The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.
- Mrs Winterson
302 libraries (263 buildings and 39 mobiles) are currently under threat or have been closed/left council control since April 2012, out of 4612 in the UK.
– Public Libraries News
At the beginning of December I watched the edition of Imagine in which Jeanette Winterson returned with Alan Yentob to the scenes of her extraordinary childhood in Accrington, the subject of her first book Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and one to which she returned in her recent memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. I had heard Winterson read extracts from the memoir when it was serialized on Radio 4’s Book of the Week. Moved by Alan Yentob’s sensitive film, I rushed off to buy the paperback.
The broad outline of the story Jeanette Winterson tells in her new book will be familiar to anyone who has read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (or seen the TV adaptation). I wrote a bit about the book after hearing it serialized on the radio; in this post I want to focus on what Winterson writes about how the power of books helped her to survive her bleak childhood: adopted by the tyrannical Pentecostalist Mrs Winterson, she was beaten, often hungry, locked out all night on the doorstep, deprived of love. Among the many things denied to the young girl are books. She is not allowed to read books, because ‘the trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late’, but she finds them in Accrington library where she begins to read methodically through ‘English Literature from A-Z’.
In the Imagine film, Alan Yentob returned with Jeanette Winterson tracing some of the key events she recounts in Why Be Happy? How she found literature, fell in love with a girl, and escaped to university; and the story of her recent breakdown and attempt to take her own life, followed by her quest to find her birth mother.
There are many marvellous passages in Why Be Happy? Some of the funniest and most most moving describe the importance of books in enabling Jeanette to survive her cruel childhood:
There were six books in our house. One was the Bible and two were commentaries on the Bible. My mother was a pamphleteer by temperament, and she knew that sedition and controversy are fired by printed matter. Ours was not a secular house, and my mother was determined that I should have no secular influences.
I asked my mother why we couldn’t have books, and she said, “The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.” I thought to myself, “Too late for what?”
This is the story of someone who was empowered by books – saved, not by the word of God, but by the words she read in the books in the local library. In Accrington it was a stone building, opened in 1908 with money from the Carnegie Foundation. In the Imagine film, Winterson returns to the library, with its carved busts of Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer and Dante outside and the words ‘KNOWLEDGE IS POWER’ on a giant stained-glass window within.
The stained glass window which dominates the stairway to the first floor was designed by Gustav Hiller, a Liverpool-based designer. Winterson never forgot the words inscribed on the window:
Oh for a booke
And a shadie nooke
Eyther in doore or out
For a jollie goode booke
Whereon to looke
Is better to me than golde
Winterson recalls how, in hours spent in the library, she worked her way through the fiction section, starting with A for Austen. But she also bought herself books, which she hid under her mattress in layers. She was, she recalls, ‘going up in the world’ until her mother found the hidden treasures, threw them all out of the window into the backyard, and set light to them, leaving only charred fragments behind:
I used to work on the market on Saturdays, and after school on Thursdays and Fridays, packing up. I used the money to buy books. I smuggled them inside and hid them under the mattress. Anybody with a single bed, standard size, and a collection of paperbacks, standard size, will know that 72 per layer can be accommodated under the mattress. By degrees my bed began to rise visibly, like the Princess and the Pea, so that soon I was sleeping closer to the ceiling than to the floor. My mother was suspicious-minded, but even if she had not been, it was clear that her daughter was going up in the world.
One night she came in and saw the corner of a paperback sticking out from under the mattress. She pulled it out and examined it with her flashlight. It was an unlucky choice; DH Lawrence, Women in Love. Mrs Winterson knew that Lawrence was a satanist and a pornographer, and, hurling it out of the window, she rummaged and rifled and I came tumbling off the bed while she threw book after book out of the window and into the backyard. I was grabbing books and trying to hide them, the dog was running off with them, my dad was standing helpless in his pyjamas.
When she had done, she picked up the little paraffin stove we used to heat the bathroom, went into the yard, poured paraffin over the books and set them on fire. I watched them blaze and blaze and remember thinking how warm it was, how light, on the freezing Saturnian January night. I had bound them all in plastic because they were precious. Now they were gone.
