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A love letter to libraries

  • 10 August 2018


I probably wouldn't be here right now if it wasn't for libraries. And by that I mean I wouldn't have read the books I did, particularly those that inspired me to believe that being a writer was even a possibility.

During one of the loneliest periods of my childhood, I would enter the warm and well-lit library of my public school every morning to return the book I'd finished overnight before borrowing another. I'd chat brightly to the librarian, Mrs Hollis, an ever-comforting presence.

To quote writer Rebecca Solnit, libraries are 'temples of books, fountains of narrative pleasure, and toolboxes of crucial information'. But a library is far greater than the sum of its books. Not only are they places that help sustain literary culture, they're important as public spaces in themselves.

I've spent countless hours in libraries and they've had a renewed presence in my life of late, but I wasn't planning to write about libraries for a while — until a few weeks ago, that is, when an op-ed appeared on Forbes entitled 'Amazon should replace local libraries to save taxpayers money'. The writer, an economist, put forward his idea that libraries 'don't have the same value they used to'. It caused a public outcry all over the world.

I particularly appreciated an Australian response from Justine Hyde, a writer and director at the State Library Victoria. In her piece, 'For the love of libraries', she skillfully decimates the arguments in that now infamous op-ed, which was redacted the same day it was published. Hyde specifically addresses the financial aspects of the argument with the available data, which is compelling. I lingered over her comment that a great many people rely on libraries, 'particularly the under-privileged, marginalised and disenfranchised'. Who did she mean by that?

Perhaps that definition could be applied to someone like me, who grew up far less privileged than I am now. We had some books at home so I wasn't wholly deprived but I did have to discover reading without any real parental guidance; and, anyway, English wasn't even our home language. But then when I started working at my local public library — the first job I held after high school — it became clear that while I might have been the child of refugees, for many, libraries themselves were a refuge.

I can still recall one of our regular patrons, who wore the same clothes every day and