Have I told you lately that I love you? Sorry, that’s a really corny first line but I’ve never been very good at this kind of thing. The reality, of course, is that I haven’t told you, not just lately but ever. I’ve taken you for granted, even forgotten about you at times, because you’ve always been there, waiting quietly in the background for whenever I want to rekindle our relationship, which stretches back as far as I can remember.
You were the first place that my parents let me visit on my own. They’d kept me under a tight leash ever since I disappeared from the garden one summer’s day and ended up in Quin’s Pub, sitting on top of a table with a glass of lemonade and a packet of crisps. I was only three-years-old at the time. A kindly old gentleman found me heading towards the train station to meet my dad and took me into the pub, figuring that, if no-one found me before he finished his drink, he could pop along to the police station and deposit me there.
I don’t remember that particular piece of Cuddihy family folklore, but I do remember being in primary six at St Helen’s Primary where, every Friday afternoon, our teacher would read to us. One book she chose was Master of Morgana by Allan Campbell McLean, an adventure story set on the isle of Skye, and from the first few lines I heard, I was utterly captivated. I could hardly wait until the following Friday to hear the next instalment. After about three weeks, it became unbearable and so, straight after school, I headed straight for the library. I took the book out and devoured it by the Sunday night. It was simply wonderful. The next day I boasted to all my classmates about my achievement but more than that, I stupidly told them how the story ended. It was back in the good old days of corporal punishment, and so I was belted for my ‘crime’, which for years seemed to me to be simply a love of reading.
It could have turned me off books for life. I might even have blamed you, Bishopbriggs Library, for tempting me into my transgression. Thankfully, neither of those things happened.
I grew older and, if I’m being honest, I neglected you, transferring my affections to Quin’s Pub, somewhere that I was destined to return to since that brief visit as a three-year-old.
Yet, I never truly forgot you. They say your first love never dies, and so I eventually returned, quietly, nervously, almost like I was stepping back into the past, even if things had changed since I had combed the book shelves as a child. Now I was keeping watch over my own children, sitting like Gulliver in a Lilliputian chair, reading to them, selecting books they might be interested in, watching as they explored the giant box that was a treasure trove of stories. The three of them would select two books each to borrow, and we would read them together, squashed into one bed for ten minutes every night before the lights went out and I could sit and relax in front of the TV or with a book of my own. The next weekend, we would return with the books, swapping them for different ones. It was like history – my history – was repeating itself, and it felt great.
When I look at old pictures of Bishopbriggs, you’re always there, keeping a watchful eye on the comings and goings in the town down through the years. You were originally the local school, opened in 1896 – I know my history – and that you changed your identity, becoming the town’s library in 1965. It makes you a year older than me, though you’re infinitely wiser. Sometimes, when I look in the mirror, I realise you’ve also aged considerably better, though I’ve never enjoyed the benefits of a £400,000 facelift. I’m not bitter, though.
Libraries are one of our most valuable yet undervalued resources. I don’t need to tell you that, but maybe I need to remind myself because I worry sometimes that just because you’ve always been there up ‘til now, it doesn’t mean you always will be.
There are many reasons this might happen. People don’t read as much these days. That’s what I keep hearing, so there is the problem of a dwindling audience, while authorities are always lurking in the background with red pens and spreadsheets, ready to slash budgets and close buildings, not realising that, when they do, a little part of that community dies.
So what should I do about it? I decide to renew our relationship again, and my membership too. It feels good to be back even though you seem, at first glance, to be different. There is now a room housing computers where grey-haired people stare intently at the screens; I’m tempted to pop in and show them how to switch the machines on. There are shelves of DVDs, CDs and computer games, a circle of desks where people sit reading newspapers, and even a designated ‘quiet area’ in one corner. I always thought the whole library was meant to be quiet.
Yet you’re still filled with books, millions of words that inform, entertain, excite, educate, frighten, fascinate and offer gateways into many different worlds, real and imagined. That’s always been the wonder of books, and libraries offer all of this without charging for the privilege or the pleasure. I even borrow a book – it would be rude not to – and in doing so, it guarantees that, like Arnie, I’ll be back. I’m looking forward to it already.
I imagine, too, that, in the fullness of time, I will also bring grandchildren here and introduce them to Bishopbriggs Library, creating a sentimental link between the generations that only you and I will really appreciate. That will be a good day.
(This was first published on the Scottish Book Trust website in 2014)