I’ve always been a library fan. Ever since my poor wee mother had to haul home a shopping trolley full of fiction for me, I’ve adored everything about them. The scholarly tone. The papery aroma. The shelves full of glorious, untapped adventure, emotion and possibility.
Libraries have changed somewhat since those days, of course, and nowadays are often viewed as community centres as much as book repositories. It was one such ‘community’ event that led me to a local library recently, for ‘Wriggle and Rhyme Time’. I wasn’t the one wriggling and rhyming, but rather an onlooker as my new grandson joined the large and ever-expanding circle of tiny babies and their parents rocking out to The Wheels On The Bus. So sweet to see them all, hokey-cokeying like pros. So alarming, too, watching all those little heads bobble.
Anyway, they all had a fine time and I took the opportunity to snoop around the rest of the facilities while they rowed imaginary boats gently down streams. The set-up was excellent and the whole place was very well patronised, with earnest readers lounging in the easy chairs dotted around the place, and laptop users hammering away at every desk around the perimeter. In the middle – and not too far from the wrigglers and rhymers – were the books.
So sweet to see them all.
So alarming, too, for an author.
Because it’s from an author’s perspective that I came to the ‘hate’ half of my relationship with libraries. To begin with, it’s a petrifying reminder of just how many books are out there, even in a smallish suburban library, all smartly labelled and Dewey Decimalled and ranked spine-outwards (which is very significant to authors) over acres and acres of shelving.
I used to look for my own books in libraries. They’re still there; I know that for sure. But faced with all those scaffolds, each holding hundreds and hundreds of books, it’s hard not to feel as though you’d be searching for something very, very insignificant – like finding a word or two in something the length of Edward Rutherford’s LONDON and proclaiming, ‘Look, everybody! I wrote those!’
The other issue with libraries from the author’s viewpoint is a financial one. Every time that one of your titles is lent out by the library for free is another occasion that you haven’t sold a book to that same reader. (The same applies, by the way, for every time someone lends their favourite book out to a friend instead of recommending they buy it.) To the author, that’s a lost royalty. The library buys one book and lends it out hundreds of times (we hope), which means one royalty only instead of the potential hundreds.
But you know what … I may be supposed to bemoan libraries as an author, but to me, a reader is a reader who could become a reader of your other titles, a devoted fan or even a friend. Royalties are much more slippery allies, and there’s really no hard evidence that readers who enjoyed your book from the library would ever have bought it for themselves.
In fact, the ‘lost royalty’ may actually make no difference at all to the author’s income if they’re not selling many copies anyway, but just in case it does the author is entitled to claim PLR (Public Lending Rights). Here, they get a small payment each time their title is lent out. I know many authors for whom the annual PLR pay-out is the biggest chunk of money they receive from their books, particularly after the title’s been out for a while, and unlike your local bookshop which may shelve your title for three months if you’re lucky, PLR keeps on a-coming year after year if your book is still being taken out.
Which is sort of comforting. And to me, that’s what libraries are.
They’re solid and stable, wrapping their metal-shelves arms around you and enveloping you in slightly damp air filled with children singing and grown-ups shushing. They have time for you. They host events for everyone. They let you borrow 35 items at a time, for crying out loud. 35 books at once! Someone could take out all my titles at once if they felt so inclined, and still have capacity for a trilogy or two.
So it may be a slightly love-hate relationship, but it’s definitely much more love than anything else. I’ve enjoyed marvellous times in libraries in many different regions and even countries as both a reader and a writer. No matter how hard they’ve struggled to survive, they have all had that pervasive sense of holding the very heart of the community,
I even have a personal favourite: the Askew Road Library in W12, London. It came from inauspicious beginnings: the library staff had to form a task-force to scoop up the used heroine needles from the barren building before they could use it. Filling it with bookshelves and love, they’ve created a warm, wonderful hub where everybody is welcomed with a smile and a personal greeting, regardless of culture, age, race, gender or anything else that might make people turn away at the door.
I’ve spoken there to young would-be writers who were so knowledgeable, mature and eloquent that I thought they were eleven or twelve, when in fact they were only eight years old, and to older readers who share tea, biscuits and hoots of innuendo every Thursday morning. The eight-year-olds wrote a glorious thank-you letter to me; the librarian cycled round to my flat through London traffic and delivered it by hand. It’s all above and beyond expectations and calls of duty – and I’m sure that this deep level of care reflected in libraries around the world.
So it might be an ambiguous relationship for authors – but let’s face it, most people aren’t published authors, despite what Amazon tells us.
Let’s love our libraries, folks. Maybe I’ll see you there. Next time I’m wriggling or rhyming.
Jill Marshall is an author of fiction for all ages (at www.jillmarshallbooks.com and libraries everywhere). She’s also a consultant and trainer for creatives and writers. See www.thepracticalcreative.net for more.