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On Libraries – and books

November 9, 2012

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In 1959, when I was 7, I moved to Southport, in Lancashire, and stayed in the suburb of Birkdale.

At the end of our road there was an imposing Victorian building which became very much part of my everyday routine. Going to the shops, the station, or the bus stop involved passing it, and to a young lad it was a fascinating sight.

Set back from the road, it had a parking area in front of it, used as a taxi rank, and at one end a building with a huge clock tower.

By the time I moved there, most of the building was unused. It had been built in 1872 as the Town Hall for Birkdale, the buildings at the other end comprised a police station and courts and a fire station, and between them, completed in the early years of the century, was a Carnegie Free Library.

However, by 1912, Birkdale had been subsumed by the County Borough of Southport and these civic buildings became surplus to requirements, hence their unused state in the early sixties.

However, the Library remained open. And it was much to my benefit. Most Friday nights, around 6.30, off I would go to the Library – initially accompanied by my mother, but quickly, as it was only about 100yds from our house, alone.

It was quite an experience for me initially. You can imagine the appearance of Victorian grandeur, high ceilings, carved plaster work, dark stained wood panels and glass partitions. The very smell of the place was atmospheric – dry paper, polish, dust, and that indefinable aroma of books.

The children’s library was separate to the adults’, on the left as you entered the building; the grown up section, to the right, was out of bounds for a few years yet.

I grew to love those Friday evenings, especially in the winter. Out into the cold, my breath on the air, pushing against the heavy door, a blast of warmth, and then the enveloping silence of the shelves.

There was an excitement in searching to see if a certain ‘Famous Five’ or ‘Secret Seven’ book was on the shelf this week, as I worked through the titles by authors like Enid Blyton: The Sea of Adventure, The Rilloby Fair Mystery, The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage. Scanning the shelves was part of the thrill, and I soon came to enjoy books by other authors – the ‘Flame’ series by Eric Leyland, “Jennings” by Anthony Buckeridge, “Billy Bunter” by Frank Richards, Richmal Compton’s ‘William’ – and books long forgotten by authors such as A Stephen Tring, Lawrence Meynell (the same person!), books about cricket that still resonate –“Out in the Glare” by G Appleby Terrill and ‘Playing for the School’ by Jack Hemming.

Many of these books were written pre-war, but such were the worlds that they created that I never really noticed the anachronisms; the ambience was so perfectly created that even the rarified atmosphere of Edwardian upper middle class society seemed perfectly accessible. Did life really change so little in the middle of the twentieth century? Or was I captured by the strangeness of it all. As an only child, I certainly found friends in the characters in these books, as their mannerisms and expressions became familiar to me.

Then, three books chosen (only three! The agony of putting back one or two books, hoping they would be on the shelf next week!) there was the comforting thump, stamp, thump of the somewhat forbidding librarian as she issued the books for the two weeks I knew I wouldn’t need, and a brisk walk home, to start the serious business of getting lost in these somehow familiar places.

We don’t recognize the value of what we have while we are having it I suppose. I look back now and am thankful for all that Birkdale Library gave me. The comfort of reading and the practice of regularly extending my vocabulary was a painless and even enjoyable way of attaining the skills that would help me when study became important. A career as an English teacher, a life in which writing – published and unpublished – has featured, a house always filled with books, always another to be read, all of this, I suppose, was influenced by those happy Friday evenings in that imposing building.

But, as my son said when I mentioned this to him, “It was not just about the books”.
The ‘free libraries’ endowed by the wealth of my fellow Scot, Andrew Carnegie, made a bold statement in many ways. Carnegie himself, on libraries, said:

“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.”

And

“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.”

In a sense, that original Carnegie Library in Birkdale proved the point – physically, as well as in its contents and opportunities.

It was a grand building that made a statement; in that library, with all its hushed tones, dark wood, imposing stonework, you couldn’t help but know you were in somewhere that mattered. Books, and all that they implied – about knowledge, learning, self reliance, choice and self discipline – were to be taken seriously. In the old fashioned architecture and hushed atmosphere of that library, I learned so much about what is important; I found a part of myself; I prepared, unknowingly, for my future.

