Long before JK Rowling wrote those words, this little bookworm was haunting her local library, having exhausted the child-appropriate books in my own home. I had yet to take an interest in my Dad’s extensive Discworld collection, instead steadily working my way through my Mum’s ancient Enid Blyton books. When they ran out, I ventured into the nursery’s library, followed by my primary school. Just after Reception, we moved to a new town, and I quickly fell in love with the local library. It was one of the many Carnegie libraries, built in 1906 and is now Grade II listed. I spent a great deal of my childhood raiding those shelves, and it holds a lot of my happy memories from the age of five to eighteen.
It’s a mysterious building, placed smack-bang in the centre of our small town surrounded by busy roads on all sides. It’s a red brick building typical of the area, with a large main hall packed to the brim with books. Three towers top the building which I never gained access to, the staircases presumably hidden behind staff doors. I always imagined that a witch or wizard lived in the highest tower, and before I understood electricity, I thought that perhaps they practised their spells during storms, which was why the library always got hit by lightning.
I have fond memories of my late grandad taking me to the library after school at least once a week. He’d sit at a table and read the paper for half an hour while I wandered around, armed with three library cards so I could take out as many books as I wanted. I remember when they were actually made of card and you could only take out three books at a time. I used to go with mine, my brother’s and my grandad’s cards, enabling me to take out nine books, which I’d return in two weeks or so. After they digitised the process, the lovely lady who ran the library managed to up the limit from the standard seven books per card to fourteen for me, simply because I’d known her since I was tiny. I remember being delighted, as the new system enabled me to keep track of the books I’d read online and they would now finally all be under my own name. I remember logging in once and reading that I’d taken out over a thousand books in three years.
I didn’t always finish the books I took out, constantly experimenting with genres and age ranges, but in the last five years or so I’ve been in a real reading rut. As a teenager I would grab Dickens, Garth Nix, Cecelia Ahern and Herman Melville in the same week (although I very quickly decided that women’s romance novels were not my thing), these days I tend to always pick the same kind of book. I’ve been trying to branch out a bit lately, reading my usual fantasy but also a bit of sci-fi, crime, historical and non-fiction. I’ve had mixed results, but I’m enjoying reading different things.
The photos in this post were taken in Manchester Central Library, which I didn’t exactly discover recently since I walk past it every day, but I only started actually taking out books this month. Considering how much I can (and do) spend on books, I thought perhaps it was time to return to my old habit of haunting the stacks, searching for something new. It doesn’t really feel the same. I haven’t been back to my old library since my Grandad died. I just had a little cry after realising that; we spent so much time there together, and it was really our place. He died several years ago, but that’s the way with grief: you think you’ve stopped being sad and then every now and then it hits you like a wave. My boyfriend and I just made plans to go back so I can see the place which holds so many magical memories for me. It was the place I discovered Narnia, The Old Kingdom and Discworld. It was where my love of books was really cemented, where I hid from the world of school where I didn’t fit in. It was safe and warm, a place where I was welcome and knew my way. It was my turf.
For all that my trip to Manchester Library wasn’t the same as my old as my memories of childhood, it was never going to be. However, it was inspiring, with the Reading Room my favourite place. It’s a huge domed room that’s filled with that soft hush you only find in libraries. The slightest sounds echo and fade in a comforting way, and there are always people absorbed in books or tapping away quietly on laptops. It’s a place of focus and dreams and is big enough for all the minds within to wander and think freely. I always feel like I think better in a larger space. Some of my best work at university was done when I regularly broke into the Senate Room where the vice-chancellor held important meetings with important people. It was a huge domed room that looked up to the sky, hidden away up unobtrusive staircases. You could press a button and the blinds would open or close, and I used to sit in the huge mahogany and leather chairs and spread my work across the giant circular desk. The Reading Room is just like that; no minds bumping into each other as they swirl around.
I love libraries for the way they offer the opportunity to be alone while being surrounded by people, and they hold thousands upon thousands of worlds in which you can inhabit for a brief time. They’re places of magic and realism, often beautiful buildings with magnificent architecture. Even libraries that are little more than a box have the power to offer refuge and escape, so filled are they with stories. I don’t think I’ll ever stop loving them.