Libraries have been going through a tough time in the UK in recent years. In the last decade, more than 700 have closed, with scores of others under threat because of funding cuts. As I write, a high-profile, author-led campaign is under way to fight plans to shut 14 libraries in Hampshire, the county in which Jane Austen was born and lived for most of her life.
Many people have written much more eloquently than I could about why places where people can gather to access books for free are vital. Their role in stretching the human imagination and changing lives is a recurring theme in stories around the planet. From Roald Dahl’s Matilda to Tayeb Salih’s Mustafa Sa’eed, literature abounds with characters shaped by hours spent in public spaces lined with books.
However, this week, I got a powerful, practical reminder of why these places matter when I took up an invitation to speak to Sandgate library book club.
The only library in Kent to be managed by a parish council on behalf of the county council, Sandgate library sits a street away from the English Channel on the UK’s south coast. It is run by a mixture of paid staff and volunteers who make it possible to offer longer opening hours and a regular programme of events.
Chief among the volunteers is retired teacher Liz, who I know from the regular Read and Rhyme sessions my daughter and I have attended. Liz also runs the book club and, when she discovered I was a writer, she very kindly put my novel Beside Myself on the schedule and invited me along some months later to talk to the group.
I arrived a little early to find the members – all women and most retired – engaged in a lively discussion of their latest read, which the librarian had ordered in from libraries across the county to ensure that everyone had a copy.
Each took it in turns to share her assessment, finishing with a mark out of ten that averaged out to around 5. (I resisted the temptation to ask what Beside Myself had scored when it was up for discussion some months before.)
The comments were refreshingly frank. Although the novel under examination was by a celebrated household name, the members – quite rightly – had no compunction in calling out passages that had bored, irritated or baffled them, alongside sharing the aspects they had enjoyed.
After this, it was my turn. Following an introduction from Liz, I launched into an informal talk about my year of reading the world and novel writing, answering questions as they arose. The discussion was warm and friendly. We covered some familiar ground, including several of the topics listed in the FAQs on this site, as well as some more unusual queries to do with the writing process – I don’t think I’ve ever been asked how to turn a school essay into a novel before!
The hour was up in no time. Before I knew it, a get-well-soon card for an absent member was circulating for people to sign, and we were shrugging on our coats and saying our goodbyes.
What lasted much longer – and will no doubt outlive the beautiful bunch of flowers the book club gave me as a thank you for my visit – was the sense of welcome that surrounded the library. A thriving centre for friendship, shared interests and fun in this little village on the edge of the land. A precious community built around books.