A love letter to libraries…

As lockdown measures ease we are heading into new territories and hoping for a safe future. Aspects of our lives which we may have previously taken for granted are opening up again. Most notable to me is the reopening of our libraries. And hairdressers, obviously. I’m not a complete eejit.

One of the upsides of lockdown has been the plethora of homes being shown on tv. I enjoy scanning past the interviewee and looking at whatever part of the house they’ve decided to show the viewers. Disappointingly it’s nearly always bookshelves. So far, so boring. Instead show me what art is on your walls, what wallpaper you’ve chosen, or best of all, show me your pets! I watch a lot of TV and I have seen many a Zoom or Skype background, but the overall winner for the sheer assault on the senses has to be Richard E Grant If I must pick an actual bookcase then it’s this clear winner by Simon Schama Ultimately no-one can ever top the magnificent Robert E Kelly who is now known as BBC Dad.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a book fan, I’m just not a fan of bookshelves. My love of books goes back to childhood. My first library was Newcastle library, which was then housed in the very glamorous building which is now the tourist information centre. I remember it was fairly dark and dingy and the floorboards didn’t feel exactly safe, but it was heaven to me. Time stood still and I always seemed to test the patience of whoever was waiting outside for me in the car.

Yes I also loved buying new albums, reading sleeve notes and hoping for lyrics to sing along to. The sleek, rich, brand new feel of the album cover was hard to beat, the artwork hardly ever disappointed. It was a complete sensory experience. Placing a new LP ever so carefully on the turntable for the first time so that you could lie back and listen to the clean, pure, unscratched sound was pure joy. Of course as time went on you became accustomed to any scratches or jumps on the audio as you listened again and again. But I was never really a muso. At school I listened in wonder to my school friends’ stories of what they heard on Radio Luxembourg , or usually the difficulties of managing to tune in at all. I couldn’t bear the racket in the music shops, give me a bookshop any time. It’s quiet, calm and time seems to stand still.

I’m not sure how many towns can claim their library is housed in such a striking building which has a very commanding presence at the top of Mill Hill. It also marks the finish line in the annual lunacy which is the Mill Hill Mile, which starts in Annsborough at the bottom of the hill. The library is at the Upper Square which is a popular spot. It hosts fairs, food markets, Fleadhs, The Soma Festival but NO BALL GAMES. It also plays host to groups of teens who appear to be in various stages of feeling tired and emotional while waiting for their transport to take them to Belsonic etc. Interesting to witness them sobering up just as the coach pulls up. The little darlings. The main bus stop in the town is outside the library and is very handy when kids need to pass some time or wait on their “connecting bus” or for their parents to arrive from the many outlying townlands. As one of those rural parents I’ve come to understand that the term “connecting bus” is a term very loosely used by Ulsterbus school bus drivers. A bit like “timetable”, which should be renamed as “The Rough Guide”.

The layout of the library is conducive to community, learning, reading and interaction. Castlewellan library introduced me to Ross O’Carroll Kelly, his book was book of the week. I’d never heard of him, he’s not very well known with us nordies. If you want to discover the ultimate anti-hero then that’s him, roysh? His antics will take the light out of yer eyes but you’ll still root for him to succeed. You’ll invariably induce a cringe injury on the way though.

I’ve had books slid across the desk to me like some kind of contraband before I even got to say hello. “You’ll like this one, Lisa” Now-I’m not getting special treatment, everyone is an important customer here. It was in Castlewellan library that I discovered if you tell the librarian the kind of books you like to read they’ll always do their best to find the right book for you. Who knew? Yes I know, probably everybody else.

Upstairs is an airy oasis of calm, quiet reflection for adults. I don’t like it up there, it’s too sophisticated and grown up. I prefer the sound of the photocopier going, people chatting, kids from primary school being read to, someone sitting reading the paper. You’ll find people knitting and nattering, cups of tea and biscuits on offer for our book club and there’s always a friendly hello. In Castlewellan library the paper doesn’t need to be labelled as property of Castlewellan Library, do you know why? There’s no need, no one will steal it.

I recently joined the book club-pre lockdown of course. We have a frank discussion about whatever book we have read, always guided back by the librarian in charge (Winifred) to the subject in hand, should we take a stroll down tangent avenue which we invariably do.

Once the book has been discussed thoroughly we get to the best bit, the sharing of stories, local history and life experiences. I love hearing the stories, our stories. There’s always a laugh to be had and even though I’m a Johnny-come-lately I feel included and lucky to have found such a welcoming, friendly and funny bunch. I look forward to sitting around the table once more at some point in the socially-distant future.

At this stage I’m handing over to a couple of the brilliant people who are in my book club.

“I love the library because librarians know everything. Every time I  moved town I joined the local library. It’s a great place to meet like minded book worms. It’s great to discuss books and get recommendations. I love all the resources and different media available (for free). I love reading. I very seldom buy a book because the library always has what I want including new titles”

Therese

“I joined Castlewellan library about 25 years ago, mainly to take my youngest daughter after school. Going to the library on a regular basis encouraged me to look at different books and get to know the names of authors. I still much prefer books to Kindles, which can be handy but nothing compared to a real book! A few years later, I joined the book club and really enjoy our monthly meetings. The club also hosted events in the library like visits from the author David Park and poet Tony Curtis, both of which were very enjoyable. The library has also provided other useful services like advice and tips on how to research our ancestry. It is a great resource to have within the community and it is used by a range of people from those in browsing or reading the newspapers to children taking part in activities. It is a very relaxing, pleasant place to visit and the staff are very helpful. I really love it. Kindles can be handy but nothing like reading a real book!”

Marie

By the way, just do yourself a huge favour and get to know Libby, the online reading app.

Finally, I’m looking at you, Chief Executive of Libraries NI. Every time a service is reduced or opening hours changed (I get irrationally annoyed when I see the gates are closed on the library) you squeeze a bit of life out of each and every town.

This library, and all libraries, are the heartbeat of every town.

Photo by Mal McCann