…a life in libraries

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18.
— From the age of 8 to 12 a mobile library stops outside your house. You remember the smell of dust and rubber and paper, and the ridges of wood that edge the shelves to stop the books from sliding out. You borrow a book about boys marooned in the jungle who survive by building their own shelter, killing their own food. You have never forgotten this book, but you have no memory of its author or title. You seem to remember the cover was pale blue.

— The largest library in the world is the Library of Congress in Washington DC, which contains over 170 million items in 470 languages. As well as historical texts from around the world, it houses film and recorded sound, posters and photographs, sheet music, maps, telephone directories, and the world’s largest collection of comic books, including an edition of Popular Comics, from 1936.

— When you’re an adult, your friend has a new boyfriend who is wealthy and has a library upstairs in his house. From floor to ceiling there are thrillers with boldly coloured spines and block-lettered titles. You are reading John Irving, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Hardy, so you can’t help but see this library as a missed opportunity. But then you remind yourself that your own reading began with The Beano, then magazines like Jackie, novels by Catherine Cookson and Jackie Collins, so who are you to judge? And who is the person who decided what is good reading and what is bad? Whoever they were, they didn’t understand reading.

— In the UK, nearly 800 libraries have closed in the last 10 years. In 2018 there were fewer than 15,500 paid librarians, with 51,000 working as volunteers.

—When you begin to write you follow your obsessions, catching a bus to the nearest town to research the Black Death. The library is modern, open plan, and you sit at the octagonal tables to pore over books, scribbling notes, absorbed. You use this research to write a novel, which sated this obsession for a while, but thirty years on and you’re still writing about the Black Death, although now your research is carried out in the Rabbit-Hole Library that is the internet.

— The Osmotheque, in Versailles, France, is a library of smells that houses over 3,200 scents, all donated by parfumiers. New York is home to a Magician’s Library within The Conjuring Arts Research Center, which holds rare texts going back to the 15th century, and 20,000 items of correspondence between magicians. Also in New York, you can visit the Public Library to see the original Winnie-the-Pooh, a stuffed bear bought by AA Milne for Christopher Robin in 1921. It is comforting to know that this bear, who is surprisingly long limbed and flat of tummy, is still in the company of Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger and Kanga. You like to imagine they often sit together to muse on the world and the philosophy of Good Things, with regular breaks for a smattering of honey.

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