Keynote speech to the annual conference of the Chartered Institute of Library and Informational Professionals Scotland

HELLO everyone. Thank you for being here today.

My name is Peter Ross. I’m a journalist, and the author of a book called Daunderlust, which is a collection of articles from around Scotland, from a fetish club in Edinburgh to a monastery near Elgin. I’m interested in many different aspects of Scottish life, especially remarkable places which we don’t hear enough about, and that – of course – means libraries. I’ve written about them, too.

Libraries, it seems to me, are not simply places where you go to borrow books. These are profoundly social spaces, and some of the greatest stories are to be found, not on the shelves, but among those who peruse them.

You can come in for a blether and hear from Auld Alex, who – as a young man – was caught up in the Ibrox Disaster and on that day lost the use of one of the valves of his heart.

Or you can speak to Margaret, a single mother – borrowing a book on coping with anxiety – who brings her kids to the library after school so they can spend quiet, calm time together without the distraction of telly or housework.

Or there’s Tatania, a woman in her thirties, who moved here from her native Russia with a Scotsman she married; he abandoned her and now she comes into the library every day to watch the Russian news online.

There’s the man studying his family history and trying to prove he’s descended from Dante.

Or there’s another man – I’ll call him Davie – who is looking through microfiche of newspapers from half a century before, trying to find the thing he wants more than anything else in the world: a photograph of his mother, who had been murdered by his father when he was a baby. Davie finds the photograph, but he has to confront the awful headline too.

The point is that these are all real people real stories. Library users, just like library books, aren’t always in mint condition. They – we – carry marks of age and use. We are all of us faded and slightly foxed.

You get all sorts coming in through the doors. I spoke to a librarian in Glasgow and he told me about the time he caught a couple indulging in what those old swimming baths signs used to call “heavy petting” and they were just on the point – to be frank – of going all the way. So he says to them, “Excuse me! Ye cannae dae that here!” And he directs them to the narrow, dark lane down the side of the library as a place that might better suit their purpose. When I heard this story, I wanted to make sure I had all the facts, so I asked this librarian, what section was this happening in? “Eh, Mind, Body and Spirit,” he says to me. “Naebdy ever went up that aisle in Maryhill.”

It’s a real pleasure to come and speak with you today, about some of the libraries I’ve visited, in part so that I can say thank you in person. Thank you for all the pleasure and help that librarians have given me over the years.

I’ve loved libraries ever since I was a child. I’ve always found them to be special places, and I remember very clearly being a wee boy and being so drawn to the grown-up books with the genre identifier stickers at the bottom of the spine – which I don’t think you get any more, sadly. A skull for crime, I think it was; a ghost for horror, a castle for historic fiction, and a heart for romance. Something like that.

Anyway, to me these seemed terribly seductive symbols of an adult world that was so alluring but also a little bit frightening. And I still associate libraries very strongly with these feelings of curiosity and yearning. I cherish them as sanctuaries, really, within our towns and cities and villages, places that are at once soothing and invigorating.

As a journalist, I love to do research in libraries, to get off the internet for a few hours, and look instead in actual books and old newspapers. I realise, of course, that libraries are full of computers and links to online encyclopedias and the like, but there’s a certain purity, almost, about de-toxifying from all that for a while, and doing research in the old fashioned way.

So, given all that, when I tell you that the other day I went to the library, you’d be right in thinking there was nothing unusual in that. What was unusual, however, and the reason I mention it today, was the library itself.

Leadhills Miners Library claims to be the oldest subscription library in Britain. It was founded in 1741 in the tiny village of Leadhills, high up in the wilds of South Lanarkshire, very close to the point where the River Clyde has its source. All the little local burns – the Shortcleuch, the Scapcleuch, the Nethercleuch – flow out of the hills and into the fledgling Clyde, and as you drive to Leadhills you sometimes see men standing in the freezing water, wearing waders, and panning for gold. This part of Scotland is rich in minerals, and if you put enough time in, it is possible to acquire enough gold – speck by speck – to make a ring or some other piece of jewellery.

It’s a hard, slow job, but were those guys to get out of the water and travel just a couple of miles further out the valley, they would find an even greater treasure: the miner’s library. It has an old pulpit in it, a reading lectern for visiting speakers, and written along the top – in gold leaf – are these words: “Learning Makes The Genius Bright”.

