It’s the same instant calm each time I go through the doors. More immediate than a glass of white wine on an empty stomach, better than a Xanax. But it’s deeper than that, it’s a feeling of safety that settles softly inside me. I’m talking about walking into a library. My whole life, whatever has been happening, wherever I’ve been in the world, I’ve walked into a library and, at least for that moment, everything has been OK.
Part of writing Lowborn is exploring what factors enable a child with a background like mine to survive, perhaps even thrive, in adulthood. For me, one of the most essential factors was libraries. When I was little and we shared a room in B&Bs, my single-parent mum, living on benefits, had somewhere warm, free and entertaining to take me. And when we suddenly moved to yet another new town with few possessions and no money, there was still always the comforting familiarity of a library, those books that were all my own for a full week.
In my early teens their role became even more vital: always the new girl with the weird accent and cheap, wrong clothes, I was bullied every single day of secondary school. I loved learning, I craved the approval and stable influence of my teachers but I spent lessons trying to ignore girls spraying Impulse all over me because I “stank of shit” or stabbing pencils into my back. School was never what it should have been to me and home life, sometimes a sanctuary and sometimes a storm, was complicated too.
But I could always go to the library. There, I was always welcome, I could hide behind a book, wait until the words weren’t blurred by tears, and take myself somewhere entirely different, where endings were usually happy and people behaved like you hoped they might.
I visited the library with hangovers crafted by Satan himself, in last night’s clothes, the sweat of strangers sticking to my skin. But I still went to the library.
I wasn’t a shy, studious bookworm though, far from it. In my late teens I slipped. I slipped out of school before taking GCSEs, towards a crowd 10 years older than me and into repetitive nights of booze, strange men and shady situations. By 17 I’d slipped so far I was ready to plummet. I visited the library with hangovers crafted by Satan himself, in last night’s clothes, the sweat of strangers sticking to my skin. But I still went to the library. I still read piles and piles of books that made me want to see other places, do other things, be all the other possible versions of myself I read about on those pages. The library was magic, suspended from real life and people’s assumptions of how little I was worth. Access to that, to those words, anchored me enough to get the footing I needed to start making my own path away from the brink, towards today.
I’ve lost count of the writers who also credit libraries as the reason they are where they are now. Joanna Cannon, author of the Sunday Times bestselling debut novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep told me, “Everything I have done, and everything I am, is down to that brown, cardboard library ticket.” Award-winning, young adult author Juno Dawson states that, “Bingley Library moulded me into a writer. Working-class, transgender kids, statistically probably aren’t meant to end up where I have and that’s in part due to the social mobility libraries and reading allowed me.”
On Twitter I asked for stories from people from marginalised backgrounds who wouldn’t be doing what they now are without libraries. Over 200 deeply moving stories flooded in. Each was unique but many aspects of the stories overlapped, circles within circles, a Venn diagram of the true significance of libraries. Stories came from those who were in care, those from chaotic, poor or abusive households, those who were bullied, those with disabilities or mental health problems, those who were LGBT, those who just needed a place they wouldn’t be turned away from. Though many said that without those loaned books they’d have remained near uneducated or would never have gone to university, many more told me libraries also offered them desperately needed escape, safety and possibility where none existed otherwise.
What will happen to those children for whom libraries might have been their education, inspiration and safe space?
I wonder, with 127 libraries closed in 2018 in the UK, what will happen to those children for whom libraries might have been their education, inspiration and safe space? With expenditure for library services falling by £30m and 3,000 new volunteers drafted in to run this vital community resource in that same year, what will happen to those kids who, like me long ago, might have used the library as the foundation of the good, purposeful lives they might build, given the chance?
I truly believe that the access I had, wherever I was, no matter what stage in my life, saved my life. I would not be here without them. And no, that isn’t something that can be measured on a spreadsheet. It’s real human experience, it’s value still reaped decades later. I simply cannot understand how this national resource, one that is relatively inexpensive in the grand scheme of managing a country, could be considered superfluous. And I won’t sit back and just watch as it is purposefully and relentlessly dismantled.
The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.
I spoke to Laura Swaffield at The Library Campaign who says things are far worse now than they were in 1984 when the Campaign was set up in response to Margaret Thatcher’s policies. I asked both Laura, Cat Dormer, of Supporters of Newarthill Library, and other activists what the public can do in the face of this.
They all told me that, because of the way libraries are assessed, simply joining and using your library regularly is the best thing you can do. Here in Liverpool, I’m going to join my ‘friends of…’ group at my library and if there isn’t one I’m going to set one up. I’m also staying up to date with what’s happening on the excellent Public Library News and Library Campaign websites because, libraries taught me well, knowledge is power.
Author Damian Barr, who successfully campaigned twice with Cat and Supporters of Newarthill Library to halt the closure of his childhood library, said, “For me the library was fundamentally a safe, warm space where no one was trying to hurt or bully me.”
This is not just Damian’s story, or mine, but the story of so many children today. Libraries protected me at my most vulnerable and now I’ll try to do the same for them.
Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns by Kerry Hudson is out now (Chatto & Windus, £14.99)