A speech to celebrate the launch of Libraries Unlimited in Devon
In all of the photographs of me as a small child, I’m wearing a worried expression. This is hardly surprising as I was anxious about just about everything at that age: teachers, bullies, overly chatty adults, blancmange. I could have sworn I’d seen a goblin at the bus stop…. ‘what if? What if’? My imagination twitched like a demented squirrel.
Then one day I joined the local library. There, my skittish eccentricities didn’t seem so odd after all. In fact, once released amongst the books, my wild imaginings were positively encouraged to run free. Ideas – of course! The library was the first place I felt that I truly belonged, outside of my own home. It was like a church where I worshipped weekly, at the feet of the blessed St Blyton.
Here I was free to wander amongst the shelves, running my finger down the long lines of books, making my own choices about the stories I wanted to read. In a reversal of Matilda’s father’s mantra: I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong and there’s nothing you can do about it’, in the library I was SOMEONE.
What I was interested in mattered more than the fact I was small and had no money. This was a very important lesson. In the confines of the library I was equal to any adult because I wielded that great leveller, that magical talisman: the library card. With this ticket, I could go wherever I liked, an adventurer on the high seas of words. Have you ever noticed that the books look like little doors? Open them up and you fall onto a desert island or into an English wood. You may end up in the arctic or in someone’s living room. Portals into other worlds, a library is full of them. It’s like a first class departure lounge for the imagination.
Fast-forward forty years and this second home has become my place of work, albeit indirectly. Now I have the outrageous privilege of creating stories that live on those shelves, as do several of my friends here in this room today. I’m not sure I would be doing it were it not for the sense of possibility that first library gave me, the mirror it held up to my imagination.
When putting together my cast of characters for the Knitbone Pepper series I always knew one of them would have to be a librarian. The character in question – a ghost goose – has been watching over the Starcross library with fierce devotion for 371 years, so I gave him the name Gabriel, just like the angel. He is helpful and wise and funny; just like all of the best librarians I have ever known. Gabriel states the truth ( ‘knowledge is power’) and, just like the book warriors he is based on, is determined to defend the library to the end.
A library is much more than just another public service, it’s a symbol of a truly civilized society. A public library doesn’t care what you have in your pockets, it cares about what’s in your heart, in your mind.
Aspirational communities, they offer sanctuary to the most vulnerable people in society, opening arms to all, to people who need it for warmth and friendship as well as knowledge. It’s a fizzing laboratory of ideas for the curious, an observatory of thought, a playground for the mind.
In the last 6 years 350 libraries have closed across the country, including that first one, the one that made me brave. It’s far from alone.
But the libraries of Devon, feeling the North wind blowing at their backs have rather magnificently turned it into the sun. We have 50 libraries and 4 mobile libraries, all retaining professional librarians. This is quite simply remarkable.
But of course in these increasingly challenging times the battle is not just to keep libraries where they belong, but to make them thrive. The trick is to make them strong and grow. Which is why I’m so delighted to be standing here today, cheering them on as they stand on the brink, embracing change, as Devon libraries becomes Libraries Unlimited. This is a momentous day for them, as they set their course, stretch their bright new wings and soar into the light, like the guardian angels they truly are.