Can you describe a visit you remember making to a library, either in childhood or more recently? Do you remember how old you were, why you went there, or what the building was like? Can you remember any of the books you encountered there? These are among the questions we’ve been asking people, for our project, Memories of Fiction: An Oral History of Readers’ Life Stories.
The project aims to find out how reading shapes our lives. We set out with the observation that authors are always being interviewed – for TV, for radio, for magazines, for the British Library’s oral history project, ‘Authors’ Lives’… but what about all the readers out there? Surely they’d have interesting things to say, too.
Reading is an immensely important but little documented cultural activity
Reading is an immensely important and little documented cultural activity, which shapes peoples’ lives from childhood onwards. It is often experienced as a private activity, which takes place in silence, on our own, and yet reading groups – often based in public libraries – have grown hugely in popularity over the past two decades, bringing reading experiences increasingly into the public domain.
Considering the ongoing threat to libraries, we decided to seek out readers who attend library-based reading groups, not least to find out more about the benefits libraries can bring to people and to help make a case for their value. It’s easy to imagine that libraries are becoming redundant, but not only does the availability of books and, more recently, internet access continue to be important, we’re finding that libraries also serve many other purposes and needs. One point that comes across, again and again, is how libraries provide a space for people to spend time in, browsing, sitting, thinking…
When Jane moved to London as a child, for example, she says she was “saved by Roehampton library”, where she spent much time reading. Reading has provided an escape,and helped to fill empty time and to evade loneliness at various periods during Jane’s life – and, of course, Jane is no exception.
As for many others, books have become “old friends”. Jane also notes how well-used her local library is: “It is chock-a-block with students revising, who haven’t got room to study in their flats.” Kevin similarly observes that his library is “absolutely crammed”, full of kids studying, and he recalls spending his own younger days in the library in central Birmingham: