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Wednesday 1 September 2010

Letts Hear it for Libraries

So, are you familiar with Quentin Letts? No, it's not an estate agents, though it would be a damn fine name for one I grant you. Okay, do you read the Daily Mail? What do you mean, "Are we alone"? Fine, let's skip that question if its going to be a source of embarassment.

Quentin Letts is a journalist who writes for a number of British newspapers, including the Daily Mail. He is a theatre critic, political commentator and scourge of health and safety clipboard operators everywhere. He has a cheeky Just Williamish air; with blinky eyes behind little round specs; and he is never without a worm in his pocket all the better to frighten annoying gurls like Germaine Greer.

Quentin is currently presenting a series on Radio 4 entitled "What's The Point of..." where he questions the purpose of some of Britain's national institutions and obsessions. This week it was the turn of public libraries to have the beady eye of Letts turned upon it.

Suffice to say that I suspect Quentin and I would not see eye to beady eye on quite a number of issues.But I am forced to admit that I found myself agreeing with some of his thoughts on libraries.

Since I stopped working in an office, I have spent more and more time in the library. Also talking to check-out assistants and asking for free carpet fitting quotes, but that's another story. I now believe more strongly than ever that the public library is a shining beacon of civilisation which we all should cherish, and, more to the point, USE. It is testament to the power of the library that it could unite Mr Letts and I; specifically in the belief that it plays a vital role in unlocking human potential. So when Quentin called for the library of the future to be "a placid communal sanctuary, a public space for literary pleasure and self betterment", I found myself nodding in agreement.

Funnily enough, I am in a library as I write these words. As it happens, the library I happen to be in is no ordinary library. It is the National Library of Scotland. An institution which I love with a white hot passion which shakes me to the core.

The National Library, has comfortable chairs with leather padding and wide oak desks with room to spread your papers out. The enormously helpful staff will bring the books TO YOUR SEAT while anointing you with sweet smelling oils, feeding you dates and blowing gently on your neck.

As if that were not sufficient entertainment, there are my fellow libary users. Posh Edinburgh University students called Proteus and Porphyria with golden skin and shiny hair and pearly white teeth newly released from the loving care of an expensive orthodontist. Elderly ladies with shoogly beads, lopsided bosoms and birds nests, hair; retired gentlemen in mufti of flannels and a blazer; wild eyed academics with nicotine stained fingers and inky patches on their jacket pockets. And, in the unlikely event that you tire of the people watching, there are the books.

Books and books and books in abundance. In the small room where I now sit I could lovingly stroke the spines of ;"The One Pound Note in the History of Banking in Great Britain"; "The Encyclopedia of Islam"; Virgil's "Aeneid"; or "A Dissertation Upon English Typographical Founders". The stylish young woman next to me is reading a report of the 'Viceroyal's Visit to the West', in a 1900 edition of "The Queen: The Lady's Newspaper". Then there are the journals, newspapers, maps, manuscripts, rare books and the Scottish Screen Archive. Not to mention the exhibitions, events and a rather nice cafe in the foyer.

Of course the National Library is the Sunday Best of all libraries, but my little workaday local library is not too shabby either. Well actually, it is quite shabby but marvellous nonetheless. There are mothers and fathers and children reading and playing (quite quietly for all you purists like Quentin). Learning not just to read but to question and to think for themselves. Men and women filling out job applications and researching for interviews. It was at a library that I did the research that helped me get the job that paid my bills and secured my first mortgage. It was at a library that Jimmy Reid got the education that led to a life that was celebrated by the great and the good when he died.

Young people who are not given the space or peace to study at home. Old people who just want some human contact and can't work the computer. And yes, sharp elbowed middle class folk like myself who know a good thing when they see it.

The day that "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows", the last in the series of Potter books, was published, I was in my local library. A forlorn looking little boy of about 12 came to the desk with his grandmother and asked to order a copy of the book, knowing that the next day at school most of his friends would be brandishing their copies. The librarian smiled and spoke to her colleague and took from under the desk one of the brand spanking new copies which had only been published at midnight before. I hope the disblieving grin that spread across his face was somehow captured in the monthy performance indicators return.

A society that funds and supports public libraries is a civilised society, a democratic society, a society that believes in progress and tolerance and community and the kind of society I want to live in.

Mr Letts gave the last word in his programme to the former poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, whose father had never finished a book in his life, and I will do the same, " I owe my life to libraries." he said, "I went into a series of quite small rooms and found that I was in the world."


  1. Thank you for this -so evocative of time and place, people and events. It was my weekly treat to go to the library as a child, something I passed on to my two eldest children (who now don't read fiction - but that's another story) - it's my youngest, most neglected, who reads voraciously.

  2. I laughed. I cried. Thank you.

    I cannot imagine a world without libraries. Actually, I can but then I pinch myself so I'll wake up...

  3. I really enjoyed this post. You got Quentin Letts spot on.
    As an ex-library assistant it worries me that libraries aren't used nearly as much as they were in the past. If we don't use them, we'll lose them - councils will see them as a luxury to be cut.

  4. My mother was a librarian, we had a house full of books - our own mini-library, and as children we played 'library-library'. I love our local library and am amazed at the service offered there. A great place for all sorts of discoveries!


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