I live in a strange area which I won’t specifically mention because I’m still hiding from the debt collectors, but it feels very apart from everywhere else. The transit system is infrequent, with buses forgetting to pass by on their route, but when they come, they take me to Glasgow, Stirling, and Falkirk. All of these places feel like local when I’m on the bus. I read and listen to music, making the minutes feel fickle. One of the great miseries of lockdown was the disappearance of libraries. Somehow, in my naivety (something I don’t usually suffer from), I assumed libraries were an essential service and would remain open forever – until they weren’t and didn’t. I’ve always bought books, because I love heaving bookshelves, but sometimes I like to see other heaving bookshelves. The library, any library, give me a sense of grounding. No matter where I go, if there’s a library, I feel safe. Libraries are familiar places to touch down on, neutral ground where everyone is made equal. When they suddenly vanished, I wasn’t sure how to feel. They’d always been around (except on a Bank Holiday Monday) and now I had something else taken off me for the greater good. Of course I understand why everything locked down. A virus could potentially get out of hand in a public library if left unchecked, and those early days of lockdown were the most terrifying: I literally sterilised my takeaway packaging before I tucked into my Tandoori Mixed Grill. Yes, I was (and still am) that person. Weirdly, it got worse without the library. My mental health had irrevocably connected itself to the things I took for granted, especially jaunts out to libraries around Scotland.
It isn’t some silly notion that I always considered libraries to be an essential service. A library isn’t just a library now. Most libraries also function as a branch of the Job Centre, places where borrowers look for work. Goodness, they even sign on in the library, or at least log into their accounts which acts as a thoroughly modern way of signing on. Libraries are where people meet their caseworkers and their CACE workers, job advisors, mental health counsellors, Macmillan information, and much more. Libraries have the photocopiers that borrowers use when they need to send documents away. Printers for holiday certificates. Library staff need to be uniquely qualified in ways you can’t really properly train for in other jobs: they have to get on with old people and young people. They need to know about information technology. Literature, of course. Current events. All sorts of information most would consider random or useless. If you work in a library, you automatically deserve a higher wage.
Cumbernauld Library has always been a huge presence in my life. It was where I fled to as a kid, and where I continue to haunt. They closed down during the pandemic, but staff still worked behind the scenes, preparing it for the inevitable (we hoped) reopening. Cumbernauld Library is dear to me. It’s also hampered by the location, being up on the rarely seen third level of Cumbernauld Town Centre, which is literally falling to pieces with cracks in the concrete, gaping holes where windows used to be. I dream of lifting the library and dropping it next to all the shops, so people will realise the library exists. It’s open and has a strong system for keeping everyone safe, so there’s no need to be frightened of using the library, borrowing books.
Falkirk Library and Denny Library (which features in the book I’m currently writing) are also open and ready for visitors. I popped into Falkirk Library last week, just so I could borrow some comics from their legendarily enormous graphic novel shelves. I’ve bought so many books that I wanted something easy and quick to read, and comics are ideal. Batman. 2000 AD. Superman. Daniel Clowes. I grabbed a few after sanitising, courtesy of the pumps located around the building, and then left, feeling quite pleased with myself. Denny Library is relatively new and doesn’t have the damp or stairs of their old building, which I visited regularly. The windows are enormous and tinted in a variety of fabulous vivid colour, meaning when the sun shines, the library feels like a disco. All libraries should have tinted windows. Also, like most decent libraries, they have copies of Happiness Is Wasted On Me. Just saying.
A special place for me was Stirling’s Library in Glasgow. When I was a student in the early noughties, I’d take any excuse to visit that library (“a work’s night out? Sorry I can’t. I’m too busy being in a coma,”) and the selection was always great. The college library was small and dedicated to the purely scholastic. Stirling’s Library was the real deal. The odd thing about Stirling’s Library, however, was that I could never work out if Glasgow Council ran it, or it was just some weird independent that let anyone borrow books. Whatever it was, I knew my time in Glasgow was linked to that building in Miller Street, tucked out of sight up an alleyway, opposite a bar and metal shutters. When I think of it, I feel warmth, if only because they had the heating turned up high during winter. It’s gone now, existing in the basement of the nearby museum. If I asked, would they let me join?
As a touring author before this pandemic erased me and every other author off the stage, I found myself hired by Glasgow Council a lot. This was wonderful, because it meant I could spend more money on books and Dr Martens, but also because it meant I’d be able to visit The Mitchell Library. It’s not just a library, it’s A LIBRARY. The staff were a hoot behind the scenes, and sometimes I would take a quick look in the old library sectioned off from the public, hoping to find an old Three Investigators books, but finding far older books neatly shelved away. The building feels so old, but also very new, a contradiction that I’ve always enjoyed.
Stirling Library, not Stirling’s Library, but the actual in Stirling is something of a local library for me. I’m not a member of it, but I have ambitions to join. Next time I’m hired for an event in Stirling, I won’t ask for pay, instead I’ll ask for membership of the library as my fee. That and a packet of McVities’ Ginger Nuts. What a bargain! Membership of Stirling Library will give me access to Dunblane Library, which might be small, but makes up for that in a good selection of books.
Another library that’s important but often goes unmentioned is the school library. Without a school library and a school librarian, most youngsters wouldn’t have someone cheerleading books in their direction. I’ve been to nearly every school library in Scotland, if only because my YA Author phase took me everywhere. Schools are under assault from budget cuts, which always seem to negatively impact their libraries. I’ve seen it too often: a school library becoming a spare room with computers and books as a background embellishment. But these libraries help foster readers, making them into the people who buy/borrow books for years to come. They’re so important, and a school isn’t a proper school without a school library and librarian. Remember: Buffy The Vampire Slayer couldn’t have saved the world without the help of her school librarian.
Libraries will always be important to me. They’re among some of my favourite places in the world. My plot to have a membership in every library in Scotland might seem unrealistic, but I always return my books on time and any library I take to immediately benefits from a boost in their issue figures. Seriously, I read a lot. My eyesight is terrible, but my lenses are extra strong for library lurking.