Skirting the Issue - Why we need our libraries

I had the very great honour of being invited to Dungiven Library last week to help with the official launch of its fabulous new building.

Initially I was asked if I would do a reading from one or more of my books so I duly sat down, opened the books and chose a few select passages to read and mentally prepared my talk on how I became an author and what it feels like to be published.

I was happy with that. I’ve done similar talks a few times before so while I always get a dose of stage fright before I address anyone kind enough to attend, it is still relatively inside my comfort zone.

And then it changed. Then I was asked to say a few words on what libraries meant to me, in front of the Minister for the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and assembled dignataries. There are reasons why I’m a writer and my nerves at speaking in front of large groups would be one of those reasons. I sat for several nights wondering what I could say and then I decided the very best thing I could was to speak from the heart.

So I recalled those Saturday mornings when we would get up and get dressed and walk from our house in Leenan Gardens to the old Creggan Library. I can vividly remember the top, left hand corner of the library, which housed the works of Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. I would make a beeline straight for those books and try to decide which Secret Seven adventure would be coming home with me for the week, or if I would read about The Twits or Danny The Champion of the World.

If I sit and close my eyes I can still smell the books, and the mixture of the musty smell from the radiators and damp coats which filled my chosen reading place. I can remember sitting down on the small plastic chairs and losing myself in a fantasy world before carrying my book to the desk, handing over my little brown ticket and waiting for the thud of the stamp which would mean I could take that book home with me all week.

Saturday afternoons - especially when it was cold and rainy - were generally spent under a patchwork blanket on my bed reading and dreaming of a garden shed I could transform into my own den with gingham curtains for me and my team of friends - Creggan’s own answer to the Secret Seven.

I would devour the books and look forward to the following week when we would traipse back again, our books in a Wellworth’s bag, to the same musty temporary building where I would move on to the next grand adventure.

As I grew up the library became a place of learning - where I would study for exams, or research a project for university, or even surf the internet in the days before everyone had internet at home.

And recently, of course, libraries have become something else for me. Since becoming a published author I’ve attended quite a few library events where I’ve given readings or talked about writing and felt part of something much bigger.

Libraries are far from hallowed halls where no one is allowed to speak any more. They are not quiet, dark spaces which feel oppressive. They can be lively, social venues where people with a shared love for reading and writing get together to enjoy themselves and discuss a common bond.

They are places were people of all ages, creeds and beliefs can come and enjoy themselves. Sure there might be a toddler (probably mine) losing herself in ‘Bunny My Honey’ in one corner, a seven year old (mine again) reading the latest Horrid Henry Adventures while mammy (that’s me) talks about her reading and writing and a grumpy almost 40 year old (that’s the husband) searches the shelves for the latest Sci-fi read, or looks through the DVD library for that film he was after.

Every library I’ve been to in the last year or two has been lively, busy and welcoming and I love that there are these little pockets of calm dotted throughout the city and further afield where you can escape the very fast moving pace of life these days and have a little bit of time to yourself.

The new library in Dungiven certainly provides a lovely setting in which to lose yourself in a book and I couldn’t help but be impressed with it. It was certainly a far cry from that little old library which used to stand in Creggan.

But it is clear than in these austere times, there may not be so much money invested in libraries in the coming years. It seems like such a shame - that we could be in danger of losing lovely buildings which have meant so much to so many over the years.

Yes, these are tough times ahead but we really do owe it to ourselves and to the generations which will follow, to protect our libraries in the best way we know how.

We must protect the ability for someone to walk in off the street, grab a cup of coffee and lose themselves in a bestseller. We must make sure that research facilities are still available for students, young and old.

We must protect that sense of community which libraries offer as best we can.

Most of all, in my opinion, we must protect those little corners of libraries where children go to read the stories of Enid Blyton, or Roald Dahl and begin their love affair with books - a love affair which can shape every aspect of their lives.

The library at Dungiven is a very impressive building, but it is the atmosphere within the four walls which make it an invaluable asset to the community.