Leaves, libraries and liberty




Galileo on why we read:

“What sublimity of mind was his who dreamed of finding means to communicate his deepest thoughts to any other person, though distant by mighty intervals of place and time!”

Books seem precious, precious because of the information, stories and lives held within but perhaps also because of their form: made from trees, with which we have such an important relationship.

The etymology of the word ‘book’ is full of references to wood and trees: German, buch (beech), French ‘livre’, meaning inner bark of trees, in Sanskrit and Latin, words for writing are based on Ash and Birch respectively. A page is known as a ‘leaf.’

Books are not wasteful. One tree can make 2000 or more books.

Most pulp used to make paper is created from wood that would otherwise go to waste, and even the trees that are cut down specifically for the purpose of making paper are in most cases from renewable forests, using fast-growing trees.

No need, therefore, to feel guilty but every reason to enjoy the relationship with a book: its smell, the feel of the pages, the ability to move backwards and forwards through the story. To estimate how far you’ve travelled through it. To re-read the same line or paragraph, let the words sink in, feel the book change shape with love and use.

I don’t remember learning to read but can remember the excitement and smell of a new school ‘Janet and John’. I remember at one point, I had to have my eyes tested (resulting in pink National Health glasses) and I had to use a piece of card to track the words.

One Christmas, my mum’s Aunt bought me a copy of ‘Chimney Corner Stories’,  Enid Blyton. I read this over and over and over. When I was old enough to go to the library, I took myself there. No real surprise that I ended up studying ‘Library and Information Studies’ as a degree.

It was never my intention to go into further education but there were few jobs in the 80s and the interviews I had had were a disaster.

‘You love reading, why don’t you study librarianship?’… mum’s idea.

Britain’s first public library opened in 1850 in Manchester. Many people were in favour of public libraries, on the grounds that:

  • Public libraries would provide facilities for self-improvement through books and reading for all classes, not just those who were wealthy enough to afford their own private libraries and collections.
  • The greater levels of education attained by providing public libraries would result in lower crime rates.

Bill Moyers wrote: “When a library is open, no matter its size or shape,”  “democracy is open, too.”

Neil Gaiman recounts the role of the library in his life:

‘I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had…the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the children’s library I began on the adult books.’

The true delight as a child might be in the sense of discovery and yes, the freedom to choose, the freedom to read with abandon, to go places and meet people in the imagination, to expand a world.

Gaiman again:

They were good librarians. They treated me as another reader — nothing less, nothing more — which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.’

Finally, Ursula Le Guin:

‘Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom‘.

Stop closing libraries, consider instead: How do we get children and young people into them – perhaps the last place where democracy truly exists?

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