I knew I had a local library, indeed I've been to my local library numerous times, but I suddenly realised I hadn't been for some time. So I went again.
We don't have libraries in Tower Hamlets, we have Idea Stores. Idea Stores are libraries with extra bits, like adult learning courses and activities and events, which might be a bit like your local library except Tower Hamlets likes to brand things differently. The first Idea Store opened in Bow in 2002, which is damned convenient, and now there are five. Oh and we do still have libraries, there's one in Bethnal Green and one in Cubitt Town, either because the transformation money ran out or because they're gorgeous buildings and it would have been wrong to make them temples of glass.
Tower Hamlets hasn't closed any libraries since the cuts started, indeed quite the opposite, they've opened one. That's brilliant, although when you consider we only have one library for every forty thousand residents, perhaps not great. But that's all you need if most of those forty thousand residents don't turn up.
I turned up. It was quite busy. A lot of people had mustered on the internet. A lot of people were sitting with a coffee. A lot of people had settled with the newspapers and magazines. A lot of children were doing childrenly things in their special section out back. Some children were hunting for books for school projects with their mother. Some people were collectively knitting and eating the lunch they'd bought with them. And all because libraries do a lot of extra things that aren't just lending, and have done for a while. The modern library is also a community centre, learning facilitator and events hub, but then you know this, even if you've not been recently to check.
I looked at the books, because that's what I'd gone to the library specifically for. All the newest books were out front, as if this was a Waterstones or something, alongside displays of specially selected theme books, ditto. I remembered libraries having a few new-ish books but nowhere near this many, a selection suspiciously similar to that which might be found on the high street with a price tag. As a child only WH Smiths had the new stuff, whereas my local library had a musty stock of everlasting books. I grew up alongside the browning reference books, the stocky hardback classics and umpteen paperbacks in protective plastic cases. The choice is considerably broader today.
I scanned the shelves, and some more shelves, and several more shelves. There were a lot of shelves. The fiction section went on for ages, and not just the large print Catherine Cookson stuff, but full variety. Even the crime section covered one long wall, because I guess that's what people like to read these days, boasting sufficient whodunnits and Scandi noirs to see anyone through several winters. And plenty of sci-fi, and yes, the historical romance, and even a wider range of horror stories than you'd normally find in a typical bookshop. I'll have that one, I thought. And come back for those four later.
I spent longer perusing the non-fiction shelves. There were so many sections to browse through, and sub-sections within, reminding me quite how many different parts of human knowledge I find fascinating. Scanning across the spines revealed intriguing topics and tempting titles, their blurbs easily checked, far quicker than browsing online. Within the London section I picked out a couple of books I'd considered buying for myself but baulked at the price, and here they were for grabs for nothing. I'd only have them for three weeks, but who reads a book twice anyway? Sorry Foyles, sorry Amazon, this deal's a winner.
I was issued with my library card so long ago I wasn't sure it still worked. It still worked. A member of staff showed me how to use the self service scanner, and got it right the second time, and let me have a go myself on the third. He was bright and engaging, indeed it almost seems a shame to have to check out the books myself next time to save him the work. And I walked away with a printed receipt, which surprised me because since when have libraries given you a receipt, surely they're supposed to datestamp the inside cover in slightly smudgy red text. See, I told you, I really haven't taken out any library books for quite some time.
The other thing I did whilst in the library was to enquire at the counter about my PIN. Apparently I was given a security number when I first got my Idea Store card, and I think I put the scrappy printout in my wallet where it eventually faded and got thrown away. We all have far too many PINS and passwords in our lives, so what hope did I have of recalling one I've rarely used a decade and a half later? The nice lady at the desk changed my PIN to the year I was born, because I have a hope of remembering that, and because it turned out I couldn't remember a randomly generated uneventful year from the 16th century which is what I had before.
Knowing my PIN is especially useful because now I can log into the library service at home, and check my loans and even, if I'm remiss, my overdue fines. More to the point I can search out new books in the catalogue and reserve them, which is like having your own personal bookshop for nothing. I worry that I might now end up going into bookshops less, or doing that thing other people do with jackets or fridge freezers where they browse in store and then go home and buy it cheaper on the internet instead. But surely libraries have always worked this way, for longer than I've been alive, so I doubt my occasional defection will cause booksellers to go bust any sooner.
My online account additionally allows me access to a variety of other services I wasn't expecting, including free eBooks and free audiobooks, for free. I can take the latest Bill Bryson with me on the bus, or work my way through all the Harry Potters, or thousands of other titles from historical fiction to actual DC comics. Plus I have reader access to 2000 global news and magazine titles, from yesterday's complete Evening Standard and Lancashire Evening Post to this month's SFX, Q and Viz, not to mention Simply Crochet, Rail, Grazia and the Beano. This is brilliant, an almost bottomless stream of content, and all because I have (and use) a library card.
I tell you all of this not because I expect you to find it surprising, but because I wonder whether you too have forgotten to visit your library lately. It's not a stuffy room of books, it's so much more, so long as we remember to take advantage. And it's crucial to take advantage, because otherwise this hugely important community service can be whittled away, as I hope yours hasn't been yet. A place of discovery and of learning, a place to meet and socialise, a place to go when it's cold outside, a place to inform and inspire. Don't leave it too long to love your library again.