How my local library changed my life

Leading authors share their memories for Libraries Week 2019.


Books can transport you around the world – even if you’re really sat on a corrugated carpet in Homerton or a plank floor in Indiana.

Here Jojo Moyes, Jacqueline Wilson and 11 other Penguin authors share memories of their local libraries. Together they make a powerful case for why we should fight to protect them.

Diana Evans: ‘I would sit by a window and sink with sentences’

Diana Evans
Photo: Charlie Hopkinson

When Neasden shopping centre had a precinct the library stood at its helm like a safe glass house. It had large windows. It was full of everyone. We were all the same in our requirement for words, for knowledge, for information, for the silence of paper. I took my homework there when I wanted to be away from the clutches of the family semi. I would sit by a window and sink with sentences. Sometimes I would fall asleep, and wake up again adrift, swimming in their currents.

There are two places belonging to the public that make that feeling, when emerging from it in the evening, of having transcended one's reality: the library and the swimming pool. Both places made me feel taller, made me see more clearly, there was less in the way. Walking home with books in my bag and words awhirl in my head, Neasden became more than itself, its dimensions were expanded, multiplied, and the family semi expanded with it. Anything that widens the mind has the power to lift the world. Anything that creates a feeling of peace and access is not just useful but necessary. Neasden looks a little blank without its library. There’s an empty space. The words are homeless. 

Diana Evans is the author of Ordinary People.

Gary Ferguson: ‘I discovered the words of people who, like me, were utterly entranced by nature’

Gary Ferguson
Photo: Sonia Williamson

When I was eight years old the trip took just ten minutes. Out through the back screen door of our tiny yellow house in northern Indiana, past a line of big maple trees to Mishawaka Avenue, then four blocks west. Landing at an old storefront sporting ten-foot-high paned windows, rising up from the level of my sunburned knees. And just on the other side of the glass, fanciful displays not of dresses, or suits, or toys – but books. Where the Wild Things AreAmelia BedeliaNever Cry Wolf.

It was there, in the River Park Library, where I first discovered the words of people who, like me, were utterly entranced by nature – biologist Sigurd Olson, animal storyteller Ernest Thompson Seton, and also that grand diarist of the North Woods, Helen Hoover. Maybe I was fated to end up in wild places eventually anyway. But as it happened, my path to get there started on my knees on that plank floor, an open book on my lap – reading with wide eyes, my fingers tracing across the pen and ink drawings of birch trees and foxes and great horned owls. It was in that quiet, slightly musty library, that place of immeasurable enchantment, where I learned the shape of my longing. Behind that old storefront, with its towering panes of glass, were shelves filled with fingers pointing to the moon.

Adrian J. Walker: ‘Libraries are a middle finger raised firmly against the rest of the world's glum insistence that everything should demand a price’

Adrian Walker

File libraries alongside ‘bicycles’, ‘cheeseburgers’ and ‘electric guitars’ in the list of things that make me feel most thankful to live in the time that I do. They are a shining example of stoicism, a middle finger raised firmly against the rest of the world's glum insistence that everything should demand a price, or be difficult, or require an element of punishment to attain (l have recently purchased car insurance). 

I was reminded of this recently when I signed my kids up to their local library. They poked about, nervously creating a pile of books they thought they might like, not quite sure that what they were doing was quite legal. Then, when we took them to the counter, my daughter whispered to me: “Dad, how much is all this going to cost?

I took my time telling her. It was too fine a moment to rush.

Jack Shenker: ‘The best libraries are home to a cross-section of society, on the shelves and in the seats’

Jack Shenker

When I was little, it took me about five minutes to travel anywhere I wanted: to the freezing peaks of snow-topped mountains, to the misty depths of vine-mottled gorges, to cities so vast that they curved with the horizon, to pasts I couldn’t remember and futures I was yet to live. Every journey started with a walk down Chatsworth Road, past Percy Ingle and the Caribbean greengrocers, while the impossible lights of Canary Wharf’s biggest skyscraper blinked beyond them in the distance. At the bottom of the hill stood Homerton Library, squat and square and clad in seventies bricks. I’d push through the door, grab a book, burrow into the corrugated carpet and strap myself in.

Libraries have been a part of my life ever since. They’re where I work – both of my books were written in multiple libraries, spread across three continents – and they’re where my mind comes to rest, roam and play. At a time in which non-commodified spaces seem to be vanishing at pace, they’re also where I go to feel quietly communal: part of something bigger than money or myself. The best libraries are home to a cross-section of society, on the shelves and in the seats. When they disappear, the world shrinks for all of us; when they survive, and thrive, it expands in every direction. Who wouldn’t want to fight for that?