In the morning there were stray bits of texts all over the yard and in the alley. Burnt jigsaws of books. I collected some of the scraps. What does Eliot say? These fragments I have shored against my ruins …
I realised something important: whatever is on the outside can be taken away at any time. Only what is inside you is safe. I began to memorise texts. We had always memorised long chunks of the Bible, and it seems that people in oral traditions have better memories than those who rely on printed text. The rhythm and image of poetry make it easier to recall than prose, easier to chant. But I needed prose too, and so I made my own concise versions of 19th century novels – going for the talismanic, not worrying much about the plot. I had lines inside me – a string of guiding lights. I had language.
For Winterson, this event was foundational. Literature had entered her soul:
The books had gone, but they were objects; what they held could not be so easily destroyed. What they held was already inside me, and together we would get away. And standing over the smouldering pile of paper and type, still warm the next cold morning, I understood that there was something else I could do. ‘Fuck it,’ I thought, ‘I can write my own.’
There’s an irony here, of course. It was Mrs Winterson who made Jeanette into a writer. By attempting to stunt her daughter’s emotional and imaginative growth with fear and religion, she succeeded in doing the exact opposite. She created someone who learned to live in her head, and to love, trust and remember words: ‘Fuck it, I can write my own’.
At around the same time that I saw the Imagine film (which you can see in full on YouTube – at the end of this post), I had read extracts in The Guardian from the inaugural Reading Agency lecture delivered by Jeanette Winterson. It’s an impassioned speech in which she calls on society and the government to support our beleaguered public library system. She points out that libraries cost about a billion a year to run right now. Make it £2 billion, she says, and charge Google, Amazon and Starbucks all that tax on their profits in the UK. Or maybe those companies could ‘do an Andrew Carnegie’ and ‘build us new kinds of libraries for a new kind of future in a fairer and better world’. This is what she said:
The Accrington Public Library was a stone-built, fully stocked library, built on the values of an age of self-help and betterment. It was built in 1907 with money from the Carnegie Foundation. Outside were the carved heads of Shakespeare and Milton, Chaucer and Dante. Inside were art nouveau tiles and a gigantic stained glass window that said useful things such as “INDUSTRY AND PRUDENCE CONQUER”.
The library held all the Eng lit classics, and quite a few surprises such as Gertrude Stein. I had no idea of what to read or in what order, so, staring at the shelves that said “English Literature in Prose, A-Z”, I just started alphabetically. Thank God her last name was Austen …
The Accrington Public Library ran on the Dewey Decimal System, which meant that books were meticulously catalogued, except for pulp fiction which everybody despised. So romance was just given a pink strip and all romance was simply chucked unalphabetically on to the romance shelves. Sea stories were treated the same way, but with a green strip. Horror had a black strip. Mystery stories shlock-style had a white strip, but the librarian would never file Chandler or Highsmith under mystery – they were literature, just as Moby-Dick was not a sea story and Jane Eyre was not romance.
Humour had a section too … with a wavy orange giggle strip. On the humour shelves, I will never know why or how, was Gertrude Stein, presumably because she wrote what looked like nonsense …
I used to help out at the library. I was a rough, tough kid, not much good at school, except for words. We had six books in our house but I had the library. I loved that building – built for the working classes – built for me. I loved the sense of energetic quiet. When I left home at 16 and was living in a Mini, I went to the library all evening until it closed.
My own Carnegie library in Accrington is still open. I visited recently. There are far fewer books. The lovely separate children’s library has been closed. There are no longer classical music concerts or lectures – Pitman Painters’ style. There are computers of course and plenty of people coming in and out. The library is doing its best according to its remit of being a community centre with books. What the library isn’t any more is the place of unassailable knowledge I encountered as a kid.
Andrew Carnegie was a crofter’s lad who emigrated from Scotland to America and became a billionaire. But he believed in books and the chances they offered, and he wanted libraries to be the universities anyone could attend and no one would ever have to leave. He paid for 660 libraries in the UK and Ireland – and 1,500 or so in America.
“Man does not live by bread alone. I have known millionaires starving for lack of the nutriment which alone can sustain all that is human in man, and I know workmen, and many so-called poor men, who revel in luxuries beyond the power of those millionaires to reach. It is the mind that makes the body rich. There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else.”