It’s a wonderful place, staffed by local volunteers, all of whom are very proud of its historical significance. It’s just one room, not very big, but crammed with old brown leather-bound books, around 2500 of them on a variety of subjects – religious texts, the poetry of Robert Burns, books on science and the study of birds. It was established for the pleasure and improvement of working people – the miners of the area, and their families – who could go there and expand their knowledge of all sorts of things. A book of 1805, Robert Forsyth’s Beauties of Scotland, has an excellent quote about the place, which I’d like to read:

“Previous to the existence of the library, the miners were in no degree superior to ordinary colliers; but a taste for literature speedily produced its ordinary concomitants: decency, industry, and sobriety of manners, pride of spirit, and a desire to give a good education to their children.”

In other words, there as something ennobling and uplifting about the library. It wasn’t just about the books, but the their presence in the life of the village, in some way, helped individuals to grow, and a sense of community and family to flourish. I would argue that this is still the case more than 200 years later. In Dundee, in Glasgow, in Kirkcaldy and Kincardine and Kirriemuir, learning is still making the genius bright. Libraries may be doing that by offering adult literacy classes, or bounce ’n’ rhyme, or by allowing access to computers so that people can claim their benefits. But they are still in the business of building better lives. Book by book. Speck by speck.

So, just as the Clyde rises from the hills in which the Leadhills library sits, so too is that wee place, with its dusty shelves of dusty books, one of the sources of all the libraries in Scotland. It’s the beginning of the idea that I’m sure everyone in this room holds dear: that books and libraries are for everyone, no matter how much money they have, or don’t have.

And I think the river metaphor is apt. We all know that rivers do not stay exactly the same with the passage of time. Sometimes they are in spate; sometimes they slow to a trickle over stones; sometimes they are diverted and change their course; sometimes they are polluted and are not quite the welcoming, nourishing, renewing places they should be.

Perhaps that is where we are just now with libraries. At a time of economic austerity, the flow of money has slowed. Libraries still function, of course, quenching our thirst for knowledge and helping the public in other ways, such as assisting with the benefits system, diverting resources into new areas for a new world.

But if we are to ensure that the flow does not dry up completely, it’s important to recognise just how important libraries are to our society. That’s what I’d like to talk about now. I’d like to tell you some of the stories I’ve been told while traveling from library to library. I won’t always name these individual libraries, because they are representative, I’m sure, of what’s going on all over Scotland. One stands for all. The point is that we need to hold our libraries dear. Any society worthy of the name ought to have a well-funded, high-functioning library system. But for some people these places are a lifeline.

Let me tell you about a man I met at a library in the east end of Glasgow. His name is Cirion and he’s in his early sixties. He’s got long grey hair and he wears glasses, and a heavy parka. Like many survivors, he was keen to tell me his story.

A few years ago, Cirion was drinking far too much. Black-outs. Fights. Relationships breaking down. He was starving himself so he could afford more booze. It got so bad that he feared for his life and decided he had to seek help. He spoke to his priest and he spoke to his doctor, and both gave him guidance. Cirion was prescribed medication to help him stay off the drink. But it wasn’t easy. He sat at home feeling paranoid and alone. He had to stay away from his old friends as they were still drinking. So he was cooped up in his flat and in his own head. He could feel the walls closing in, the bad thoughts bouncing around inside his skull.

Then one day he just decided, “Right, I’ve got to get out.” This is what he told me: “I was looking for a safe haven. This library was the only place I could think of. It was hard walking up the road. The paranoia was ripping at me. But I came in.”

One of the staff must have noticed he looked a bit disturbed, and she asked him if he was okay. “Aye,” he told her, “but I’ve just taken this medication and I’m really rattlin’.”

And here’s how she replied: “You’re OK. You’ve nothing to fear coming in here. Nothing to hide coming in here.”

And that was Cirion started. He’s been coming into the library ever since. He visits up to three times a day, and usually has the maximum of 12 books out at a time. mostly history and historical fiction, but I think – in some ways – the books are an excuse to keep coming back. The library, for him, seems to function as an airlock between his home and the sometimes overwhelming outside world. He calls it “a retreat”. The staff ask him how he’s doing, tell him to take care of himself, and he appreciates those small words very much. For the first time in a long time, he feels like he’s part of something. And he is. He is a member of the library.

