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Children Need to Experience the Intoxicating Calm of the Library

We will be a poorer society if future generations never know the intoxicating calm of the library, says Chris Riddell...

  • Children Need to Experience the Intoxicating Calm of the Library

I got to the Millennium Library in Norwich early as for some inexplicable reason, the trains from Liverpool Street were running on time – no points failure at Bishops Stortford, slow running stopping service in front, or even leaves on the line.

So I arrived at this magnificent public library with several hours to spare before my scheduled talk. I took the escalator to the first floor and found a chair at a wonderfully empty table.

As I sat down, that familiar feeling enveloped me. It is a special library feeling – contemplative, quiet, and inexpressibly intoxicating. It reminds me of all the libraries I have known.

The first library in Bristol where I experienced the joy of choosing six books with impunity on a weekly basis, and triumphantly carried them home.

Of my school library, a place of quiet sanctuary where admittance was a privilege to be prized.

Of my art school library with its archived supplements from The Sunday Times and The Observer – treasure houses of contemporary culture from the exciting and exotic sixties.

I sat in the library in Norwich and took out my sketchbook and started to draw. Around me, the life of the library ebbed and flowed.

Young mothers with toddlers made their way to the children’s library, elderly men consulted computer screens in the atrium below, and, around me, people with backpacks and rolled sleeping bags read the papers in comfortable chairs, sipped coffee from the machine, then moved on.

I drew, lost in a world of my own for the next two hours, undisturbed by shop assistants or salespeople or the nagging need to buy something to justify being there. It was idyllic and it was free. It was that library feeling.

I then gave my talk about a picture book I had written and illustrated, Once Upon A Wild Wood. The artwork was hanging in the atrium, organised and curated by the librarians.

The same librarians who organised the parents and toddlers storytime sessions, the poetry readings and the historical society talks I had seen on posters by the front desk.

This was part of that library feeling too – the sense of the library as a cultural hub, where the arts and those who practice them can find an audience. Every writer and illustrator I have met has a formative library experience and is happy to talk about it. But not everybody wants to listen.

This is the other library feeling that I have. It is the opposite of the contemplative, quiet, intoxicating feeling. This is an angry, despairing and alienating feeling that comes from the pit of my stomach when I hear of library closures.

It is the feeling of rage when politicians talk about cost without any understanding of value.

In this age of austerity and self-inflicted Brexit, we can no longer afford the luxury of public libraries. As school budgets are squeezed and SATs test extolled, school librarians are the first to be let go.

After all, we have glowing screens we can gaze at, with all the unmediated knowledge they give us access to. Who needs libraries or librarians in this digital age?

I would argue that we need libraries and librarians more than ever. Our schools need places where children can discover the joy of reading for pleasure, places of quiet sanctuary and places where they can acquire the skills of guided research.

These places are called school libraries and they teach children the value of libraries in the wider community. Public libraries are where the creative arts can be nurtured before taking root in the marketplace. Without them, the arts are weakened and we are all diminished.

So when this feeling threatens to overwhelm me, I visit a library. A library in the form of an enchanted wood in a village school in Wiltshire, a converted classroom which brought the whole community together to create a special space in memory of a much loved pupil.

Or Hove library, saved from closure by local protest, where I spent a joyful day drawing on a newly painted wall. Or the library at the University of Sussex, the busiest place on campus with the funkiest librarians I’ve ever met… or Birmingham, Manchester, Preston, Glasgow central libraries and many more.

They are all places with that special library feeling. Places where everyone is welcome, nothing is bought and sold, creativity is nurtured and we are all enriched.

Chris Riddell is former Children’s Laureate and three time Kate Greenaway medal winner. His new series The Cloud Horse Chronicles: Guardians of Magic is out 19 September 2019.

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