England’s library estate (with detours)

Before getting started with my review of the book pictured above, I just wanted to share a little about the three Croydon Borough libraries that shaped my childhood and adolescence.

  • Coulsdon Library was the one I went to as a child every weekend to replenish my stock of reading materials. The children’s library had a separate entrance round the side at the right of the picture. My brother and I would go in, get settled in the children’s room while our parents went through into the main library. An abiding memory is of borrowing all the Andrew Lang books of fairy tales (my Folio set being one of my header pix above), as well as the now rather outdated Willard Price adventure series, and the returned books rack was always kept an eye on in case a Tintin book was brought back – they never stayed on the shelves for long at weekends.
  • When I was ten, we moved to South Croydon, and Purley Library became our new local where I graduated onto an adult ticket by the time I was twelve, and never looked back. Indeed, when I graduated from university, until I got a job that autumn, I used to walk down to the library most days and would just sit and read for hours, working my way through all the yellow-jacketed Gollancz SF books, and Simenon and Christie et al.
  • The smaller Norbury Library, north of central Croydon, was where I got a much-prized Saturday afternoon job in my mid-teens until I left school – my first paypacket was £2.80 at 70p an hour. I loved it there, and Mr Bottomley, the Head Librarian, was kind to his team of Saturday fifth and sixth-formers, two in the morning, two in the afternoon. I prided myself at being super-efficient at issuing books – you had to open the book to the back cover, put a return-date-stamped computer card partially into the pocket stuck there, place the borrower’s library card on top of the pocket and use the foot pedal to take a photo, before pushing the date card fully in, extracting the library card and passing the book over – and repeat. We often had a queue in the last half an hour before closing, so being speedy on the camera was good!

Of course, the 1960s and 1970s were the days in which you could only borrow books, consult the reference section, or read the newspapers and magazines in the reading room. It’s very different now, as John Bevis’ book will attest…

An English Library Journey by John Bevis

Over the years, Bevis has been involved with books in many guises, from printing to retailing and then writing them. Back in 2010 between projects and post-op, he became his wife’s driver, as her job took her all around the country for a few days here, a day there and so on. While she did her business in whichever town was this week’s stop, John would find the local library as a good place to hang out. He soon realised that if you could sign up for a library card, it gained you access to more facilities, in particular the members’ rates for using library computers, and he started to amass memberships of libraries up and down the land.

Collecting the library cards became an unusual obsession for him – and he learned that you have to play the game to get them in some places – requiring proof of residence. Others were happy to give out cards as temporary members, or even no questions asked beyond showing a driving licence. Then, some boroughs/counties have a joint library service, so one card gives access to many sites – so multiple weren’t available. For Bevis, it was still possible to gain a good collection of cards – and it was always interesting to see what designs were on offer.

After an intro in which the author gives us a potted history of lending libraries, originally subscription libraries, later becoming public libraries, (including many constructed with grants from Andrew Carnegie), Bevis takes us on his travels, month by month, year by year for about eight years. He recounts his trips chronologically recording thoughts on the libraries he visits, be they big and modern, surviving Carnegie Libraries, small local ones, grand entrances and ones that are easy to miss, those run mainly by volunteers – all types of libraries are here (including detours into Wales and NI).

Each time he visits a new library, he describes the building and its situation within the locale, new chapters are prefaced by a photo of one of the libraries within. Then we go inside and the process of negotiation begins to acquire a library card and have all the facilities explained to him. More often than not these days, there are IT driven issuing/returns stations reducing the number of staff needed. He comments on the things going on and groups of people using the library, and then, this is where I had a problem with this otherwise likeable travelogue – he says virtually nothing about books – for the whole book.

The thing Bevis is most interested in once in the library is the provision of public computers and how much it costs. The author doesn’t really write about browsing the shelves, he doesn’t engage with the librarians to find out which authors and genres are borrowed most locally or ask questions about their busiest days, changing stock levels over the years, he doesn’t comment on the shelves of large print books if they’re available, or places to sit and read (other than in children’s sections which are often geared to mums and toddlers who tend to be big library users). Instead he just logs on to the computers to do his own work.

