My First Library And What it Taught Me

writer's cat with booksThe fantastic experience of visiting the 250-year-old Leeds Library started me thinking about how my life has been marked out in libraries and, specifically, my first library. It was a small, very definitely a suburban sub-branch. But its great virtue was that it was at the end of the road. Ten minutes walk from home, tops!

And it had a visiting cat.

(No, not this one. This is my own TK. My own books too, come to think of it.)

Joining My First Library

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t go to the library. My mother, an intelligent woman who had left a high-powered job in her forties to become a full-time wife and mother, clearly found it a lifeline. She took me along with her from the age of four. I stayed a member until I finally left home.

y first library shelvesIn those days Hayes End Library  was a plain, single storey building. I remember a table in the middle. Maybe a chair or two. But mostly there were floor to ceiling shelves of books. Except that the children’s section was in one corner and the shelves were pre-teen height.

I remember a history section, geography (not “travel” in those days, when comparatively few ordinary people went abroad), sport and, for some reason, architecture. Lots of dictionaries, which I loved. Several encyclopaedias, which we sometimes consulted when our home encyclopaedia failed to support my homework. Lots and lots of fiction.

My first library - with catMy mother and I would arrive, usually in tandem with the cat. He was a well-fed ginger and white job, who would saunter in whenever someone held the door for him. Then he’d find himself a quiet corner and go to sleep until he felt like leaving. The librarians would nod cordially as he passed.

Mother and I would return our four books each. Receive our library cards. Part to browse. Then make our choice of books and leave. It never took less than an hour.

Librarians in My First Library

My first Library overworked librarianThere were usually two librarians on duty but often one would have disappeared into the mysterious Librarians’ Room either for a break or to work undisturbed.

That left the other standing in the middle of The Defensive Square: Books In facing east; books for shelving to the south; a simple wooden waist-high stationery cupboard to the west and Books Out to the north.

On busy days, they looked beleaguered.

My first Library The Swish of the Curtain

First edition 1941

There were three I remember. One was a kind, firm person, who  restored me to the children’s section whenever I broke out. She helped me discover Pamela Brown, for which I shall always be grateful.  The Swish of the Curtain had me convinced I wanted to work in theatre for the first thirty years of my life.

But then she lost Brownie points for pushing the Dimsie books at me. I loathed the idea of boarding school, schoolgirl politics sounded vile and Dimsie was, frankly, a pain in the butt.

My First Library Andrew Lang

Rumpelstiltskin from Andrew Lang’s Fairy Tales

The other two guides and mentors in my first library  were quite different. They let me go wherever I wanted, adult section, children’s, fiction, non-fiction. Everything. Happy sigh.

A bright-eyed pixie of a woman gave me strange
Andrew Lang — even though I’d said I was too old for fairy tales; I was wrong — and marvellously exciting Rosemary Sutcliff

And then there was a tall dark Assistant Librarian who looked like Mr Spock and was mostly too shy to talk, but told me that if he didn’t know what he wanted to read, he took the first four books off the returned shelf and dived in.
Why didn’t I try it?
So I did.

My First Library Experiment

My first library - Blandings Castle

First Edition 1935

That man taught me to read with an open mind, play with ideas that were new and strange and keep on going, despite confusion, in the hopes that I would learn enough to understand by the end of the book.

In the course of one sample month, for instance, I read —

  • a nasty romance by Philip Lindsay in which the heroine ended up as the hero’s mistress, even though she clearly didn’t want to. “Made me grumpy,” I told Mr Spock. He commiserated. “They do sometimes.”
  • Swann’s Way  which I quite liked but decided was too like The Archers — lots of people who all knew each other and never did anything interesting. Mr Spock’s eyes bulged a bit at that.
  • The Last Tresilians by  J I M Stewart, which disturbed me enormously (I can still remember the physical recoil) though I didn’t really understand why. “Bit like Daphne du Maurier,” I said, rather ashamed. “Fair enough,” said Mr Spock calmly. “Just not your bag.” Thereby teaching me that you were allowed to dislike stuff that other people admired.
  • Blandings Castle and Elsewhere — which was the start of a lifelong love affair.

