Claire North, author of Notes from the Burning Age, has written an open letter to libraries. A love letter, if you will, to the humble library, a place of solace, safety and wonder for readers of all ages.
To this day libraries remain what they have always been to me – a place of quiet escape, of refuge and contentment; of imagination, knowledge and ideas. The place where I will always go whenever I wish to be entirely myself, safe and still – and a gateway world that is so much bigger than I could ever conceive . . . To every library – and every librarian – that has ever given this gift to child and adult – thank you.
Dear Mildmay Library,
You look pretty crummy, not gonna lie. A single floor of cracked tile walls, worn carpet and chipped yellow shutters barring the door every other day. There aren’t really any comfy places to sit, but you had a graphic novel section which a teenage girl could browse on her summer holidays without feeling judged for her gender or her geekery, and that changed my life. On those hot, slow days, I could borrow my own weight in comics, carry them to the park, then be back before you closed to find out what happened next. That wasn’t always easy – part 2 might be found in the high, cool interior of Stoke Newington Library, a mile or so up the road, where every voice echoes off the roof like a sneeze in a cathedral, or part 3 in Dalston before it got renovated into a latte-sipping, panini-guzzling corner of the community.
Hey Barbican Library, I know it’s a bit unusual, but I really love how you can stand on the edge of Crime and Thrillers and look down into the halls below, so often full of jazz and dancing; or pop downstairs to the music library that remains one of the best in the city and just lose yourself in history and sound. The Barbican was built as a social experiment – the result is a glorious maze of unhelpful painted yellow lines and mysterious corridors twisting back to unknown places. It divides travellers into two types: those who know every nook and cranny, and can find three different routes to the library’s door, and those who avoid the Barbican like the plague, knowing it to be a geographical trap from which no one can emerge unscathed. I love the Barbican, and for me the library has always been, and will always be its heart.
Shoe Lane and Chancery Lane libraries, I don’t know how you found your places in the teaming mess of the city, nestled between post-war housing blocks and glass towers of corporate power, but you are sanctuaries for your communities on those mean streets of roaring buses and clacking leather shoes. LSE Library – who doesn’t love a bookcase you have to open by turning a handle, or the way the lights would flicker on around you as you strolled through a darkened section of an evening? Senate House, you smell of pure, unadultered ancient book-ness, of stained brown paper and dust and time, and it is magic. British Library, I can’t believe to this day that you let me touch a map from 1690. The college library at RADA – I don’t know how I would have got through my first ever crew role (opening a door that didn’t need opening for a show that should have known better) without the sheer volume of scripts you lent me, guided by a librarian thrilled to be asked “what next?” and read in the dark by torchlight while waiting for a cue.
My childhood was ringed by a glorious, shimmering constellation of libraries, from Central Library with its shelves of little guides to big ideas to South Library where the kids sung nursery rhymes every Thursday afternoon, voices bouncing down the stairs. My student years smelt of pages that had been turned and turned again, bag sagging under the weight of wonders inside. To this day libraries remain what they have always been to me – a place of quiet escape, of refuge and contentment; of imagination, knowledge and ideas. The place where I will always go whenever I wish to be entirely myself, safe and still – and a gateway world that is so much bigger than I could ever conceive.
To every library – and every librarian – that has ever given this gift to child and adult – thank you.
Lots of love,