On Sunday 10th March I battled my way through gales, engineering works on Southwest Trains and fallen trees on Southern Rail to attend an event at the British Library. It was definitely worth it. The afternoon brought together three wonderful authors, Sir Philip Pullman, Salley Vickers and Dame Jacqueline Wilson in a thoughtful discussion about the effect libraries had on them as children, as readers and as writers and, of course, why they love libraries.
The discussion was chaired by Sue Wilkinson of the Reading Agency. She introduced the afternoon by explaining that as a body they work with many different partners but that one of the most important is libraries. She also went on to say that “personal choice creates readers.” Libraries help to provide that choice to everyone.
There were many important points raised and discussed during this event and I am still thinking about these several days later. There were some comments made that particularly resonated with me.
All three authors stressed how important it is that library usage and a love of reading starts in childhood. Philip Pullman said that if you develop a love of reading as a child you probably hang on to that love. Jacqueline Wilson told us that her mother obtained special permission for her to join the library as she was so young. Salley Vickers described the librarian after whom the lead character in her latest novel, The Librarian is named. The original Miss Blackwell displayed an impressive knowledge of children’s literature and an ability to know not just which book a child may want to read but also, perhaps more importantly, which book a child needed to read. This wonderful professional introduced Salley Vickers to The Moomins by Tove Jansson, a series also beloved by Philip Pullman.
Jacqueline Wilson had fond memories of graduating to the adult section of Kingston upon Thames library at a very young age and reading Jane Austen. Again there was a common thread as all three said that thanks to libraries and librarians they had been introduced to authors and books that otherwise they may never have known. This availability and range of choice is a key argument in the fight to maintain our public libraries. Without this access, this wonderful opportunity to happen upon literary gems almost by accident, reading could be a narrow and somewhat limited experience. Phillip Pullman said that the most popular area in a public library is the returns shelf. This comment was greeted by knowing smiles from the librarians in the audience! I think that his description of a library as “a treasure chest of serendipity” is just perfect. That feeling of wandering the shelves and discovering new worlds and new friends among the books is what I love most about libraries.
Salley Vickers movingly described how a children’s book, The Owl Service by Alan Garner, brought her back to reading during a dark and difficult time in her life. She highlighted the social role of libraries commenting that the government could be saving money on mental health if they invested in libraries. She also asked where better to find out about diversity than in a library? Libraries could be centres where literature and information are used for social benefit. Jacqueline Wilson summed this aspect up excellently with her description of a library as “a place of refuge and of inspiration.” The library became her place, her home and somewhere that she was able to lose herself completely.
The descriptions of the writing process and the authors’ relationship with their books and their readers were fascinating. Often the author may not consciously be trying to express a particular point and sometimes meaning only really exists once the book is read. We all read in a subtlety different way and a story may be multi layered with different readers taking differing experiences from the book. Salley Vickers expressesd the view that very good books can convey serious subjects through the imagination not through the mind. Philip Pullman voiced concern that in schools it is now harder for teachers to read aloud to children aloud simply for the joy of it and that often exercises or tests are linked to books read in the classroom. He said perhaps the best way to create a reader was to take a child into a library and allow them to choose. As a school librarian I agree that the freedom to choose reading material is key when encouraging reading for pleasure.
That public libraries are under threat has been well documented in recent years. Although Jacqueline Wilson has visited some wonderful examples of vibrant city centre libraries she also noted that the smaller library once found in every town is disappearing. As Philip Pullman so succinctly described it, “We must have libraries where people are.” If local town centre libraries shut then a mobile library service is even more vital. His own mobile library used by the elderly or young mums with toddlers in pushchairs who are unable to get to the city centre, has been removed. Sadly it appears to be that the places where libraries are needed the most are those where the service is cut.
Perhaps the final word should go to Dame Jacqueline Wilson, former Children’s Laureate, who said.
”We must put our shoulders behind the campaign to preserve our public libraries.”
The packed theatre audience of library lovers wholeheartedly agreed.