I’m almost certain that it was Mr Spock who instigated the NEW IN TODAY notices. I found some great stuff there: fantasy, science fiction, magical realism.  Shared them with my mother as well. (She was would go with me as far as The Dragons of Pern or John Fowles but drew the line at science fiction.) So basically, he opened doors for both of us, God bless him. How I love librarians.

My First Library Today

I haven’t been back for years but these days Hayes End Library  looks impressive — and three times the size.

They have WiFi and study areas and a coffee shop. Talking books. All sorts of stuff in community languages.

Reading groups. I can’t help feeling Mr Spock would have loved a reading group or two.

I suppose it’s too much to hope that a local moggy drops in sometimes. But I really hope they still have some sort of NEW IN TODAY stand.


My first library - new bookAnd here, as a final salute to the Mr Spock of My First Library, is a book published today: Flickering Lights by debut novelist Michael Purton.

It’s a mystery, a crime novel in every sense of the word. It dips and spins between now and then, between the staccato dialogue of old associates and the slow revelation of self-examination.

The town centre is almost deserted — just shopkeepers locking up and office workers hurrying home — but still he does not notice the towering man following him like a disconnected shadow.

Oh yes. This is one I’m taking home to see where it leads me.

Sophie Weston Author


19 thoughts on “My First Library And What it Taught Me

  1. Liz

    My mother belonged to the Boots library above the shop in Maidenhead High Street and paid for me to take books from their children’s shelf. I used to love climbing the stairs where they displayed a range a pictures for sale, including the famous green woman. I’d soon worked through everything there and joined the children’s section at the Victorian public library. I went every week to choose my two books and was equally captivated by Pamela Brown’s Blue Door Theatre. Sadly I didn’t have a Mr Spock, just a woman who restricted access to Enid Blyton. I escaped to the adult section as soon as I could. 🙂 I loved that place and was sad when it was pulled down to make way for the much larger glass affair that became my children’s second home.

  2. Sophie Post author

    How fascinating, Liz.

    Librarians didn’t care for Enid Blyton, did they? I think I must have read pretty much every book in the (very small) children’s section of Hayes End Library in the end and, apart from a couple of Noddy books, I don’t think there were any. My mother bought them for me – but soon worked out that I read them too fast and never went back to them. And we hadn’t really got the money to buy books that were only read once. So…

  3. Elizabeth Bailey

    We didn’t have these easy to go to public libraries in Africa when I was young so my father’s bookshelves were my hunting ground. They yielded up Georgette Heyer to my lifelong love affair. When I came to live in England as an adult and discovered libraries I haunted them for years. Joy to a bookworm. Plus writing research. It’s only the ubiquitous net and Amazon or eBay that has kept me out of the local library these last years. Such bliss those places were.

    1. Sophie Post author

      I still have that feeling when I go into a library, Liz – a sort of quiet excitement. My heart lifts when I think about it.

      1. Liz FieldingLiz

        We were only allowed to take out one Enid Blyton but I can see I was lucky to get that, but she did live very close so maybe it was a local author thing. Never liked Noddy or her younger stuff. Totally fixated on the Secret Secret and the “Adventure” books. Great page turners and read very fast. I was also a huge fan of Noel Streatfield, but once I’d found Pamela Brown, Enid was history.

  4. lesley2cats

    I can remember all my libraries, and the books I discovered in them – Lynton Lamb’s detective stories in St Albans, for instance, and a lot of pony books in Balham. But when I was in the top class at Junior School, they introduced a Class Library, and I elbowed my way into the position of Class Librarian. There I discovered two of the books I quote as my all time favourites to this day: The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge and The Swish of The Curtain by Pamela Brown. I discovered the great Plum at college, being read out loud by a fellow student, and Summer Lightning was the first I read. My children’s opinion is that I have been trying to recreate a library at home ever since.