Later, that same day, I met another man, a little older than Cirion. Billy is a retired fork-lift driver in a wooly bunnet. In some ways the librarians despair of him coming because he always arrives fifteen minutes before closing and is always, always the last to leave. But he loves to pass the time of day with the staff as he’s taking out an armful of westerns. And he’s typical, I’d say, of the type of library user for whom these places are not just useful but vital.

“I live on my own,” he told me. “This gets me out of the house and gives me somebody to talk to. It’s no’ really about the books.”

It’s not really about the books. I absolutely understand what Billy means when he says that. For him, the library is about much more than Zane Grey novels. It’s a place where he can come and have what might be the only conversation he has in the course of the day. But I believe that when you get right down to it, it is about the books.

That basic concept that a library is a place where you can go and borrow books for free is such a beautiful, powerful idea that everything else follows on from that. It establishes in people’s minds, right from childhood, that a library is a moral space, it’s a place of virtue and humanity. It’s a good place. A kind place. And that’s why, perhaps in later life, so many folk, who might be lonely or lost in some way, find there way back to the library. It’s that basic library notion, isn’t it? You give them out and later they return. So it is with books and so it is with people. There’s a kind of karma in the whole idea of a library. You give out, you get back.

We can see that in what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, last year – when Scott Bonner kept his public library open during the riots and allowed it to function as an ad-hoc classroom when the local schools closed. You can see it in the National Library Of Russia, St Petersburg, which remained open throughout the Siege of Leningrad, from 1941 to 1944, at time of appalling famine and destruction in the city. You can see it, more humbly, in the smile on Billy’s face when he takes out his books in Glasgow and talks about the weather with one of the library assistants.

Seneca, the Roman philosopher and statesman, once wrote that “it does not matter how many books you have, but how good they are”. Well, in my view that could be changed very easily to, “It does not matter how many books a library has, but how good the librarians are.” And, in my experience, Scotland’s librarians are very good. In every sense.

As part of the research for this talk, I met with Myra Paterson, Principal Librarian at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. She’s been with Glasgow Libraries for 32 years and considers it to be a vocation. She says she has a deep understanding of the difference libraries make, and I’d like to quote at some length a story she told me:

“One customer who sticks in my mind,” Myra said, “is a wee lady who came into Cardonald Library in floods of tears, a total state. Not a library user, but she didn’t have anywhere else to go. Her husband had died and she had no family. He had done all the banking and dealt with the household finances, she didn’t know how to cope with any of that, and she was about to get her gas cut off. So we sat down, I made her a cup of tea, I sorted out her direct debits and got her back on track. But I also said to her, ‘Look, you just live two streets away. We’ve got a coffee morning in here, we’ve got a book group.’ And from then on she was in and out. ‘You saved my life,’ is what she would say to me.”

It’s an incredible thing, that. It’s not something you’ll read about in the newspapers. But I bet many of you have experienced your own versions of that story. I bet that sort of thing goes on across Scotland’s libraries every day. “Community libraries can become people’s families,” Myra went on to tell me. “We’re not social workers, but we are a social service. What libraries do best is serve people who have nothing and no one.”

I should say, by the way, that I know the Mitchell isn’t really typical of Scotland’s libraries, and I’m wary of expressing a preference, but – as a Glaswegian – I do have a soft spot for the place. Whenever I’m travelling back into the city, especially at night, it’s always a great moment to look up from the motorway and see the library’s great green dome glowing in the darkness. I know that libraries have value whatever they look like, but I do think there is something about Victorian and art deco architecture which suits them – all those carved torches and copper angels and knowledge personified in stone, seems to me to really put across this idea that libraries are expressions of our better nature, of the way we would like our society to be.

Glasgow is a city with no end of social problems. Scotland is a country with no end of social problems. It’s been that way for a long time. But that dome glowing in the darkness is a symbol of faith and hope. It speaks of the possibility of a life beyond mere survival. It’s an expression of the soul of the city and of its citizens. It’s like sometimes when you listen to a piece of classical music – something like Beethoven’s Ode To Joy – it can make you feel a bit closer to being the person you want to be. Well, I feel that exact same thing whenever I spend time in a library, and I’m sure many people feel the same. I don’t really care whether the library is a magnificent edifice or if it’s a Portakabin in a scheme, there’s a purity and an authenticity and a morality to the library experience.

