Opinion

After lockdown, the libraries of my life will be waiting

John Bird owes a lot to libraries. After lockdown he's planning a tour

Cambridge Central Library

Gateway to the world: Cambridge, and all other libraries, will be waiting for us when lockdown ends. Credit: Alamy

Personally, one of the biggest things I miss in the lockdown is libraries. And yet when I think back over the year before Covid-19 I did not go to libraries that much. In fact, I have felt an attachment to libraries but my time has been so eaten up by work that libraries have had to take a back seat.

The first library that I went to, as a six and seven-year-old, was across a few dangerous roads in Bayswater, near where we had moved to from Notting Hill. From one slum to another. Substandard living was greatly relieved by a visit to the library where I would wander in without brother or parent. And sit and look at books I was as yet unable to read.

The library is still there. What a magical library, the Porchester Road Library, around the corner from our flat. Unfortunately my father wouldn’t let me join and therefore borrow books. He had borrowed a book and not returned it in 1932, and as this was 1952, he thought they might catch up with him and levy a heavy fine.

Who was it who said that if you gave people a library card you civilised them?

But that didn’t stop me using the library. Aside from the joy of looking at books was the joy of being surrounded by books. It was like a forest, a wood of books. And the dirty world existed outside of it.

I started thinking about libraries again because of lockdown, and planning where I am going to go when we get out. When we can move freely again around the place.

I am determined to revisit the libraries that have meant so much to me. The public library on George IV Bridge just off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. What a feeling of incredible power you can get from this library. It’s almost as though its wisdom spills over you and makes you a quieter, nicer, saner person, something I have deeply needed. Who was it who said that if you gave people a library card you civilised them? Made them stop fighting and stealing.

‘Library cards for the world’, might run the argument.

The Central Library in Sheffield was another that I feel a deep desire to revisit. Why? Because I was hiding from the London police. I was living in a miner’s cottage with my girlfriend, soon to be my wife. And I was printing and loving it and making money. And visiting cathedrals to sell prints I had made of their ancient piles.

I would then have to pop over to Manchester for the vast library that I only spent a week in, in Mosley Street, bang in the centre by Albert Square. There, as an 18-year-old fresh out of nick and visiting a friend near Salford, I experienced one of the great libraries of the UK. The painter LS Lowry was much in evidence – in terms of being alive, but also with Manchester looking like a Lowry backdrop. I watched vast ships pass on the Manchester ship canal and felt a stirring need to understand our history. I thus became a self-appointed historian.

Birmingham Library would have to be next; I have visited it often and I spent hours inside just before the lockdown. It has that sense of being a large piece of history, now surrounded by a sea of shops and municipal brilliance. The pedestrianisation of the centre of Birmingham must be seen, and there within it is the fine and historical library.

Once we are free I will visit these cities and these libraries. For libraries are for the people. And the people will need a lot of help in the coming years of recovery

But the two libraries that made so much of me are the Fulham Library on the Fulham Road in Fulham; and the Kensington Library off  Kensington High Street.

I felt I learned so much from both of these places, later writing much of my autobiography (Some Luck in 2002) whilst sitting in their reference sections.

Once we are free I will visit these cities and these libraries. For libraries are for the people. And the people will need a lot of help in the coming years of recovery. The ‘people’ meaning the common world. The world of sociability. The world of community. The world that distinguishes the quality of our lives.

The public world was so heartlessly destroyed in the years leading up to the pandemic. Destroyed by austerity, a doctrine that we could not afford as it was so expensive to our common wellbeing. Our hospitals were loaded down with people who had watched their social support disappear, or shrink, in this time of treacherous politics. The heart was stripped out of anything that was municipal, that was to do with our community life.

All of the coffee chains and restaurant chains could not replace the sense of community that at times could only be had by a good sense of public care.

I do hope I set enough time aside for my journey around the UK, by train, to see again the many libraries that helped me grow up and grow useful.

But I save my last library for my current library. This must be the library of the future. Set in a town that has many libraries that are out of bounds to the populace – college libraries – Cambridge Central Library is a hive. It is full of activity when open, which hopefully it will be soon. And with a cafe on the top floor it means you can feel pampered, indulged and supported; because you are important enough to be provided for.

I relish libraries. They helped me become me. The bad bits of me, though, cannot be laid at their door.

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue

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