Many thanks to Andy Hedgecock for this wonderful piece about the potential and value of public libraries. Not every young person is able to travel to the Central Library to make use of its resources, which is why branch libraries around the borough are so vital – so that more young people engage in reading, literature, knowledge and learning.
In the 1970s I was a mildly disaffected school kid living in Doncaster. I don’t think I was much of a problem for the teachers at Danum School – but I wasn’t particularly interested in what they were trying to teach me. And I certainly wasn’t interested in passing exams. I resented the coercive and deeply authoritarian nature of formal education.
Luckily for me, I had access to the wonders of Waterdale Library. Here I stumbled across The Final Programme by Michael Moorcock: Moorcock’s work became an obsession for me, we struck up a regular correspondence and 25 years later I wrote his entry for the Oxford Companion to English Literature.
And Waterdale was were I discovered the work of Ursula Le Guin (who I interviewed 30 years later), Brian Aldiss (another interview participant), Russell Hoban (and another), Angela Carter, Edgar Allan Poe, Raymond Chandler, E.L. Doctorow, Algernon Blackwood – and a host of other strange, unsettling and/or inspiring stuff that burned its way into my teenage psyche.
And it was where I found books on Norse mythology, Scottish mythology, Welsh mythology, social psychology (I later took a degree in psychology), visual illusions (and, even later, an MSc in cognitive psychology, with a strong emphasis on visual perception) and politics – Marxism. Anarchism and lots of other isms.
So what’s my point? It’s simply this: at a time when my mind had slammed shut to formal education, it was the public library that provided a lifeline to learning. It was the place were I made the serendipitous discoveries that made me employable, fuelled my obsessive interest in myth and storytelling, informed my political beliefs and gave me the tools to understand the world.
This is a kind of learning experience only a well-stocked library can provide. The internet is a wonderful way of working collaboratively and sharing information with people with convergent interests, but it doesn’t offer the same possibility for happy accidents or leisurely reflection on new and surprising ideas.
I’d have led a poorer life without the picaresque journey through a vast and dense forest of stories and ideas that began in Waterdale Library. It will be a disgrace if future generations are to be denied a similar experience.