The maternal side of my family has always contained inveterate users of the public library.
Every two weeks, you gathered up your books and returned them, and then took out some more… this routine was as cast in stone as cleaning your teeth. (And the treatment of library books was as strictly observed).
I remember with pleasure our visits to the library when I was a child, and the excitement of bringing home a new pile of books. And trips with my sister (10 years younger than me) where we would choose her books together, and then read them together.
I got hooked on science fiction (one of the enduring pleasures of my life) because the Gollancz yellow jackets called to me from the library shelves.
And perhaps one of my favourite characters in all of fiction is the orangutan librarian in Terry Pratchett novels.
When the time came for me to take my extremely lively three-year-old boy to the library (obeying in my inner core all the women who came before me) it proved to be an ordeal. He was loud, he was boisterous, he wriggled. And I was stared at. There were tuts and shushes from one particularly stern librarian. He was not fit material for the library.
(I know what you are thinking – three was too young. Dear readers, he is 18 now and he is still loud, boisterous and wriggly. It was a librarian who, observing me keeping my son moderately quiet in the queue, said to me as I handed her our books: “My dear, you have nerves of steel.” They have been needed, these 18 years.)
So I found another library that has a completely separate children’s section, and we borrowed books there until he went to school and started using the school library.
Once I was living a full and busy working life, I found it hard to stick to the two-week schedule, and often found myself letting books get dreadfully overdue. I would pay the fines, thinking how shocked my grandmother would be. Gradually the guilt, and lack of time to read, wore me down and I stopped going to the library altogether.
And then came Covid.
Libraries in Cape Town were shut down in the country’s first total lockdown, and have gone through various iterations of being open or closed ever since. In that process, the borrowing rules have changed completely. You can now have 20 items for 30 days. And if you are late returning your books, and offer to pay the fine, the librarian smiles and says: “Oh, we don’t bother about those anymore”.
I get the distinct feeling that they are happy not to be policing books – that they love that that they can greet returning books as old friends, back on the shelves once more, no questions asked.
And the very librarian who shushed my wild child all those years ago now smiles and greets and chats. I think she’s glad to see anyone at all in her now quiet and slightly lonely space.
I am hoping that if we ever banish the Covid, libraries will be allowed to remain this way: places where those who love books can gather and smile and teach children to read, however noisy that may get.
Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your organisational or communication needs (coaching, editing, writing, social media).
For a simple weekly notification when I write another post like this, subscribe to my newsletter here.
Main picture: Robyn Budlender, Unsplash