Today is not Wednesday. This is a genuine shock. I had planned for it to be Wednesday for the whole day. The only reason I know that I’ve mislaid the third day of the week is because when I arrive at the library with my little boy all ready for Rhyme Time there are no other children here. There is only a group of people in the coffee corner talking about dementia (obviously a cruel joke from the irony-fairies).
I’ve walked right through this group with a pushchair and an excited toddler and now I’m way too embarrassed to turn around and ask if anyone has seen Wednesday recently.
So, I head to the children’s section and we sit on the giant squirrel amongst the big books, quietish. It’s not an opulent Library with gleaming glass cases and dark wooden tables. It’s a simple house of books: a prefab box with big windows and a scratchy carpet. My little boy plays with a doll’s house and I listen in to the dementia group, who are in fact Book Group. They’re talking about a book about dementia. I’m hungry for this kind of talk in a biblical-post-drought-thirst kind of way. This morning I’ve mostly talked to my boy about things not to put in his nappy. They are talking about how we remember happiness. They are talking about what really makes us happy. They talk about Virginia Woolf’s ‘Moments of Being’ and the unlikely instances when we do feel true happiness. Something about the colour of the sky on a train journey. And when we don’t feel happy, but we feel we should: at a wedding, after birth.
They stray onto the topic of what libraries are for. The librarian leading the discussion reveals that her job title is no longer Librarian, it’s Librarian and Customer Service Representative. It’s her job to process and assist in the filling out of forms for Council Tax Benefit, for Disabled Badges: for all sorts of necessary supports. This, she explains, is how the continued existence of publicly funded libraries is enabled. This is what libraries are for. But as I listen, I play with my little boy and I realise this is happiness, happening now, today on this lost day.
This is exactly what I need right at this moment. All of it – my boy, the squirrel, those voices, the possibility of hearing this conversation.
It’s good to know that I can bring my forms here should I need to, and I’d have help to complete them. But today, whatever day it is, the library saved me, and this is not the first time this has happened. How did the Library do this when no forms were completed? No happiness applied for? What just happened to me and what is it that I think libraries should be for?
When I was thirteen-years-old I discovered something odd about school: it’s not the best place to learn. This was as much of a shock then as discovering that it wasn’t Wednesday today. I was sat there one day doing some learning and a girl, a bright girl, said something awful but funny about my unusual name. She said it over and over until others joined in. I hit my head off the desk to make them stop. No learning took place. There were many variations on this episode that all resulted in no learning taking place. Why do bullies bully? I’ve asked this so many times, but it doesn’t stop the damage.
So, I bunked off school and went to the library where there were more books than children and I started to enjoy learning again.
I knew I wasn’t supposed to be there, but it was still my place, this feeling of belonging was more important than the rules. The house of books was my place. So, this clearly is what libraries are for, the solitary pursuit of learning? Well yes, and no.
I loved the library in my 6th Form College. It was built in 1887, by Alfred Waterhouse, who also built The Natural History Museum. (I was able to go to college because of the kind of forms you can now fill out in libraries for benefits that enabled the daughters of fishermen and cleaners to get a post-16 education.) It was my first ‘proper’ library, gloriously heavy wooden shelves and tables, spiralled with neo-gothic carvings. It was more like a church. After everyone else had gone home I’d spread out my books in the ambered autumn light: ‘Measure for Measure’; ‘The Collected Dylan Thomas’; ‘Tudor History’ and ‘1984’. I’d read, make notes, spiral doodles whilst my head whirred.
I fell in love in that library.
A leather-jacketed, intense and bearded boy found me there hiding behind my long hair. We talked books, we recommended books, we swapped books. Of course, now I realise it was the library I loved. Oops. So, there’s another thing that libraries are for – love sometimes of words, sometimes of bodies.
My University was old, 1413, but the library was brand-spanking new: all glass and lifts and computers, a Willy Wonka wonderland of books but a lot more beige. The computers scared me. I was still writing essays by hand even in the late 1990s because we’d never owned a computer at home and they bleeped angrily at me. I travelled from Dundee to St Andrews everyday, a 45 minute walk and a 45 minute bus journey. The winters were deep and dark, bone-cold. I’d get to the library early with a flask of tea and a Mars bar. Sometimes I’d change out of my wet clothes in the toilets. Sometimes I was so exhausted from the journey I’d fall asleep in one of the little booths.
Mostly, I was glad to get away from the man I lived with who told me how to dress and who I could speak to.
I read about having ‘A Room of One’s Own’, I’d never had one. I’d shared a room with my sister and then with this man. I wanted what Woolf promised but more, I wanted shelter. Reader, I left him. So that’s what libraries are for, shelter – from the cold, from the many ways that life tries to cut you to fit, and finally libraries show the way out.
Then for a long time I forgot about libraries. How could I? Well, I’d discovered the night.
After leaving a man who controlled me and graduating I went from famine to feast on the circus delights the night can offer.
I drank, I danced: in clubs, fields, stone circles, beaches, bridges, cities, cafes that clung to the sides of mountains. I read labels and menus and tickets and posters and sometimes, if I was so hungover I’d wake up on the west side of the wrong day – a book.
Then it stopped because the nights bled into the days and I was so tired, and it had to, and I’d started writing and the writing wanted more from me than the night was ever able to give. But by then I’d discovered the internet I had a half-decent job and money to buy books. I bought lots. For ‘research’. I have them still. They climb the stairs, they topple off shelves, they lurk under cupboards. They’re sad lost things that I can’t find, like some Wednesdays.