I apologise for my old-fashioned view that libraries are primarily all about books,

but books are the main thing still, aren’t they?

I do love it that libraries are becoming community hubs for groups, places for students to work in, hosting events and even having cafes. Although that expansion of purpose has often been forced on them by cuts. I like that they’ve become louder, although a quiet area for reading is still a very good thing in a library. He does occasionally get annoyed by loud groups – including a library reading group encountered in Hampshire – how dare he! 😀

But, as I personally have no need of using a library computer at the moment, I found this secondary obsession of the author tedious. That said, this is an enjoyable, if scattergun read. Given the chronological recording of libraries visited, we aren’t presented with a regional survey and there is no index. And, does Bevis visited any of my beloved trio above?

Croydon – June 2017

Although my wife’s contract in Northern Ireland has come to an end, she still has to fly over there for the odd day’s work once in a while. Driving down to pick her up from Gatwick after one such visit, I realise I will be passing Purley LIbrary, where it takes a matter of minutes to drop in and join Croydon Libraries.

Sadly, that’s it!

If you view this book as a travelogue and hymn to library buildings rather than their contents, this is a very entertaining read, full of facts and written with humour. There is plenty of political and social comment too, just not enough books for me.

Source: Review copy – thank you! Published March 2022 by Eye Books, hardback, 268 pages.

10 thoughts on “England’s library estate (with detours)

  1. BookerTalk says:

    Based on the lack of commentary about books he just sees a library as a publicly run and funded internet cafe. The terminals do serve a purpose – especially for those who can’t afford a computer or broadband connections but like you I would have appreciated a broader view.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Hmmm. When I was young the libraries were all about books, just like your lovely childhood libraries. I would find the focus on internet access a bit annoying, and I’m surprised that the author focused so much on this. I agree the terminals are essential for those who don’t have any other internet access, but the access to books is much more important I feel.

  3. Rebecca Foster says:

    I’m surprised I’d not heard about this book! It doesn’t sound like a great representative of the books about books genre, though. I still love a quiet, old-fashioned library and would go elsewhere if I wanted a meet-up, chat or coffee. (I do find the printing facilities valuable, though, as we haven’t had a working printer in quite some time.) I just encountered Norbury in Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring — it’s where the central expat family moved from. The photographic record you had to make is so interesting; I’ve never heard of such a system. If you don’t mind, I’ll share your post as part of my next Love Your Library roundup on 25 April.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It was all computer cards at Croydon – this was the mid to late 1970s. No date stamping on a leaf at the front for us! Please do share. 😀

  4. Liz Dexter says:

    What a lovely looking book! And I enjoyed your library memories, I read all those Willard Prices from my local library, too! I had a tiny village library in Hildenborough where I think I read every book – there was one shelf for Teens and I had a Brown system card. Then I had a Saturday and holiday job in the town library, Tonbridge, where I shelved the Ms and 700s and broke the system messing up entering a fine payment! I also did work experience in Sevenoaks Library, driving a set of small children away from my terrible reading out loud session. As a student I loved the old brutalist Birmingham Central Library and did a lot of work and revision there; I then worked at the University Library in special collections, did library and information studies at the University of Central England (now BCU) and enjoyed the library there, worked at a library supplier and did roadshows at academic libraries, and then came back here and worked at the University Library for a few years. Phew!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Wow! I would have loved to do more work experience in the library during uni years but got a much better paying job in some local science labs instead.

    • Rebecca Foster says:

      You need to write that all up as a blog, Liz! We lived in Sevenoaks for a brief six months and of course I joined the Kent library system for even that short a time.

  5. margaret21 says:

    Your childhood library memories chime with my own: though I think I had to wait till I was 14 to be granted an adult ticket. I don’t think that the Bevis book is perhaps for me. Like you, I’m there for the books, though I do like the new commitment to accessibility and providing other book-related services.

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