Open doors

When you look at this picture of my local library, what do you see?

I've been thinking about libraries a lot recently. These days, every week there seems to be another group of libraries closing somewhere in the UK. I've always thought of libraries as a constant - just there, full of books. But now I feel that libraries are like a precious endangered species.

I joined a library for the first time aged three. My family were ‘home’ on leave from Hong Kong where we lived (home to me) and my dad, who used to be a librarian, took us our local London library. On the way, as we crossed the railway footbridge, he explained that we could take home any book we wanted without having to buy it. I chose Thumbelina because it had a beautiful yellow cover, and that was my first encounter with Hans Christian Anderson’s haunting fairy tales. Somehow the book’s temporary status made it all the more precious.

Back in Hong Kong, joining the public library was a much more serious business. We had to have photos done, and then go on the tram to an official building where we were issued with library tickets. After that, every Friday before catching the boat back to the island where we lived, we went to the public library. It was enormous, with whole floors of children's books in Cantonese and English . Any book was mine for the taking. I remember the joy of running back to Queen’s Pier with my haul of books weighing down my bag – the heavier the better.

Later there was the high school library too and before my last summer in Hong Kong, aged thirteen, I went there to take out my holiday books, among them ‘A Long Way from Verona’ by Jane Gardam and ‘The River’ by Rumer Godden, books that perfectly captured how it felt to be almost grown up. Jane Gardam’s heroine Jessica wanted to be a writer and made it seem possible for me. Like me, Rumer Godden’s heroine Harriet (also a writer) was growing up far from her parents’ home. Because of these two books, the hours I spent in the cool of the verandah scribbling down my novel in a blue notebook seemed like time well spent.

For me the special thing about libraries is the openness of experience they offer. Nobody chooses your library book for you. It can never be too expensive. You can have the hardback edition, in its plastic cover, and it’s yours for as long as you need it. However many books you have or don’t have at home, at the library they all belong to you.

When I look at that picture of my local library, I see an open door. I hope it stays that way.


  1. I read about libraries before I ever encountered one in school. I couldn't believe that you could take books home without paying for them. Libraries have made me the author I am today.

    1. I remember thinking that when I was three, Candy. I was also amazed that I could take any book I wanted home. It never mattered that you have to bring them back because there is always another book waiting for you in the library.

  2. Oh me too! I had no idea you could take the books out for nothing until I got my own "tickets" Eight of them Eight glorious passports to other worlds!

    1. I'd forgotten about those tickets - one for each book. 'Glorious passports' - I like that!