In its situation – between the governance rooms of the Town Hall, and the practical applications of citizenship in courts, police and fire buildings, it was placed four square at the centre of its local community. “By the Library” was a common description of the immediate area.

Of course, times change and things move on. As I grew older, my visits to the library changed. They were no longer part of a weekly routine – they were based on necessity, for reference books, or a look at the newspapers; I did some of my studying for A levels and O Levels at its big leather and wooden tables, having, eventually, reached an age where I could enter the ‘adult section’.

My interest in the building scarcely weakened though. As a teenager, with a friend, I managed to find a way into the unused parts of the complex. With the aim of photography rather than vandalism, we found ourselves in the old police cells, climbed the staircase from the holding cell into the dock and surveyed the courtroom from the point of view of the accused. It was a remarkable experience, rather like archaeology, to come across the perfectly preserved demonstration of civic life, untouched for half a century.

In an attic room in the clock tower, amongst the hundreds of boxes of old archives and files, we found a basket of flags, including a huge Royal Standard which must have flown from the building on the occasion of a Royal visit, presumably of Queen Victoria or Edward V11 around the turn of the century. In its own way, those visits of exploration were as instructional and enjoyable as my childhood visits to the library.

I left Birkdale in 1970, to return to my hometown of Edinburgh and university, so I wasn’t there when the decision was made to tear down the set of civic buildings and replace them with a block of flats and a parade of shops.

On the one hand, with the exception of the Library, this was a major building which had lain unused for over fifty years; on the other, it was a remarkable piece of architecture, in excellent condition, and could have been used in many ways for the good of the locality. Had it survived another decade or so, I like to think the sensibilities of heritage might have saved it.

After this, the Birkdale Library was re-sited further to the south at the other side of the suburb. In a modern building, it was able to match the developments common to the library service across the country. The hushed reverence of my childhood years was replaced by a more relaxed atmosphere; children were welcome to be seen and heard; the advent of computers – whilst changing the public’s reliance on books, also gave extended purpose to libraries as resource centres for all manner of research, including, particularly, the burgeoning interest in genealogy. I like to thinkof the modern library’s facilities perhaps being used to research the story of the older building and its history.

Whatever the changes, Birkdale library continued, I’m sure, to be an important centre for local people, whether youngsters being introduced, as I was, to the pleasure of reading, students doing research, or older folk, sure of a welcome and to meet friends in a place where sociability reigns alongside information and resources.

The point about a local library is that it acts as a focal point for neighbourhoods, their interests and their people. Half a century has passed since this writer looked forward to his Friday visits to the original Birkdale Library, but throughout that time the magic of books has continued to work its spell on generations of children. A century exactly has elapsed since the other occupants of that Victorian pile at the corner of Weld Road and York Road – Town Hall and the Courts, ceased to operate there.

However, the memory, as they say, lingers on; the ghosts of those who once read and worked in that building still haunt the memories of those who now take their place; words written by authors long dead are still inspirational to those still here.

The current Birkdale Library has provided a continuation of the past – in many ways and for many people. The people are different, its role has developed, but the history is there.

So it is particularly upsetting that the suggestion has been made that the Birkdale Library, along with other local Libraries, be closed as a cost cutting measure under the local council’s austerity measures. I can only imagine the desperation this must be causing for people in the local community, and one can only wonder at the short sightedness and civic ignorance that lies behind such a proposal.

The question is: do we want local communities enriched by all that a library provides in their midst? Or are we happy to hit culture and communication in the front line of cuts to services? Are local officials worried at a population that will have less convenient access to information and civic collaboration, or does it, in fact, suit their purposes?

It’s a long time since I lived in Birkdale, but I’m still proud to have spent some of my life there. Those buildings at the corner of my road always served as a reminder of a time when civic authority was central to neighbourhoods, accessible to people, and linked with self improvement, knowledge and education.

Carnegie’s Trust gave the people of Birkdale the library as a gift. To have lost it once, through demolition, is unfortunate. To lose it once again, through wrong headed parsimony, would be a disaster.

“Libraries are reservoirs of strength, grace and wit, reminders of order, calm and continuity, lakes of mental energy, neither warm nor cold, light nor dark…. In any library in the world, I am at home, unselfconscious, still and absorbed. ”
― Germaine Greer

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