He was wrong about that – the underclass that possesses no money and nothing else either is the most destitute on earth. That underclass is growing – here in Britain. In fact, Accrington is second on the list of the poverty map, according to Experian Public Research, analysing data for the Guardian in June this year. So it would seem straightforward then, to plough what money there is into alleviating poverty and providing essential services.
Here’s Tony Durcan “director of culture, libraries and lifelong learning, Newcastle City Council”, in the news just now, over £7m-worth of lethal cuts to Newcastle Library Services: “Faced with agonising decisions about child protection, care for the elderly and emptying bins, where do libraries, leisure centres and culture rank? I think we all know the answer.”
Do we? Poor Durcan – it’s not his fault – but I think we should look more closely at this answer, and therefore at the question itself. Let’s go to Manchester in 1852 – where the first public lending library in England opened. The 1850 Library Act allowed local authorities to spend a penny in the pound on libraries. Dickens took the train up there for the opening. Twenty-two thousand working people helped raised the money to buy books for the library.
A hundred years after Engels was standing in the sewage of the Manchester slums, imagining a world where men and women would be more than useful objects, the second world war was nearing its end in Britain. John Maynard Keynes was overseeing the beginnings of the Arts Council in 1944 – which sounds like a crazy priority at the end of a world war, when the county was literally in ruins and Britain had no money at all – and there was food rationing. But the Labour party had a vision for postwar Britain, and education, art and culture for everyone were at the heart of that vision. A national theatre, free entry to museums, the expansion of the BBC. The Arts Council’s first slogan in 1946 was “The Best for the Most”. So we should ask ourselves questions about austerity budgets and what Britain can or can’t afford.
As our Government tells us that this wrecked economy can’t afford to pay a living wage to the poorest people in society, what can we offer them? They can take their kids to the park, perhaps. They might be able to go swimming or play sport at their leisure centre, find a football pitch. Yes, these things are important. But it is just as important that there should be a library as the centre of a web of cultural services, for kids with nowhere to go, kids who don’t have books or a room of their own, for stressed-out parents, for students needing a place to study and find more than Google can offer, for older people who want a safe place outside of the house, for community groups and reading groups, for lectures, for discussions, and of course for computers and IT.
Libraries across the UK are trying to offer as much as they can to the communities they serve, and particularly to people on low pay and with few resources, but there is confusion around the role of libraries: what are they? How should they change and develop? What place do they have in a modern internet-based world where the book itself might be disappearing?
When we look back at the latest cuts in Newcastle, we can see where this confusion starts – “Libraries, leisure and culture”. But culture is not leisure – though you need leisure to pursue culture – and libraries are not leisure in the way that a sports centre is leisure. Libraries began with the highest purpose in mind – to educate through the agency of a book. The first public libraries were aspirational and proud. Libraries were not community centres with books in the way.
If we want libraries to flourish and take their place – I think their proper place in a modern society – we can’t make them compete with sports centres for resources, or survive by becoming culturally obsolete and socially relevant, replacing all their books with computer terminals.
Libraries have never been more inventive than they are right now. The Reading Agency partners with libraries across the UK to set up book groups – supported by publishers – to bring in kids, many of whom have never read any books outside school. Libraries are doing more educational work than ever. Libraries and literacy cannot be separated. I don’t see how this can be classed as “leisure”, nor do I see why we have to choose between getting our bins emptied and putting cash into libraries.
There is no excuse. Either we stop arguing and agree that libraries are doing their best to reinvent themselves and that with a bit of help – financial and ideological – they belong with the future, or we let them run down until they disappear because they become irrelevant to people’s lives.
As books themselves change, so the argument goes, does it not follow that libraries will change too? If books are not necessarily objects then perhaps libraries need not be either? Virtual libraries and online libraries can house ebooks and downloads and none of this takes up physical space and none of it is as costly as a building that houses books. The disappearing book and the disappearing library are about technology, aren’t they? Printing put books on the shelves, took them out of the private collections – usually church libraries – and into the hands of the world.