Jojo Moyes: ‘They’re a safe space, a refuge, and a community space’

Jojo Moyes
Photo: Stine Heilmann

When I was small going to the local library was a weekly treat. I would take four books out and then struggle to make them last a week, as I read so quickly. I can still remember how that library looked and the smell of the books on the shelves, and the joy of being able to travel anywhere through its pages. I wouldn’t be doing what I was doing if it hadn’t fostered in me such a love of reading. My new book, The Giver of Stars, is based on the true story of the real packhorse librarians of Kentucky, and shines a light on the importance of reading and literacy within communities, to overcome not only adversity but also to create wonderful friendships.

We no longer create spaces for the public good; everything is privatised. As a result, I feel passionately about the importance of libraries, they are one of the few places where you can educate or entertain yourself for free. They’re a safe space, a refuge, and a community space, and they are important for society. Every time we lose a library we lose a place where people can just exist together, and the community loses something it will never get back.

Jojo Moyes is the author of The Giver of Stars.

Jacqueline Wilson: ‘My childhood library was a gateway to many new and wonderful worlds’

Jacqueline Wilson

When I was a child my favourite place in all the world was Kingston Library. Children’s libraries weren’t bright and colourful then, with tiny tables and chairs, squashy cushions, rugs and little reading nooks. My childhood library was simply a plain room lined with bookshelves – but it was a gateway to many new and wonderful worlds. I went up the Faraway Tree and encountered Moonface and Silky the Pixie; I turned topsy turvy with Mary Poppins; I went to boarding school with the twins at St Clare’s.

When I had a daughter myself I took her to Kingston Library and we browsed happily side by side. Kingston Library didn’t just turn me into a reader – it helped me start my own writing career too. I recently revisited it to make a little film for the BBC about my childhood. The Children’s Library has been wondrously revamped with gleaming new books on the shelves – but the lovely librarians searched their basement and found a few old favourites of mine. I held an old fifties edition of Little Women and shivered to think it might well have been the copy I read as a child. I do hope future generations of children can still experience the joy of reading endless free books from their local library.

Orlando Figes: ‘Trips to borrow books was the highlight of our week’

Orlando Figes
Photo: Phil Fisk

Many of my fondest childhood memories take me back to the Swiss Cottage Library in north London. It was opened in 1964, the year I went to primary school. Trips to borrow books coincided with a visit to the neighbouring swimming pool, so this was the highlight of our week. Our mother worked as an editor at Blackie publisher and often brought home children's books, but the library offered so much more than our single mother could afford: Ladybird and Puffin books, which I adored; an illustrated book I still recall (it must have frightened me) about the Fire of London; and the wonderful Jackdaws, folders filled with documents about historical events, which first sparked my interest in history.

I have worked in libraries all my life. I prefer those with open stacks where you can fetch the books to those where books are delivered to an issue desk, as I love to explore. Cambridge University Library is my favourite in this respect. Its books are organised by subject categories, so browsing near the one you've come to get is nearly always rewarding. I now live in the Barbican. The arts centre has an excellent public library and it reminds me of the thrill I used to get in the Swiss Cottage Library as a child. I look forward to the day when I have grandchildren to introduce to that joy.

Orlando Figes is the author of The Europeans.

Kim Liggett: ‘It was my window to the outside world’

Kim Liggett
Photo: Allan Amato

I grew up in a small town in Kansas where the library was so much more than a library. Every Saturday I got to pick out ten books. I loved everything about it — the smell, the hum of the mysterious microfilm machine, the towering aisles that felt like an elaborate maze. It was my window to the outside world, both real and imagined, where I could be anything I wanted to be. I didn’t have to be a timid little girl, afraid of her own shadow; I could be brave and ruthless, terrifying and wise. Eventually, I left that small town and travelled the world. I think it was that early exposure to such a wide variety of books that gave me the courage to become the heroine of my own story.

Kim Liggett is the author of The Grace Year.

Salley Vickers: ‘Libraries are a harvest of nourishment’

Salley Vickers

My novel The Librarian arose out of my own childhood experience of a great library and a marvellous librarian, whose name I gave to my novel’s hero, Sylvia Blackwell. At the time, my dad was unemployed and Miss Blackwell introduced me to books that I would never have otherwise had the chance to read. These books nurtured my imagination and enabled me to withstand family problems by peopling my inner world with friends and allies who provided a support that was not available in the so-called ‘real’ world.

