Earlier this month, the UK celebrated Libraries Week, with libraries all across the country joining in with a range of fun, creative events and activities. If I had planned my life better, I could have been a part of one of these, but I had to content myself with visiting my local library and borrowing The Library Book, which was full of essays geeking out about the importance and magic of libraries (very meta).
Because public libraries are magic, aren’t they? At least that’s what I thought when I first arrived in the UK and discovered them. While growing up in Mumbai, my life was filled with secondhand book stalls on footpaths and hole-in-the-wall used bookshops tucked away in unassuming corners. I hadn’t even been to a proper bookshop, let alone a library (except the one in my school, which wasn’t filled with the best books, but I read them all anyway). As an adult, I did buy a membership to a private library in Mumbai full of large windows, lovely librarians, and a fascinating collection of books, but that relationship was cut short when I set off to study children’s literature in Glasgow. That’s where I found public libraries – and that’s where my brain expanded and my jaw dropped at all the possibilities they offered. To be honest, neither my brain nor my jaw have been the same since.
The books by themselves would have been marvellous enough. Each of the branches I visited – and there are several, scattered all across the city – have an excellent and diverse range of my favourite kinds of books (children’s books, nonfiction and fantasy) as well as a generous selection of other genres I’m only too happy to experiment with. You can borrow twelve books at a time and keep them for four weeks. (I had to get the librarians to confirm this more than once; “TWELVE books?! Are you sure? And I can keep them for four weeks? Really?”)
And because the librarians are friendly book people who just want you to read, they’ll happily offer to renew books so you don’t accumulate late fees, or let you borrow more than the regulation twelve because you didn’t remember that you had already reached your limit before you found this new book that you absolutely had to pick up. PLUS they try and make the library network super convenient so you can borrow and return books in whichever branch you happen to be, and you can request books from other branches and pick them up from your nearest one. And if you don’t feel like stepping out of your house for days (the winter in Scotland can do that to you, especially if you were born and raised in tropical Mumbai unused to the concept of being cold) you can choose from a wide range of ebooks and audiobooks on your library app and download them right onto your phone.
As if all that wasn’t magical enough, the libraries have free WiFi and plenty of places to charge your laptop; you can sit and work (or not) all day without having to worry about spending any money. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated this as a broke postgraduate student who couldn’t afford to frequent cafes and didn’t want to stay cooped up at home. And I’m one of the privileged ones! I can’t even begin to imagine what an absolute blessing this must be for those who don’t enjoy the advantages I do. If you don’t own a computer, the libraries have their own clusters of computers that both adults and young people are free to use. The libraries also offer a bunch of workshops and events for all ages (tragically I didn’t get a chance to attend any because my master’s degree was holding me hostage). Sometimes they have fascinating pop-up exhibitions (I attended two Harry Potter ones – one in Glasgow and another in Edinburgh – which were both thoughtfully curated and the latter even had a live owl for me to befriend).
All the librarians I’ve met have been lovely, warm, and welcoming – making the libraries really feel like home. And every single one of these services they offer is absolutely free!? I mean what is this alternate timeline I’ve stumbled into and how do I help make this a reality in my part of the world? The Community Library Project is such an important and necessary step towards universal access to books in India, and I’m sure that there are several others like it but government-funded ones are few and far between (not looking at you, Goa Central Library, you’re lovely). Can you imagine what a significant impact such powerful public spaces can have on the lives of millions of people in India and across the world?
Which is why the fact that there are people who want to shut down public libraries in the UK leaves me completely dumbfounded. Surely we need MORE of these spaces, not less? I’ve listened to stories about how libraries help unemployed people look for jobs, assist people with disabilities access books and public services, host community and support groups, and offer solace and moments of joy to vulnerable and lonely people. Coming from a city which doesn’t have such spaces, I can’t believe there are people shortsighted enough to want to take this away.
Because like I said, public libraries are magic. And why on earth would you want to be the kind of person who robs the world of its magic?