The wealthy will have books and access to books. The best universities will keep their magnificent libraries to be visited by those who can afford the fees. Is it downloads for everyone else? I want books to be visible. Hold a book in your hands and it is more than its content. Books as objects matter.
Ebooks are not an improvement; they are an addition. They can’t be used as an excuse to take books away from the everyday world and into the virtual world. We all know that browsing an index is nothing like being in a bookshop or a library. Libraries and publishers will come to an arrangement about ebook lending and that could work very well as a satellite service for library users – providing we keep Planet Library. For kids in particular, ebooks aren’t the answer. Put six picture books of front of a child and she’ll soon find her own way. Give her a library shelf of books and she can pull them out all over the floor. Early reading is physicality – the taste, smell, weight of books.
Who is going to pay for this new expanding network of libraries? These people’s palaces of books where everyone can go from early in the morning until late at night? Libraries cost about a billion a year to run right now. Make it two billion and charge Google, Amazon and Starbucks all that back tax on their profits here. Or if they want to go on paying fancy lawyers to avoid their moral duties, then perhaps those companies could do an Andrew Carnegie and build us new kinds of libraries for a new kind of future in a fairer and better world?
Andrew Carnegie, the American multi-millionaire was reckoned to be the richest man in the world in 1900, having made a great fortune in the US iron industry, centred on Pittsburgh. Although a ruthless and exploitative employer, he came from a radical Scottish family and attempted to soften his reputation through philanthropy, in particular giving money to build public libraries, not only in the USA, but also in other parts of the world. He endowed 660 libraries in the British Isles at a cost of some $12,000,000. Carnegie’s philanthropy was restricted to paying for the buildings alone: books and staff had to be provided by the library authority.
In Liverpool’s case, Andrew Carnegie personally funded six branch libraries, including our nearest one – Sefton Park library, a lovely mock-Tudor half-timbered building from 1911 which, like the other Carnegie libraries in Liverpool, was designed by Thomas Shelmerdine, architect and City Surveyor of Liverpool (he also designed the gates and lodge at the Ullet Road entrance to Sefton Park). The other Carnegie libraries in Liverpool are the Walton, Lister Drive, Garston, Everton and Old Swan branches. Most are Grade II listed.
In 1902, Carnegie came to Liverpool to open Toxteth library. This is another elegant building of red brick and stone trim designed by Thomas Shelmerdine, though not actually financed by Carnegie. The library with its two large Venetian windows and mural – an allegory with Knowledge enthroned – was recently beautifully restored. A copper plaque in Celtic Art Nouveau style commemorates the opening by Andrew Carnegie.
When he came to Toxteth, Carnegie had financed one library building in Liverpool – Everton, the second branch library in Liverpool, opened in 1896. He had tremendous admiration for Liverpool’s pioneering of free public libraries. Speaking at the opening ceremony of Toxteth library, Carnegie stated, ‘I like a free library because it is free. It is a grand symbol of true genuine democracy’. Because he hadn’t paid for the building, he was able to add:
This is more an exhibition of democracy than perhaps any library I have spoken in, because it is the gift of no citizen, of no man; but it is from foundation stone to turret paid for by taxation, so that the poorest citizen of Liverpool contributes in his proportion as much as the multi-millionaire in support not of a library, but of his library.
In his speech, Carnegie paid tribute to William Ewart, MP and prominent Liverpool merchant, who, along with the Chartist Edward Edwards – a former bricklayer who had educated himself in the libraries of the Mechanics’ Institute – did more than anyone to push through the Public Libraries Act of 1850, which empowered local councils to raise a halfpenny rate to fund free local libraries. Carnegie set out the philosophy that underpinned his support for public libraries with these words:
I like a free library because it is free. It is a grand symbol of true genuine democracy … Such an institution as this has a far-reaching influence beyond the mere reading of books. I say it goes near to the springs of man, the foundation of that indomitable independence to do or die, to stand or fall, that makes man man. But you do not consider a free library only great in what it does for those who read its books. It is great for what it does in enabling the poor citizens of Liverpool in passing through her streets to look up and say, ‘Yes, I am a Landlord there.’ That is the thing that tells.
