Libraries have always been a big part of my life.
I remember the excitement of finally being old enough to join the tiny library in the village where I grew up; the responsibility of having a card to look after; the solemnity of the ritual where I would approach the counter with my chosen books and stand watching while the librarian stamped each one with a return date.
(25 years later I am still slightly ashamed that I was once careless enough to lose a book from that library. Sorry sorry sorry. I have no idea where it went.)
At primary school I was selected to be a student librarian. It was a pretty unexciting job – one for those of us who were diligent and smart, but not popular enough to be elected house captain. Still, it won me a red enamel badge with gold lettering, which I pinned to my denim jacket with pride.
When I had exhausted the supply of books at primary school I was given special permission to use the high school library. What joy. What freedom. An hour out of school to walk across town and browse the shelves with the bigger kids. I would love to say that I took the opportunity to stretch my mind, to read the classics and push the limits of my knowledge. But I didn’t. Instead I went for the guilty pleasures of Sweet Valley High and the Babysitters Club, chewed through them all as quick and easy as gum.
Throughout my teens I continued to be a borrower of books, and the town library was my go-to place. I’d always start by looking at the posters in the hallway – art classes, wardrobes for sale, dog walkers wanted – everything that epitomised small town life. Then I’d head inside to the warmth and the quiet, to that special library smell of dust and damp umbrellas, to the company of tweed-wearing ladies with names like Janet and Linda and Margaret.
The summer between school and university, we left the Scottish Borders and moved up to Inverness for a couple of months. The library there was bigger; better than any I’d ever been in. I was drawn to the Scottish shelves, and would go home with great piles of poetry, short stories and novels.
But then at university, my love affair with the library came to end. It became something else entirely. I never went to browse anymore, to lightly run my hand along the spines. I never went for joy. Instead I went to use the computer desks, crowded around the edges of the room. I rushed there after lectures to get everything on the reading list,and felt frustrated when they were already out on loan. It became a place I dreaded going, that great brutal building in the corner of George Square.
Thank goodness for the Scottish Poetry Library, a peaceful place of escape just off the Royal Mile, where I could tuck myself in a corner with Simon Armitage or Edwin Morgan. By leaves we live. That may just have saved me.
What I had never imagined was how parenting would bring me full circle. After several years without stepping in a library – except when I got married in one – DorkySon helped me rediscover their fun side..
When we lived in Edinburgh I would push the pram across to that creaky old building in Morningside. We would manoeuvre ourselves through the heavy double doors and settle down on a cushion for rhyme time. When the singing and the actions were over, DorkySon would crawl off to push the big wooden truck around the floor, while I would take my time and choose some board books to bring home.
In Harpenden, the library was the first place we visited. DorkySon sat and flicked through a car magazine as we signed up for our cards, impressing the woman at the desk with his ability to recognise logos and badges. The kids books were all housed in the carriages of a red wooden train, and the noisy role play that resulted from the toddler drivers and engineers was surely not conducive to a quiet reading experience for others. A few months after we moved there, a librarian told us that for health and safety reasons the train would be moved outside and filled with flowers. Poor DorkySon was distraught.
But then we moved again, and in Hobart the library became a regular stop off on our walks around the city. Before our belongings arrived from the UK we would visit every day or two to get a new pile of books. Once we were more settled and our boxes had caught up, it became a weekly visit. Every Friday morning we’d go and get twelve books, then head for a milkshake or frozen yoghurt. When we got home DorkySon would split them into two piles – six for Saturday morning and six for Sunday.
Now DorkySon is at school for five days each week, instead of just three. We have not yet found a way to fit the library into our new routine. He is too tired after school, and has too much to do on a Saturday morning.
But we must.
I don’t want him to forget how essential libraries are. How on wet days, dark days, difficult days, they are places you can retreat to. They are places you are always welcome. They are places that can feel like home.
My post about Motherhood and the Senses has been given a second lease of life by the lovely people at Elephant Journal, who have published a slightly tweaked version of it. I’ve also had a piece published at Mrs MuffinTop about imperfect parenting – surely the only kind there is.