In 1998, I found a pair of gerbils on the library shelves. Their names were Oscar and Roo, although I never found a single detail to tell them apart. They lived with me for two-and-half happy years. Being a small child, I thought that was a very long time.
South Woodford Library was a short walk from my childhood home, (though it felt like a very long walk back up the hill, especially on a sunny day.) My family spent many happy Saturday afternoons in the children’s library, and Mum would often take me and my sister for an hour on the way home from school. I was read to from birth, but there is no denying the library played a HUGE part in forming my love of books. My primary hobby as a child was ‘picking library books’. I remember the library as a cool, quiet space with seemingly unlimited shelves of books.
The library was a place of discoveries. I often followed my sister. When she discovered the ‘big children’s’ (8-12) books in alphabetical order, I followed. Although a relatively small space, it offered endless discoveries to relatively small people. Not only did we read, we learnt to browse books. To choose titles. To scan shelves. By nine or ten I knew the system. If I wanted to search for a book, I knew where to look. We developed research habits -me and my sister found out about gerbils in the pet section, and diligently researched their background and care. My parents probably gave in to the gerbils so the library could have their gerbil books back. When people fight to save libraries, they talk about the damage done to children’s reading, but libraries are about so much more than sitting quietly with a book. They are the first place anybody learns academic skills.
Gerbils aside, I want to share some memories of a childhood spent in libraries. I’m sorry the pictures are all taken from the internet. I’m a child of the 90s/00s. Libraries were sacred places of hushed tones, and camera phones didn’t come into play in any useful way until my late teens. I wouldn’t change my quiet-in-the-library childhood, but I’m sorry not to have a single picture. A visit to the library was too day-to-day to waste film, (actual fim,) on, yet visits to the library are among the most special memories of my childhood.
[nb. The photograph I found online is reccent. Three or four years ago, a private company took over the library services, and turned the bottom floor into a gym. That gym is my childhood library. My feelings about that gym are neither here nor there for the purpose of this post. (*cough*). ]
Memories of a Childhood Spent in the Library:
- When we were tiny, me and my sister caught our Mum tearing pages out of her magazines. We knew books should never be damaged, and we told naughty Mummy off. Mum explained she was tearing out the recipes. Later, she found us tearing pages from our library books. When she asked, we explained: we too were tearing out the recipes. The only time we damaged our own books was library-related. We found sticky dots and turned our books ‘into library books’. There might have been some crayon scrawled returns labels…Naughty libraries. They don’t know how to look after their books.
- After rainwater damaged a large amount of stock, the children’s library was moved downstairs, and given a new lease of life. With said new lease of life came Mr Crocodile. I was possessive about ‘my crocodile’. He was just the right size to lie back on with a book. (See what I mean? Life-long habits formed in libraries.) The only time I was told off for making noise in the library involved an exuberant game with the child from next-door-but-two and Mr Crocodile.
- Reservations were made by writing a request on a pink slip and pinning it to a noticeboard. When your request was in, a white slip would appear. My sister and I made countless requests for the joy of pinning up pink slips. Even if the book was in. Even if we’d read if 46 times.
- The library was good for a free bookmark or postcard at the best of times. The postcard is CARBONEL, no less, and the puffin bookmark still glows in the dark. With summer came the reading scheme. You know the one – it is now a national programme. A noticeboard was taken over with a board-game like display. You got your very own counter – if you the pink reservation slips were exciting, the laminated pictures were in a league of their own. Every time you read to a volunteer/librarian, your counter moved along the board. So many squares meant a bookmark. So many more, a stickyfoot. If you got to the end – as a graduate of the Redbridge Libraries Summer Reading Scheme circa. 1997 I am well-placed to inform you – you were invited to a prize-giving, complete with magic show.
- One November, children were invited to the library after closing hours to decorate for Christmas. We made paperchains and paper snowflakes. Our picture was taken for the local paper, (sadly not found in the online archive.)
Do you have any memories of your childhood library? Did you discover gerbils on the library shelves? Do you have a bag full of free-and-treasured bookmarks? Please share.