‘The healing place of the soul.’
Inscription over the door of the Library at Thebes (ancient Greece, circa 1800BC)
Earlier this year I embarked on my self-titled Saints and Sinners Library Tour 2011. I visited nine libraries – just one short of my target of 10 that would have justified a tour t-shirt. My ‘tour’ took me from Royston to Rutherglen, and beyond, as I talked about my novel, reading from it, answering any questions and finishing off with a couple of songs!
It was always an enjoyable event – I’m only speaking for myself here – and every one was different. There were three people who came along to Maryhill Library, while about twenty-three packed into Uddingston Library.
And I met a whole range of interesting people – from a woman who runs a magazine for vampires – or maybe it was for people who’re interested in vampires? – to a fellow writer once labelled as the ‘most dangerous man in Scotland’ by a judge in the 1970s. I also met two distant relatives for the first time, and I’d like to think that I also gained a few new readers along the way.
The first thing I always said at every event was that libraries are one of our most valuable but under-valued resources. I genuinely believe that. And what worries me, particularly in this so-called age of austerity, is that libraries will be seen as an easy target for cuts.
My parents used to take me to Bishopbriggs Library when I was younger, and I did the same thing with my children, taking them to the same library. It’s where my love of books was fostered, though one traumatic episode in my formative years could have put me off reading for life.
I remember being in primary six and every Friday afternoon, the teacher would read a couple of chapters from a book called Master of Morgana by Allan Campbell McLean. It’s a wonderful adventure story for kids set on the isle of Skye, and I was absolutely captivated by it, so much so that, after a couple of Fridays, I went straight from school to the library, got the book out and had it finished by the Sunday night.
Unfortunately, I then went into school on the Monday morning and told everyone else in the class how it ended, spoiling it for them. My punishment was getting the belt, and for years after that I was always appalled at the thought I’d been belted for having the initiative to go and read the book myself; the reality, of course, was that I was being punished for ruining the story for everyone else!
Libraries have existed for thousands of years, and they are places which celebrate the written word, the joy of learning and the simple pleasure of reading. Anyone can use them and everyone should.
They are also FREE… it costs you nothing and you can learn everything.
We should cherish the libraries we have in our communities. We should use them more often – I’m as guilty of not doing so as most of you probably are these days – and we should be thankful that we have them.
Think about any country where a dictatorship emerges. Writers are usually among the first to be targeted while books which do not conform to the ruling dogma are proscribed or destroyed. As the nineteenth century German writer Heinrich Heine prophetically said, ‘Those who, at first, burn books, will, in the end, burn men.’
There are all sorts of quotes to extol the value of libraries. My favourite is from the Roman philosopher, Cicero, who said that ‘to add a library to a house is to give that house a soul.’
It’s a quote I often use whenever a new batch of books appears in my house. The standard response is usually: ‘Not more f***** books!’ I think it might have been Plato who said that.
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