Now, I understand that libraries are assessed and funded on certain performance indicators to do with footfall, numbers of books issued, numbers of computers used and so on. Fair enough, I suppose. Library use has to be measured somehow. But I worry that there are so many intangibles which such assessments miss.

How can you measure the bond between a mother and child that strengthens during bounce ’n’ rhyme? How can you measure the bond forged between that woman and another young mother whom she has never met before but with whom she can discuss the difficulties and joys of parenting? How can you measure the child who picks up a certain book for the first time and – sixty years later – takes her own granddaughter to that library and reads with her? None of those things can be easily totted up on a balance sheet.

Something else I’ve noticed is that library staff laugh when I tell them that there’s still quite a persistent belief that librarians work cloistered away in ivory towers; that you lead quite sheltered lives. In fact, of course, the opposite is true. You are absolutely at the front line off real life. Libraries are one of the only places you can go and spend a lot of time without spending any money. It’s something George Orwell wrote about in his 1936 essay Bookshop Memories, and it’s every bit as true, and is perhaps even more the case, almost 80 years later. Libraries are one of the very last true public spaces; they are very porous. So you get all sorts coming in, and you are the people who deal with the consequences of that, good and bad.

I’ve heard stories of fireworks being thrown in the door. An elderly librarian beaten up by a drug addict when he wasn’t allowed to shoot up. At a library in Glasgow, just before Christmas, a drunk man pulled a knife on a member of staff. You’ve got customers sometimes looking at porn on the computers. You’ve got a heroin user overdosing in the toilets and dying in there. You’ve got cases of young female staff members being stalked by men who know they will find them in the library.

At one library in the east coast of Scotland, they have panic buttons, and security staff have started wearing body cameras so they can gather evidence of crimes for later court dates. You’ve got people with mental health issues, people with addictions, runaways, absconding criminals, latchkey kids, homeless people who just want a warm place to sleep and get washed. Every day is a balancing act, it seems to me, between being compassionate and welcoming, and keeping staff and other users safe and feeling secure.

Libraries are tremendous resources, and one thing you have in abundant supply is characters. Every library, I’m sure, has its almost obsessive regulars. People who are in there every day, who are almost professional library users in a sense. Not that they get paid for it, but they treat it like the job they don’t have, five days a week, nine-to-five. A lot of these folk are known to the staff by semi-affectionate nicknames. There’s an old gentleman known as Mr Garlic, who wears one of those big furry Russian hats, which he accessorises with lipstick and rouge. He eats a daily dose of 100 cloves of garlic and then comes into the library to read the newspapers.

In Glasgow, there’s a guy called The Shredder who looks like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, mohican hairdo, the lot. Every day he makes 50 photocopies of a particular document, takes it over to a table, and spends the next few hours tearing it very slowly into thin strips … No one’s ever had the courage to ask him what he’s photographing.
Another guy, Kilty, he always wears a kilt – and in the traditional Scottish manner. The librarians know this because – and I’ll try to put this delicately – because he kept leaving certain stubborn stains on the seats.Eventually one poor library assistant was given the task of persuading him to put on a pair of pants, but not before Kilty had cost the local council a significant sum in reupholstery costs.

Then there’s Mr McGlinchey. He’s been going to a particular library on the west coast of Scotland every day for more than 30 years. No one is quite sure of his age but they hold certain suspicions about his motivations. For three decades he and a particular veteran librarian have been locked in a strange sort of cold war. He goes up to the counter and asks her for books on all kinds of weird and wonderful subjects – the flora & fauna of ancient Egypt, the reproductive system of the rat, how wind turbines work, how to learn Urdu. “And,” she told me, “he’s always really disappointed when I come back with what he’s after.”

This is what I mean when I say that the greatest stories to be found in libraries are those of the men and women using them. For someone like me, who delights in collecting and telling stories, libraries are treasure houses. Recently, I was in Dundee’s Central Library – which I understand is the busiest in Scotland, with almost 800,000 visitors each year. Think of all the stories there.