    1. Sophie Post author

      I must read The Little White Horse again. Elizabeth Goudge was a lovely writer (and an early Vice President of the Romantic Novelists’ Association!) but, for some reason, that one never really got me.

  5. Joanna

    I fancy your slight on Swann’s Way and The Archers may bring down considerable wrath on your head, Sophie, so be ready to duck ?

    Our local library in Glasgow was a good half hour’s walk or a bus-ride away but I still went every week. Unfortunately for me, our library had 2 floors: adult books were upstairs and we holders of children’s tickets (under 12) were not allowed up there. Like Sophie, I devoured Andrew Lang’s fairytales. In fact, I’ve recently bought some sumptuous Folio Society hardback editions of several. Stroke-worthy reminders of the childhood joy of reading.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Well, my strictures on Proust and The Archers were the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling aged about 11. But the feeling was REALLY powerful, I remember that.

      Oh yes, those Folios Society Fairy Tales are gorgeous, aren’t they? Such a sensuous pleasure to read.

  6. Elizabeth Hawksley

    I loved your Swann’s Way / The Archers comparison which made me laugh out loud. My first library was the splendid Victorian library in Darlington – children’s section – which introduced me to Joan Selby Lowndes, Elizabeth Goudge, Angus MacVicar’s ‘The Grey Pilot’ – (about the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie), Lorna Hill (the ballet not the horses), and many more.

    Mostly historical – but that felt quite natural. After all, at home I had access to my Grandfather’s Victorian library, which was full of Rider Haggard, Walter Scott, Captain Marryat and G. A. Henty, to name but a few.

    My mother wouldn’t let me read Enid Blyton – I’m not sure why.

    1. Sophie Post author

      I suspect that Hayes End may have inherited some Victorian (well, Edwardian anyway) children’s library, Elizabeth. They had a lot of G A Henty and Stanley J Weyman. Also Violet Needham, though of course she started writing late, so although she felt like an Edwardian her books were two generations later.

  7. Georgie Wickham

    This was my first library – A huge majestic building, which has, curiously, shrunk over the years. The inside is just as light-filled as I remember it, although the reception desk where one handed over one’s precious six tickets has gone. But I was a library slut – as soon as I worked out that there was no overlap between libraries, I extended my radius and joined another two libraries. Saturdays were for racing between libraries and then traipsing home with my 18 prizes. Nancy Drew, Geoffrey Trease, Malcolm Saville, my first Eva Ibbotson. And a book with an quiet serious knight, called Clovis, as its hero. I can remember nothing more about it, except that that when I think of romance, it’s Clovis who comes to mind.

    1. Sophie Post author

      You were much more enterprising than I was, Georgie. But then I could visit the library on the way back from school every day if I needed to. The librarians united, even dear Mr Spock, to agree that I was NOT allowed to take out four books in the morning and then change them for four more in the afternoon on Saturdays, though.

      Clovis the quiet serious knight sounds wonderful. I want to read that one. I was very taken with Maurice in “The Boy in Red” By Violet Needham. He was also serious and responsible and quiet.

      Oh, and Malcolm Savile. And the dog called Macbeth because he murdered sleep. So loved those books.

    2. Joanna

      Following Georgie’s link, I discover that my old library no longer exists. It was in Castlemilk Road. No more. Makes me feel quite sad.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Oo, yes, me too. I took The Woods of Windri out of the library again and again. Maybe I should read it again. I never had my own copy, sadly. Wonder if it’s been Kindled.

  8. lesley2cats

    A week late, I’m commenting again – Malcolm Saville. Another favourite. Along with all my Monica Edwards Romney Marsh books they’re all on the shelf by my bed. And speaking of Mackie the dog, I still say (and write, occasionally) “Acksherley” as spoken by the twins…

    1. sophiewestonauthor

      Oh yes, I loved Malcolm Savile. When I first went to the Long Mynd – on a sad and surreal journey in a snow blizzard – I really felt a tingle of the old magic of those Long Pine books. I really wanted to be Peter when I grew up. Wholly unrealistic, I may say. I borrowed most of them from the library, too. Books were expensive, and I read so fast…

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