homes living on low incomes developing a passion for reading serious books borrowed from the local library” whose existence Conservative MP John Redwood recently chose to doubt.

A report from Oxford suggests that reading books is the only out-of-school activity for 16-year-olds that is linked to getting a managerial or professional job in later life. If every child is to have equal access to professional opportunities, that means equal access to books, and to public libraries. Redwood’s suggestion that school and university facilities could fill gaps created by public library closures would achieve the exact opposite, depriving students of study materials, while reducing the availability to the public of books to browse and borrow – a recipe for social immobility.

Lorna Spenceley blogs here.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.

One Comment

  • Old Codger Chris 19th Apr '11 - 7:10pm

    An excellent piece which reminds us all of the importance of libraries. Our local library is excellent – in fact our library service is one of the few things our Conservative County Council gets right – and it liases well with schools.

    But John Redwood’s piece does draw attention to the fact that libraries must never be complacent, they must adapt to changing times and focus on education in its broadest sense.

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