People + Books, by Deb Emily

Emily Winslow by Jonathan PlayerOur central library has been closed for renovation for TWO YEARS.

They did a great job providing services in the meantime. First of all, there are many, MANY branch libraries swirling around the city. So most people had a “local branch” they could use. We, however, live *in* the city, making the central library the local branch for us. I don’t have my UK license yet (roundabouts freak me out), so we had no access to a library building for all that time.

What we did have was the “library bus.” This bus parked in the market square two whole days a week, not to mention regularly circulated through numerous villages. It was full of books for browsing, had a small but comfy children’s area with a sofa, and would order you any book you wanted. Also, you could return books to the bus or to any branch (alternatively, you could return branch books to the bus). They especially wanted to be sure kids were taken care of, so didn’t put any children’s books out of circulation. The whole children’s collection was distributed between the bus and the branches, with the plan of restocking the new library’s children’s section from scratch. They really did everything they could to meet needs during the closure.

As wonderful as those services were, I really missed having a library building. I missed having someplace to take the kids that didn’t cost money. I missed having someplace in town I could work on my laptop in quiet. I missed browsing. The bus days happened to clash with other activities for us, so we didn’t get to use it as much as I wished. I missed being able to say “yes” to a foot high stack of books (which, if we’re in Heffer’s or Waterstone’s, we simply can’t).

Our city is a shopping hub for the surrounding villages, with lots of fashion, gadgetry and luxury. I missed having a central building that stood for something else–literacy and imagination and art, with free access for all. I missed having the entertainment of books loom large. It may seem ridiculous to say that I missed that in a city dominated by a university, but not everyone is part of the university.

At last, our library is complete! We arrived ten minutes before the doors opened. The BBC media were there. My boys were photographed and filmed and interviewed and promised certificates for being the first kids to use the new building. The children’s area is gorgeous. Best of all, the children’s area ISN’T open-plan, hallelujah! Just one exit/entrance, a wooden train you can sit on, small tables and chairs, and soft carpets decorated to look like paths and a fish pond. And, of course, BOOKS. Shelves and shelves and shelves of them.

The librarians were giddy that day. They wore their bright pink “library staff” lanyards, and eagerly pounced on the first new visitors. They wanted to help us find things. They gave us stickers. They showed off. There are so many terrific new features, like the “quick picks” area of popular books and self-checkout right by the entrance, and framed original art drawn by children’s book illustrators specially for the new building. We were there for an hour, and assisted by FOUR different members of staff. They couldn’t help themselves. They were THRILLED.

They love books. They love readers. They LOVE THEIR JOBS.

I’m so, so grateful for the wonderful people who dedicate themselves to library work. We’re very, very lucky to live someplace where there are both the will and the resources to support a grand library like this, when elsewhere libraries are closing. I admit I was frustrated by the length of the closure, the lack of transparency over the construction timeline, and the delays, delays, delays (especially when the department store in the same building was completed a year earlier). But that’s all over now.

The library is open, full of books, and full of people. People + books is one of the best relationships in the world.

11 Replies to “People + Books, by Deb Emily”

  1. I love the idea of a library bus. In my town the library used to send around a “book mobile” — I wonder whatever happened to it.

  2. I loved using the library when I lived in a small village in England. In 1991, yes…the NINETIES, their process was you signed up for an account, they gave you something like eight plastic chips and you could trade each one for a book. You got a few adult and a few kids chips. When you wanted a book, you handed a chip over, and they filed it in a box under your namecard and gave it back when you returned your book.

  3. We had a “book mobile” too and that’s all I knew until age ten. That’s when we moved and one of the first places my mom took us — my sister along with me — was to a brick and mortar library. To this day I can recall feeling as though I had entered an enchanted wonderland!

  4. “Best of all, the children’s area ISN’T open-plan, hallelujah! ” Amen to that! Whoever thought an open-plan space for wee ones was a good idea? I remember in my last town bringing my toddler to the library and getting dirty looks from patrons because he kept dashing out into the foyer from the children’s section, which was really just an island in the CENTER of the main floor bordered by a few shelves and not much else.

    Anyway, hurrah for your gorgeous new library! My own branch library will be replaced by a brand new one this summer. I’m excited for the modern, larger building, though a little sad that my neighborhood branch library — the one I visited as a kid! with a real card catalog! — will be empty probably torn down for a shopping center, or turned into an office building. ah, progress…

  5. I used to love the library bus when i was younger, think they’ve been a round for a while in the UK.

    Glad you library is back open, hope you’re having fun living in Cambridge, it’s such a great city. Is the new library in the same place as the new John Lewis? It’s ages since I’ve been back.

  6. Yes, in the Grand Arcade with the new John Lewis. So nice to “meet” a commenter so familiar with Cambridge! Did you used to live here?

    Thanks to all who shared their library love, and apologies for not commenting earlier myself–I’ve been in transit. (Fun trip to New York!)

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