Published on behalf of Emily Lezzeri, Get Into Reading South West Project Worker
Libraries: quiet, calm and relaxing? My earliest memory is of a library that was dramatic, daunting and dangerous. Daughter of an academic, I was a regular visitor to the library at the University of Essex. How I dreaded our library visits, anxious at the very thought of what lay inside. I did however love visiting other parts of the University; being of the plate-glass variety, the campus was a four-year old’s delight. I was young enough to skillfully perform various acrobatics in public (spinning and cartwheels mostly) whilst staring at my wonderful reflection in the huge glass-walled buildings, blissfully unaware of anyone but myself. Then, there was the fountain! Even at at the age of four, the physics of this huge contraption fascinated me: a large metal box at the top of the fountain (somehow) filled with water and then tipped its contents below, filling a range of smaller boxes, creating a cacophony of resounding splashes. How the top box filled with water, again and again, I still haven’t resolved (but I’m pretty sure that my four year old mind has distorted the image and there is a perfectly rational explanation for this seeming freak of physics). Memories of that fountain have persisted; when reading the opening scenes of The Duchess of Malfi, years later, my mental picture of Webster’s fountain was not early sixteenth century Italianate but, somewhat annoyingly, a1960s metal construction. As a child, however, I distinctly remember that the excitement of seeing (and hearing) the fountain made up for the dread of the library visits….
My experiences at the University of Essex did put me off visiting libraries for quite a few years (hence my intimate knowledge of second-hand bookshops in the various locations I have lived). I do, however, have very fond memories of a bitter-sweet experience in the library at Gospel Oak, London. This visit was with my two year old son. About twenty young children were sat neatly on the mottled carpet of the children’s section; a (what I presumed to be) teacher was sat in the middle, wedged between two fantastically high columns of books. As we approached, my son’s eyes lit-up and he ran over to the imperious woman in the centre of the circle, jumped on her lap and waited patiently for the story to begin. Bemused (but not letting this interfere with her tight-lipped demeanour) the woman sat and stared straight ahead, obviously waiting for someone to come and remove the offending object. I took my time: partly because I did not view my son’s enthusiasm as offensive but mainly because my legs were severely crossed. Once my laughter was under control I went and retrieved my son and apologised but did not get a response. What a pity that a woman surrounded by books and young children (and sat on by one enthusiast) could not humour herself : a word, a smile would have sufficed.
It was during my years as a secondary school teacher that I was more acutely reminded of my early fear of libraries. I would often take groups to the school library and noted on several occasions the frighteningly high percentage of children who were ill at ease in this situation. Choosing a book was a pressure not a joy. One girl, I remember, spent twenty minutes pacing up and down, looking at the shelves with panic in her eyes. I offered help several times but she refused. She eventually chose a book and sat down with it, looked at the cover for two minutes and then put it back and started the next round of pacing the shelves. This, unfortunately, was not an uncommon occurrence.
Books, however, were not what had scared me in my earliest experience of a library. What had scared me? It was the huge, rotating metal contraption at the back of the building. The fear would set in from the moment I stepped through the glass doors at the front of the library. Row upon row of books were daunting but exciting to my four year old self; it wasn’t the towers of books that made me quake in my little shoes. It was the lift up to the first floor (and we always had to go to the first floor). The lift that involved taking a leap of faith to get on and off it. I have since found out that these lifts are known as paternosters: moving lifts on a loop with open compartments that you have to jump on to when the bottom of the lift meets the floor of the building. A wrong move or a misjudged floor level could result in horrible injury and disfigurement (I had a lively imagination). What happened if you stayed on the lift and didn’t manage to jump off before the lift rotated at the top of the loop? This was my main concern. Fortunately I never found out but Wikipedia reliably informs that five people were killed in paternosters between 1970 and 1993; perhaps my childhood fears were well grounded (sorry about the pun).
I am pleased to say that this early associative fear didn’t result in a life-long phobia of books. In fact, I am currently running GIR groups in two Devon libraries for people living with dementia and their carers. Several attending these sessions claimed early on not to be “poem people” and their initial apprehension immediately reminded me of my early fear of libraries. These same people are now eagerly coming each week because, as one woman said,
“I’ve never read poetry before, this has made me think differently”
and another replied,
“me too but I actually really like this”.
For many people, picking up a book or coming to a GIR session has certainly been a leap of faith. Working in libraries is now the high point of my week (something I never thought I would say); although I would like to point out that there is not a paternoster in sight, just lively, interesting people and rows and rows of beautiful books.