Dundee Central has recently created a brand new section dedicated to dementia – offering more than 300 books on the subject, a library within the library. It’s a great idea, I think, because most of us will know a friend or relation who has been affected by that illness, and – of course – we want to read more about it and try to understand what they are going through. So, while I was admiring the books in that section, I met a man who was doing the same, and he told me his remarkable story.

His name is Archie. He has vascular dementia, but it is in its early stages. Although he lives alone in sheltered accommodation, he is still fairly independent, and had driven himself to the library on this particular day in his Toyota MR2 sports car. He’s a dapper man of 74, a natty dresser, and has that twinkle-eyed Santa Claus look that Richard Attenborough once had. “I’ve got dementia,” he said, “but dementia has not got me.”

Archie is only five foot four, which is a good height to be if you’re a coal miner, which he was. He was born into it; his father and grandfather were both miners. He himself worked in the Brighills colliery in Fife until he was 22 when his friend, Tom, with whom he’d been at school, was killed when the roof of the pit fell in on him. Archie was involved in the desperate scramble to dig him out, and as Tom was dying, he said, “Erchie, I’m no gonnae make it …” Archie assured him that he would. But he did not. When they took Tom’s body to the surface, and handed it over to his family, Archie swore that he would never go down the pit again … and he never did.

Instead, traumatised by what had happened, he flew to London, making his first ever trip in an aeroplane. He was made terribly anxious by the unfamiliar crowds, and was too frightened to leave the airport, so he decided to sleep there. At some point during the night, security came and gave him a shake. He explained the situation and ended up with a job cleaning the Heathrow toilets. Living in a B&B, he built his life from there, moving up the career ladder at Heathrow, doing different jobs, until eventually he returned to education. By the time he retired, a few years ago, he was a lecturer in anthropology at Queen’s University in Belfast.

So, I think you probably get the picture that he is a tough and determined man. Then, three years ago, he was diagnosed with vascular dementia. He was, he says, “absolutely devastated” and did not leave the house for three weeks. However, when he did eventually summon up the courage to go back out into the world, he headed for the library and took out all that was available on the subject of this frightening illness. “Everything I could lay my hands on,” he told me, “I read.” The new dementia library in Dundee, he said, would have helped him a great deal if it had been available to him back then.

He says the best thing that ever happened to him was being diagnosed with dementia because it has opened up a whole new world, and given him an opportunity to be a good citizen and to help others. He is vice-chair of the Scottish Dementia Working Group, he travels around giving talks on the subject, and he has even spoken at the European Parliament. His road to dementia, he says, has been a Road to Damascus. And that journey, which has helped him and allowed him to help others, began – at least in part – with a visit to the library.

It’s interesting how willing people are to tell their stories in libraries. There is something of the confessional about these places. As one librarian said to me, “It often happens that people are happy to share things with us, that they wouldn’t necessarily do so with other people in public service. People feel that this is a safe space. Is it something to do with the old idea of quiet and calm. Sanctuary.”

I think that’s probably true, but that there is also an idea swirling around in society’s subconscious that librarians are guardians of information. You are priestlike in that sense. You are the custodians who keep the knowledge, who curate the stories, and therefore it’s natural that people should feel comfortable with adding their own stories to those of the past.

So far, I’ve spoken quite a lot about people for whom the library is a sort of refuge. People for whom the experience of coming into the building is as important as the books available to them. But, of course, these places are temples to the written word and there is no shortage of worshippers. I’ve found it very moving, while visiting libraries, to meet people for whom reading has been the pleasure of their life.

“Reading” is too often something which we dismiss as a rather mundane thing to do. It’s what you write as a hobby on the bottom of a CV when you can’t think of anything else to say. But for many people, this interior world of books, the stories that unfurl in their heads as they read, is as rich and intense – perhaps more so – than their real lives. It can be even be consoling.

I met a man called Michael in Dundee, a retired engineer, who joined Lochee Library in 1949, when he was five, one of six children. He devoured books such as Treasure Island, Last Of The Mohicans, adventures of that sort. “I loved the library because it was a different life for me,” he said. “I could lose myself in books and I still can.” He had a very difficult relationship with his father, who had been away at war, and the stories of Long John Silver and Hawkeye were a source of solace for him. “Books gave me a path to walk along,” he said. And he walks it still, visiting the library two or three times a week for his fix of Bernard Cornwell.