I was writing poetry for performance and I was performing in libraries to full audiences who listened, clapped, chatted. I was learning about writing in workshops in libraries and there were the books, quiet, architectural, part of the walls, untouched. So, libraries are for performances and events and bringing people together for art and nibbles. But those poor untouched books.
When I had my little boy, I couldn’t afford to go back to work and therefore buy books.
I remembered the library also leant books out, for free!
Would it take me back? Would it take us back? Because by then my little boy was six months old and crawling, curious and loud. Then I discovered Rhyme Time at the library. 10.30am. Wednesdays. Babies were sprawling, toddling and tottering on the floor, eating books, toys and crayons. A librarian was doing nursery rhymes, with all of the actions. And afterwards I’d pick a book to take home for me. For free. It was hell. It was heaven.
I was back home in the house of books, a mother still trying to be a writer and occasionally losing days.
The library had saved me again but in a strange way. As a kid, a student, a writer, a reader, I thought I knew what libraries were for but as a mother, it had changed again.
Libraries can be for all of the different people we become, they are there for us when we want to be alone and when we need to talk. They are there for all the kids, students, mothers, lovers right now, morphing like a booky tardis into whatever that person needs. How many spaces can do this?
The magic I’m describing is the magic sparked when the self encounters something that it can belong to – that miasmic whoosh that is culture.
I didn’t realise at the time of bunking off school, but the library was my first encounter with a cultural building. It was the only cultural building in my small working class seaside town. We place a huge value on fair access to culture, our gut tells us it’s an important thing to have but what is a cultural experience? I suppose in its simplest form it’s the moment you enter something bigger than you, but that you are part of and can also add to.
Being part of a culture and being a culture maker is the antidote to loneliness and alienation.
We all need a place we can call a home where this belonging resides.
A Library is not just a cultural building, it’s a house of doorways into cultural experiences, the books themselves. Having one place where we can take a book, for a limited time, for free, changes our relationship to books and to culture itself. When I check out a book from a library I don’t feel alone the way I do internet shopping after the baby’s in bed. I think of all the other readers before me. I follow in their eye-steps past the way-markers of turned down pages. I take care where I step for future readers.
I know my time with this book is fleeting, it’s a love affair not a marriage.
So, I pay attention, I copy lines, I memorise the shape of a sentence. The exchange is not monetary, I exchange the self before the book for the self after. I’m not an owner I’m a custodian. And because of this culture becomes a living force (as in waterfall, from the Viking Foss) that I can enter, I can make, I can change and be changed by, but I can’t own it, buy it or buy my way into it.
This leads to a big worry, if we take libraries away or change their shape too much then we lose this priceless place of encounter between self and culture. We push people out of the force, we stop people from experiencing and shaping their culture. This is a terrifying thing. Especially in the light of the Arts Emergency Panic Report: a warning bell that we are heading towards a self-replicating mono-culture because cultural industries are marred by significant inequalities in their work force.
For me, what libraries will always be for, should always be for is the point at which the self finds and makes belonging with a culture: priceless in every way.
What Can You Do?
I’d love to hear and share your micro-memoirs about your own library experiences here on my project blog The Book of Godless Verse, an Arts Council England supported activity.
In this project I’m exploring and sharing the messiness of everyday life and the rituals we hand-make to get through. Going to the library is one of the survival rituals I’ve made for my life as a writer and mother.
For this activity I’ve teamed up with Tees Valley Arts who are seeking answers to the question ‘What are libraries for?’ to shape how they will work with libraries in the future.
Please see Guidelines below. I look forward to hearing your…
TALES FROM THE HOUSE OF BOOKS
Micro-Memoir of 500 words or less.
On your Library encounters. What your library means to you? Did it change your life?
This round of web submissions will be blind read by Carmen Marcus.
What and how to submit
• Email all submissions to: Info@teesvalleyarts.org.uk and format the subject line of your email with Tales from the House of Books – My Story Title.
• Paste all submissions into the body of an email. Please don’t include any attachments.
• The word count should not exceed 500, excluding the title.
• Only one piece per submission.
• We may ask for, or suggest minor edits/changes to your piece before publication.
• Simultaneous submissions are fine but please let us know if you are accepted elsewhere as soon as possible.
• All submissions must be previously unpublished online or in print (work previously published on your personal blog or website is okay to submit).
• No racism, sexism, homophobia or religious hatred.
• Include a short bio of 50 words maximum with your submission, and/or up to three links to your personal website or social media accounts.
By submitting to House of Books you are granting Carmen Marcus and Tees Valley Arts the non-exclusive right to publish your work online and in an annual digital download collection (free to download). Copyright will always remains with the writer. If your work is then subsequently reprinted elsewhere, please acknowledge House of Books as the site of first publication.
Please, only submit your own work.
Unfortunately, we are unable to publish all the work that we are sent. Please be aware that rejections are rarely due to quality but most often because of how well it fits the brief so please don’t be disheartened.
About Carmen Marcus
Carmen Marcus is an author and performance poet who lives in Saltburn. Her debut novel, HOW SAINTS DIE was released with Harvill Secker in 2017 and was longlisted for The Desmond Elliott Prize. She has written and performed poetry for BBC Radio, The Royal Festival Hall and Durham Book Festival. She’s currently working on her anthology The Book of Godless Verse and her second novel and being a mum.