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Lockdown Libraries

I had the sudden realisation the other day that due to the *gestures vaguely* everything of everything, this is the longest I’ve ever been without going to the library. Eighty-two days. Or, as the internet has helpfully informed me, eighty two days is the equivalent of over 22 % of this entire year.

Libraries matter a lot in my life, and the absence of them has been a strange and tender bruise. When I was looking for somewhere to rent, I would look for somewhere near the library. When I moved somewhere new, I would go and sign up at the library. I have worked in them, I have laughed in them, and I love them because they symbolise so much of what we can be.

This period has seen my approach to reading change, not only because of the absence of library visits but also because of the (forgive me for gesturing vaguely again) everything. The first few weeks saw a frantic tidy up of bookish things, a purposeful addressing of the TBR pile – a pile more ambition than stability – and then I threw things away. A reaction to it all, I suspect, but also one of those long needed jobs. There were certain rules of course (I’m not a monster). Anything that’s a tentative throw and is still in print can be thrown. Anything that I’ve not looked at for a long time and can be replaced can go. The Elsie Oxenhams must be placed in a bag to go and then they must return for they have a peculiar and quite lovely staying power.

I packed up six bags of books. And the books stayed in the bags.

They didn’t come back out again. I didn’t have that moment of doubt. I didn’t tearily smuggle something back upstairs at midnight promising never to leave it ever again (not that I’ve, errr, ever done that). The books stayed in the bag and even though they still haven’t gone (circumstances!), they are going. And I don’t really remember what’s in there, but they’ve already left my little library.

And nothing has yet replaced them. No library books, no secondhand hauls (I am aching to head back into my favourite cobwebby auction rooms let me tell you that), no charity book shop bonanza. Just that light and tender bruise, the space on the table that looks fine but – if you touch it, if you recognise what isn’t there, if you see it – then it hurts.

Eighty-two days. It’s weird, right? The moments where you realise just how strange this process is. The moments where you think – this is embarrassing. I should have more than three books on my account but three is all I have. It means that I’m going to be spending the first weeks of a pandemic with a biography about a Nun, an emotional look at the cultural life of American immigrants, and Elton John’s autobiography.

And inevitably I read them all in minutes and thought – what now? what now?

(Of course in the scale of things, all of this is small. So small. I do not want my library back – or indeed any library – to return to public service until it is safe, feasible and realistic for them to do so. I especially want the needs of library staff made paramount during this process and I recognise that many of you will have been working wonders through this entire period through online services and support and distanced working. I will go another eighty days, another hundred, if it means that library staff remain safe and healthy and able to do their jobs without fear. It also goes without saying that I wish you well if you are a member of library staff, and that you have my utmost support and love and respect at this time.)

A tender and most peculiar bruise this whole thing, but the thing about bruises is this: they heal. And the books shall wait, and the reading shall come back, and I shall comb the secondhand bookshops once more.

This is only how we live now.

And now is not forever.

Two quick updates: this blog shall no longer be covering Harry Potter nor any of the related media. It has been a while since I have covered any and it has never been a particular focus, but this is how things shall lie from this point on. It is also worthwhile reaffirming that I welcome authors from diverse backgrounds and under-represented cultures getting in touch if they think my work – both here and on BookRiot, where I write a weekly newsletter of new children’s book releases and also co-host a fortnightly literary fiction podcast – may be a good fit for their book. I want to know you. Here’s my contact form or you can reach out to me on Twitter. Thank you.

Everything else

On library ladders and curlicues

Last night I watched a repeat of a programme, nestled away on the depths of BBC4, about life at Windsor Castle and it featured a scene in the Royal Library. Reader, I almost wept at how lovely it was. There is something quite ferociously glorious for me in an everyday basis in a library, but sometimes, sometimes, there are libraries that take my breath away. The symbolism of these libraries. The importance of them. The richness of them. Oh, and the library ladders on wheels. These are important too.

(Library ladders on wheels are my emotional kryptonite; I long for one)

Here are three of my current favourite libraries. I’ve visited one, long to visit the other two, and there are other libraries that I can’t bear to share but they are there, silently, quietly, the curve of their leather seats and their rows of neat spines nestle alongside these choices.

The Library from Beauty and The Beast

There’s something very private, sometimes, about sharing ones passions with somebody else. These passions are instinctive things; they define us and shape us, even at our lowest points, even when we’re wordless and lost in the night, there are the things that we love and it is those that provide the light. Gaming. Food. Films. Books. This scene isn’t just about he curve of those staircases and the delicious symmetry they provide, it’s about the shy nerves of the Beast and his realisation that Belle loves the space as much as he does. It’s about realising that there’s a space in the world for him once more.

But oh, oh, those shelves. The roaring heights of them, and those staircases, and the great space of this library, oh.

The Library at Windsor Castle

This video links to the documentary about Windsor Castle and in a way, I’d encourage you to watch the whole thing if you can. There’s something so fascinatingly glorious and outlandish about it all; the way the maids unpack the luggage through to the stick they use to measure that the chairs are the right distance away from the table.

The library itself appears fairly early on and intermittently throughout the episode. What makes my heart sing about this library is the nature of its holdings; this library contains history (which, I appreciate, a lot of them do) but when combined with this location and the finery and the dancing routines that surround it, there’s something quite potent about these finely bound volumes on the shelf. Knowledge is power. Always. But knowledge is also something else, and that is something to be treasured. Never be afraid of learning and never be afraid of what a book holds. That’s the message of this library for me; the way it holds such intensely worldly things on a shelf. Just. On. A. Shelf. Oh the discussions these books must have when the light’s off and the door’s locked…

Duke Humfrey’s Library


Recognise this one yet? I appreciate the tiny Daniel Radcliffe (so young!) may give it away, but it’s the library as featured in Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone. The delicious thing is that you can visit this library as it’s part of Oxford University and occasionally allows in tours (check for times and dates, etc, etc). I was lucky enough to get on one of thse tours and oh, it’s such a vivid experience. You climb up the stairs from the quadrangle, passing the narrow and ornate windows as you go, and emerge into the library itself; chained books on the shelves, the dark wood, and the sunlight cutting in through the leaded glass windows. Go (and also, whilst you’re in Oxford, take in a children’s literature tour – there are quite a few locations and things of interest there…)