How reading and libraries shape our lives

Libraries are vital to society but we rarely hear how they affect the lives of the people who use them. Librarian Shelley Trower decided to tell the readers’ stories

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.

Girl in library

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:

“You wandered in there and it had tall, dark wood stacks of books, and you could just disappear into it, and be there all day really… and upstairs, it had an enormous oak table, where we all went to study. That was the only place really where you could just go and sit down and study.”

For Priscilla, the library is “a form of relaxation” away from the noise of everyday life: “It’s that time of being able to just have that quiet and just read quietly… looking at books I might not have read before, looking at different authors… really trying to open my reading and my mind.”

Beyond individual lives, libraries can provide social spaces where people can talk about reading and forge new communities. For Audrey, her reading group introduced her to the local library and has made a great difference to her life. She never used to go out on her own and is now more confident, making new friends. Many of the readers we’ve talked to say their groups have reignited their interest in reading and encouraged them to encounter books they’d not known about or got around to reading – books that have been enlightening, surprising and enjoyable, providing experiences beyond one’s own limited world.

Beyond individual lives, libraries can provide social spaces where people can talk about reading and forge new communities

As Alison puts it: “I have read a lot of things for the reading group I perhaps otherwise wouldn’t have chosen to read, and I’ve learnt things about myself from what I’ve read, and surprised myself with some of my attitudes to things, and I’ve learnt things about different places and people… cultures I don’t know anything about.”

For the next stage of our project, we’re planning events including Our Lives in Libraries at Balham Library on June 7, with a talk and discussion of our memories of libraries and what they mean to us, ranging from childhood to the present, from book groups to cuts and hopes for the future.

This is free and open to all; we’d be delighted if you might come along to share your experiences and memories, or if you could respond in the comments section on the project blog, where you can find out more about the project

Shelley Trower works at the University of Roehampton

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