Following the Act, Manchester, then Liverpool, opened Britain’s first free public libraries in 1852. Liverpool at this time was not without libraries, but, being either subscription libraries or connected with learned societies, they were not accessible to the working class. On 18 October 1860, a day marked as a general holiday, the formal opening ceremony of the Liverpool Free Library and Museum on William Brown street took place.
Liverpool was also the town to develop a branch network, taking library provision to areas outside the city centre, beginning with the Kensington branch library opened in 1890, followed by Everton library in 1896. Peter Cowell was Liverpool’s Chief Librarian in these early years and wrote of the opening of Everton library, in his History of Liverpool Public Libraries, published in 1903:
The opening of this branch library seemed to produce for some half-mile round it quite an epidemic of reading. Young and old resorted to the library in such large numbers that the spacious rooms provided in it were constantly crowded to excess. This was particularly the case with the boys’ room. No doubt the novelty of such a room, for this was the first of its kind provided by the Library Committee, had much to do with its wonderful success. The choice of numerous illustrated books and periodicals with their stories of voyage and adventure was a thing so new to most, if not all of the young folk, that unbounded pleasure and delight was taken in simple, rapid inspection of the illustrations, and then exchanging the books for others. After a while this fickleness with the majority of the boys gradually wore off, and they began to take pleasure in the contents of the books, and to read for the enjoyment it gave them.
Today, the building, described by Pevsner as ‘unusually excellent’, an eclectic mix of Jacobean and Arts and Crafts styles, is derelict, though plans to secure millions of pounds for its restoration and reuse have taken a big step forward following a grant of initial development funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The prospects for another Carnegie library in Lister Drive, abandoned and boarded up since 2006, are also looking up after a plan to transform it into a hub for the local community came top in a competition organised by the Heritage Investment Working Group.
The remaining Carnegie libraries in Liverpool – the Walton, Garston and Old Swan branches – are still serving their local communities, often as multipurpose centres. Walton library, for example, offers a wide range of services, sometimes in partnership with other agencies, such as a Drop In Study Centre and a City Council One Stop Shop.
Garston library, another architectural gem designed, like all the Carnegie libraries, by Thomas Shelmerdine, also doubles as a One Stop Shop. It opened in 1909 when the library boasted 8,900 books, ‘including works of interest to the student, the artisan and mechanic and the general reader’ according to the launch prospectus. The document also boasts that ‘the building will be suitably warmed in the winter time by a low pressure system of radiators’. Originally, women and children were not allowed to read in the same room as men, and had a separate area.
Old Swan library opened in 1913 as a reading room, with books originally brought in by hand cart from the nearby Lister Drive library. An extension was added in the 1960s to create a children’s library, and the building was renovated a few years ago with new computer facilities, free internet and email facilities. Again, the Tudor-style half-timbered design is by Thomas Shelmerdine.
In 2012, the Carnegie UK Trust commissioned research which shows that people still love their libraries, but – in a thoughtful discussion paper entitled A New Chapter – Public Library Services in the 21st Century (pdf, opens in new window) – the Trust argues that public libraries can’t stand still in a changing world: the public library service is at a crossroads and change is needed to respond to reduced levels of public spending, the challenges and opportunities of the digital age, and changes in people’s lifestyles and patterns of behaviour.
Jeanette Winterson: My Monster and Me (the complete Imagine film)
- We’re leaving libraries to rot in Capital of Culture (Liverpool Echo, November 2007)
- Library faces last chapter (Liverpool Echo, April 2009)
- Inside the Andrew Carnegie Lister Drive Library: evocative illustrated report by members of a 28 Days Later urban exploration team (July 2010)
- Liverpool’s historic Lister Drive library gets major boost (Liverpool Echo, July 2012)
- Toxteth Library Lunette at heart of £1million revamp (Liverpool Echo, December 2009)
- Everton Library, ‘The Jewel on the Hill’ wins Heritage Lottery Fund support
- Andrew Carnegie: interesting account of his life at Spartacus Schoolnet
- A New Chapter – Public Library Services in the 21st Century (Carnegie UK Trust, 2012)
- The wonderfulness of public libraries: excellent post on local blog A Sense of Place