I sometimes hear people use the word “escapism” as a negative. They talk about escapist books as if those books are not worth reading, or are somehow less credible than what they would regard as serious literature. It always makes me sad to hear that. Escape is so important. Escape is about empathy, and empathy is something we need more of in this world. Reading books that take us out of ourselves allow us to imagine ourselves in other situations, to see another point of view.

That’s why it’s crucial that children continue to have the opportunity to visit libraries, to pick books off the shelves, and to escape into other lives and worlds for a while. Those children will become adults and, hopefully, those early experiences of reading will have helped shape them into people who are instinctively kind and open rather than selfish and inward-looking.

Libraries are not buildings you walk into; they are launch-pads for who we might one day become. We might be more likely to be Jim Hawkins than Long John Silver because, as children, we were encouraged to read and consider experiences beyond our own.

I went to a library in the east end of Glasgow a while ago, in a particular district which has become a byword for deprivation, and I spoke to a wee girl – maybe 12 years old, called Giovanna. She had red hair and freckles, and was basically Katie Morag in an I Love One Direction T-shirt. She had come in after school to do her homework, and she brought a child’s simplicity to bear on the issue: “It’s better to come in here to read than to buy books in a shop,” she said. “Shops are dear.”

I thought of Giovanna again recently when I met Christine at Greenock Central Library. Christine is 56 and doesn’t keep too well. She has rheumatoid arthritis and a weakness of the heart. She keeps nitroglycerin spray in her handbag to use when she has chest pain. She keeps it next to her library card, and would find it difficult to say which is the bigger lifesaver. She’s a great reader of fantasy fiction. As a child growing up in a high rise flat in Greenock, she would often run up and down several flights of stairs to make trips to the library. At a young age she was reading Tolkien, and she would look up from her book, look out across the town, and imagine dragons flying above the council estate and out across the Clyde. Now, 50 years on, her imagination is still given wings by the books she takes out to read, and it is stories which keep her going, even when life is hard.

“I would have struggled if I didn’t have the library,” she told me. “I think it was Andrew Carnegie who gave it to us with his money, and I thank him for it. I really and truly do. I thank him very much for letting me have a library in my life.”

Unquestionably, libraries are experiencing tough times. Reductions in hours, reductions in staff, cuts in the amounts of money available to buy books. Councils are skint, and there are plenty of people out there who would prioritise weekly bin collections above the local library. I’m sure most of you are absolutely fed up being asked to do more with less. Meanwhile, you’ve got universal credit coming in, which has been described to me as “a tsunami” bearing down upon libraries in terms of the additional pressure that will put on computer usage and on staff. Plus, it seems very likely that there will be further proposals for library closures in Scotland before this year is out.

“We’re fighting for survival, there’s no two ways about it,” one librarian in Glasgow told me. “Closures would be devastating. We understand what would happen if they took the libraries away.”

Everyone in this room has, I would suggest, a very strong imagination. And yet it is only too easy to imagine how much poorer Scottish society would be with fewer libraries. Libraries are the NHS of the mind. They see us through from cradle to grave. They nurture us and nourish us and – as I hope I’ve shown today, and as, of course, you know better than anyone – they certainly can heal.

So, it’s not really about the books, but books – free books – are at the heart of what libraries are still all about. That sense of a community united by a shared pleasure in words. Cirion in Glasgow knows it. Christine in Greenock knows it. Archie in Dundee knows it. And we all know it, too.

What we have to make sure we do is get that message across. Libraries, traditionally, are places associated with silence. But I think it’s necessary now to make a great deal of noise about the threats they face and the opportunities they continue to offer. Let’s work together to make sure that the stories our children and grandchildren will tell about libraries are not histories but rather inspiring tales of lives enriched by these wonderful, vitally important places.

“Learning makes the genius bright” – that’s what was written on that old lectern in Leadhills. Well, I hope very much that libraries will continue to brighten all our lives, even the darkest corners, for generations to come.

Thank you for listening, and for the job you do.