A letter to the library: An equal opportunity to see the world?
Reading is my ultimate form of escapism. A good book is as comforting as a conversation with a good friend. Each period of my life can be represented by a book. A good story is an opportunity to put on another person’s shoes and forget about your own. Books showed me possibilities, alternative routes and other lives, travelling time and the world from the back seat of the car, or buried underneath my duvet cover until the early hours.
Reading gave me an empathy for others and access to a vocabulary without which I think I would be unable to articulate myself the way I do. The benefits of books and reading are not unknown – there are countless studies out there that all come to the same conclusion in different words: reading is good for you.
To say reading was encouraged in my home would be an understatement to say the least. I should admit now, that I am biased. My mum is a librarian and I probably knew the dewy decimal system before I could spell my surname. Coming from a Nigerian – and very academic – household, reading represented access to information and knowledge, a self-education, and by unspoken extension, a way to elevate yourself. I would receive books and tokens for Christmas, birthdays and occasionally as a treat. The majority of the books I read growing up, though, all came from the same home: the library.
The public library, next door to my primary school and one street down from my childhood home in Edinburgh. It represented a safe haven. A place of familiarity when we moved out of the area and to the north of the city. Even now when I find myself in that part of Edinburgh, I smile fondly at the building. I have moved on, but it remains the same.
I mention my public library because at a time of budget cuts and threats of closure, it is important to pay dues when they are due. Without the existence of public libraries, where you can borrow books free of charge, I never would have been able to read as much as I did, which hindsight allows me to appreciate. Libraries level the playing field, in a sense; an attempt to provide equal access to information in a society where the cost of education keeps increasing.
Reading a book is important, but so is what you are reading. Everything we consume – TV, film, music – influences our perception of the world, and so it is important that what we consume, and what is presented to us, reflects this. Both of my parents always encouraged me to read more widely than I did. I should apologise to my mum, because the books I am now buying, after seeing them on a beautifully curated Instagram feed, she recommended to me over ten years ago. My go-to genre as a teenager was what I like to call bubblegum books – easy-reads, “chick-flicks”, the click-bait or rom-coms of the literary world. And, written by white women, about white English teenage girls, for white teenage girls.
I have been quick to shout for better representation in many areas, but I seem to have forgotten the importance of this in the literary world. As children and teenagers who are not the majority in this country – white, able-bodied, straight and cisgender – you want to be seen. You need to be seen. Because being seen allows you to legitimise your experience, to effectively situate yourself and your identity in the world. There was little to none in terms of diversity, in either authors or stories, on the first or second row of my local library shelves. There were, however, copious copies of every single Harry Potter and enough Jacqueline Wilson to last a lifetime.
That was about ten years ago, and so I wanted to believe, but was not hopeful, that things had changed. As an experiment, I ran a search on the Edinburgh City Council online library catalogue. Two books, both adapted and released as films in 2018. One, The Children Act, was written by an English white man, Ian McEwan. The second, If Beale Street Could Talk, was written by a gay African American from New York, James Baldwin. My search found that, across Edinburgh public libraries, there are seventeen copies of The Children Act and just one copy of If Beale Street Could Talk. I felt that my point had been proven.
As a free resource, public libraries represent an equal opportunity to see the world – if the world is equally represented on its shelves. The importance of the library as a community space is continuously used in the narrative supporting its preservation. According to Carnegie Trust research from 2016, 85 per cent of library users said the library was important to the community, although only 58 per cent said it was important to them personally. I question how important a space can be to the community if it does not truly represent them.
To look at Glasgow Women’s Library as an example, the community they have created is integral to their success – a community that is accessible and inclusive. A community which allows women to have a space among the books and on the shelves where they feel empowered, supported, welcomed, and seen as individuals.
I feel incredibly privileged to have been able to foster a love of books and reading that began at home and was sustained through access to a public library. Libraries are vital, but only if they continue to evolve, and the shelves represent the communities they are serving.
Here are some books from my own shelves which I’d recommend. Why not see if your local library has a copy, or request one if they don’t?
• Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
• Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo
• When We Speak of Nothing by Olumide Popoola
• Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
• The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
• If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
• Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
• Slay In Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible by Elizabeth Uviebinené and Yomi Adegoke
• She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak by Azeenarh Mohammed (Editor), Chitra Nagarajan (Editor), Aisha Salau (Editor)
• Revolting Prostitutes by Juno Mac and Molly Smith
• The Colour of Madness: Exploring BAME mental health in the UK by Samara Linton (Editor), Rianna Walcott (Editor)
• Let Me Tell You This by Nadine Aisha Jassat (Poetry)