They also introduced me to other ways of seeing the world – other times, other cultures, other philosophies of life than those held by my parents or school, which gave me a broader, richer vision of life’s possibilities. Most importantly, they offered a glimpse of a magical dimension, which all children need. Without this experience, I doubt I would have been as good a teacher, a psychotherapist or a writer. Our libraries are a harvest of nourishment, stored up for us with a freedom of common access which must be cherished. In these straitened times, they are as crucial to the ongoing health of our society as food banks have so sadly become today.

Salley Vickers is the author of Grandmothers.

Bobby Seagull: ‘We would sit on the floor with books sprawled around us’

Bobby Seagull
Photo: Open University

Put simply, libraries have made me the person I am. As a child, my father used to take my brothers and me to our local East Ham library every Saturday. Reading was our religion. At the library, we would sit on the floor with books sprawled around us. We would read voraciously on a diverse range of topics from Aztec civilisation to Victorian engineering to Roald Dahl.

Now as a school teacher, my classes have lesson objectives, but there were no objectives for these weekly visits apart from enjoying books for its own sake. We would usually leave around 4:30pm with a shopping trolley full of books, just in time to return home for BBC final football scores (sometimes greeted by disappointing West Ham results!). To this day, you can still usually find me in the library on a Saturday afternoon. Following in the footsteps of Stephen Fry and Mary Beard, I’m honoured to become the CILIP UK Libraries champion. Supporting our libraries is one of the most important things I can do.

William Sieghart: ‘I travelled up and down the country visiting libraries’

William Sieghart

My passion for libraries was particularly ignited when I was asked by the coalition government to conduct a review of the public library network a few years ago. For 18 months I travelled up and down the country visiting libraries and talking to their staff and users. Not wanting to be the government inspector, I offered to conduct a Poetry Pharmacy in each library and so my tour involved listening to hundreds of people’s problems from Toxteth to Kensington. It was and continues to be a humbling and moving experience to hear library users’ and library staff’s personal dramas and worries poured out to a stranger, armed only with a box of Kleenex and a box of poems. But it’s also a reminder how similar we all are, whatever our backgrounds, and how our ailments are universal.

We often think of libraries as a place to read, get help and guidance or to improve ourselves. What we don’t often realise is just how much else goes on too. It moved me to start a new partnership with a charity called Civic and Cambridgeshire County Council to reinvigorate their 37 libraries, and we hope to roll out our new model over the next three years.

Jeremy Dronfield: ‘I loved the library from the very first time I stepped in through the old brass revolving door’

Jeremy Dronfield

Cambridge University Library isn’t the most beautiful building in the town, but Giles Gilbert Scott’s purple brick palace is certainly one of the most valuable – not least to me. I began using it as a student three decades ago, when the lifts had no safety doors and parts of the catalogue were still in huge folio volumes, with the entries on little slips (some handwritten) pasted into the parchment columns. I loved the library from the very first time I stepped in through the old brass revolving door, and I’ve been regular visitor ever since. From the mysterious tower where nobody is allowed to go, to the catacomb-like book stacks, from the dozen stairwells to the tables under the pigeon-ridden eaves, the UL is a Gormenghast Castle of arcane knowledge.

The collection is so vast – eight million volumes and growing rapidly. The authorities now use readers for off-site storage; in 1991 you could borrow ten volumes for eight weeks, now it’s 20 for up to seven months. Researching The Boy Who Followed His Father into Auschwitz, I used and re-used this allowance many times over. 

Lara Prescott: ‘Art and literature can be mighty tools’

Lara Prescott
Photo: Trevor Paulhus

In The Secrets We Kept, I write about the incredible true story behind Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago. In the 1950s, the CIA engaged a mission to covertly print the book and smuggle it back behind the Iron Curtain where it was banned. I was fascinated with the idea that books were once used as weapons. Indeed, art and literature can be mighty tools; they’ve certainly changed my own life. From childhood, my parents instilled within me a lifelong love of reading. Growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania, my mother would take me to the library weekly to pick out a stack of books to take home.

It was from those early experiences that I first realised that beyond the borders of my own life, there are new worlds out there waiting for me to explore and new people from different cultures and backgrounds waiting for me to meet. Libraries opened up a door to the rest of the world. To me, there is no greater way to create empathy than storytelling. Books allow us to experience others’ lives, visit other time periods, walk the streets of places we’ve never been. Libraries help foster that connection. And that is a powerful thing.

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