I have been thinking about libraries.

Libraries are of course buildings that house stacks of books, periodicals, newspapers, computers – they are places that house INFORMATION in all its modern guises. If you’re lucky, they also have kind and knowledgeable librarians, who will give you advice and order books for you. They might also be really, good listeners!

My relationship with libraries was habit-forming from the outset. I can still remember the books I chose and read from our lower school library. In its reading corner, it had a huge, spectacular colourful papier-mâché elephant that gazed down kindly over our small selves. You could sit underneath it and chat or read. It was a friendly welcoming presence and a really good listener.

This was the place you could go and browse the open stacks to find the next treasure to read, do research for your school work, and where you could meet your friends at break or lunchtime. It felt like home because it had books and I loved books like friends.

In those pre-computer, pre-barcode days, remember how your library books each had a card that got stamped in and out with an inkpad? It seems incredibly old-fashioned now compared to the cool automated systems available now!

In high school, I often hung out at the library during lunch break and the librarian frequently had to tell me off for sneaking bites of my sandwich (“No eating in the library!”) or laughing too loudly with my friends.

At university and in my early days working as a children’s book editor, the library was essential for inspiration, research and fact-checking. I was lucky enough to visit the British Library in its old reading room in the British Museum and pore over the stacks at the London Library.

Now, you can do a lot of this research from your desktop, but still, archives have to be housed somewhere, in a building, in a library. Recently for my book THE CRAYON MAN, I found it priceless to be able to research remotely using sources such as the online Library of Congress.

When I became a parent, our local library became the weekly destination for the sing and rhyme session. I re-learned all those nursery rhymes I’d forgotten, key for developing early literacy, and a looked forward to the respite of seeing other parents and toddlers.

Now my son is older, going to the library has become a habit we can share – a regular trip to explore its shelves yields a pile of books to explore. We have a golden ticket!

We have nothing to lose. It’s free (well, paid for by our council tax), and if the book is not the right fit, we can exchange it for another. In my life, libraries are first and foremost a place that has a truly priceless treasure – books I didn’t know I even needed to read!

Libraries are one of the oldest institutions of our society, but in many places in Britain, they are in trouble.

As funding is cut, many councils are either closing libraries or local volunteers are being drafted in to run them. In the case of the council where I live, the library is now run by a charitable social enterprise. The library is actually quite good still and we’re incredibly lucky to have it within walking distance.

I went on a hunt to see if I could find some statistics about library usage among children. According to the data compiled by the DCMS Taking Part 2017/18 Annual Child Report, and reported by The Reading Agency:

  • 59% of 5-10-year-olds and 72% 11-15-year-olds visited the library in the last year.
  • 10% of 5-10-year-olds and 30% of 11-15-year-olds visited the library in the last week.
  • 18% of adults engaged in the library sector digitally (30% borrowed an electronic resource, e.g., downloaded e-books, e-audio or e-magazines, without visiting the library).
  • 36% of adults visited a public library in the last 12 months, including those visiting for academic or paid work purposes.

Interestingly, research by the Arts Council also showed evidence of “library users having higher life satisfaction, happiness and sense of purpose in life”. Library usage therefore goes beyond books and reading, but also impacts on mental health, social inclusion, community and increased well-being.

Reading books holds the key to our future, to creating imaginative solution-driven children, developing all-important empathy, and creating a happier, more equitable, diverse and peaceful world. And libraries, after all contain books – and books are friends!

Want to know more?

The Reading Agency Library Facts Impact report here

You can read a very good argument for libraries and why reading matters by Chris Riddell and Neil Gaiman here and in pictures

A version of this blog was originally published on Picture Book Den