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Why libraries are vital by Milly Johnson



The bestselling author tells Writing Magazine how her writing career got off the ground thanks to her local library

It all started with me doing ‘gigs’ at our local library that helped me go on to rise up the bestseller lists, writes Milly. It was the devotion of the staff there who pushed local authors down the throats of any unsuspecting reader – ‘Have you tried this woman? She’s very good. And she’s from around here.’ The lead pusher was a woman called Jill Craven, my dear friend, who died last year. A woman who went to librarian college in the days when to be a librarian was a craft. Like a stick of rock, Jill had the word written through her core and no other word would have suited her better. When I had my first book published, she persuaded me to do a talk in the library. In a room set for eighty people, there were about five seats filled. Jill, being Jill, couldn’t have that and immediately went off to press-gang people in the building to come and listen. Twenty was a more respectable audience.

Fast forward a couple of years and I had to do my talks in the much bigger library in a neighbouring village – a ticketed event. Three hundred sold and a waiting list of another hundred. I owe that to Jill Craven. My die-hard readers might never have crossed my path had it not been for people like her.

She and her team – like other ‘proper’ librarians – realised that for libraries to continue to exist they had to move with the times, evolve. Reading groups, book clubs, meetings, classes were set up. Out went the vinyl record borrowing, in came the ebooks. Libraries became part-community centre as well as a store of free books to peruse. Our library in Barnsley had a lovely café downstairs where we used to meet as young people and space age plastic chairs that I was in awe of when I was a child. The only design fault was the nylon carpets and the metal balustrades guaranteed to give bangers of electric shocks and the silence that reigned in the building was often punctuated by a high-volume ‘Ow’.

In these days of foodbanks and poverty, libraries offer free joyous trips into wonderful worlds through books. I only wish we could gift that love of reading to people who ‘don’t get it’. But the least we can do, is take our children into the library, let them loose and just hope they are smitten with a special something that will give them pleasure all their lives. Something that will guide them, that will take them to the fictional snowy world of Narnia, on adventures with the Famous Five or down rivers of chocolate with Willy Wonka and Charlie. And it won’t cost them a penny.

Jill was a master at matching people to books. And when people couldn’t get to the library, it came to them and she drove the mobile library out into the sticks where she would talk books with the isolated and elderly over a cuppa, giving them respite from their loneliness. And as Jill’s mum – once an avid reader – was blind, she was incredibly in tune with what was out there in audio for those who couldn’t read – or didn’t have time. Busy mums who didn’t have time to pick up a book but could listen whilst ironing or driving, people in hospital who could no longer turn the pages. Trust me, if you’d seen the recent crowds at my book signing, you’d be as delightfully convinced as I was that people aren’t stopping reading, aren’t stopping loving books. And whatever the internet can provide, it can’t do a libraries job and give you free books that you can feel the weight of in your hand, and turn real pages at your leisure.

Though our old library has gone, we are one of the few towns getting a new swanky one built in its place. I hope the powers that be fill it with Jills – people who first and foremost love books, because whatever else libraries function as, at their heart they should be there to marry people with stories. Stories which inform, give comfort and respite, guidance and hope in a world where it isn’t half needed.

Milly's latest novel is The Perfectly Imperfect Woman (Simon & Schuster)


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