Friday 1 March 2024

Book review: An English Library Journey, John Bevis

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After health issues force Bevis to shift his work focus, he finds himself driving his wife around England for her work with prisons, and setting up in the local library to work on his writing, now his full time occupation. From here he has the idea of trying to collect library cards from every authority in the country, allowing him to access the resources of each of them. There are stumbling blocks along the way - the quirks of local authority administration, consortiums that restrict his ability to collect cards, and the fact that he doesn’t live locally. He opts to keep his true purpose hidden as he tries to persuade librarians to allow him to sign up with varying levels of success. Many will allow him visitor status, others have quirky methods for proving he is at least staying locally (posting a postcard to the address supplied for him to return on his next visit brings in the help of a kindly B&B owner). His quest introduces the reader to towns that don’t usually make an appearance in guidebooks, and makes you think about the true value of libraries and their sad decline with chronic underfunding.

If the concept for the book sounds repetitive and perhaps unexciting, Bevis’ writing style and witty observations, reminiscent of Bill Bryson, keep you engaged. He comments on the architecture of the library buildings and how well they serve their purpose once inside. Some, he surmises, spent all their resources on creating striking buildings without much thought as to how the space would be used. Others may look unassuming from the outside but manage to create perfect havens inside for those who want quiet study alongside the myriad other uses libraries offer. Some, most dispiritingly, consist merely of a few bookshelves on the edge of a cafe, an afterthought with empty floors above that could happily house a well-stocked library.

Not only are the library buildings commented upon but the library cards themselves. Some offer a choice from a selection of designs, others go for a more utilitarian design while others still feel more like a ticket to the local football team, the small print revealing that it is indeed a library card. He carefully plans his days to maximise possible library visits, yet on some, reaching the heady heights of six in one day, he admits that it is not all that satisfying. Part of the joy of collecting is going in and using the space, browsing the shelves, and encountering the other users. 

The book opens with a dramatic tale of a fire at a local library in his youth, the community coming together to help salvage as many books as possible. This leads into a brief history of public lending libraries, including the surprising (to me) fact that Boots used to run one. The book, which tracks his pursuit of library cards over roughly ten years, also examines how library provision changes. Sadly, in most areas the number decreases, with yet more being shifted to community run services, run by volunteers with a qualified librarian available to assist for short periods each week. Libraries are increasingly moved into buildings that house other public services, decreasing the space for books and quiet contemplation. It is a sad decline of a provision that is so incredibly valuable, as anyone who has ever worked in or used a public library will know. 

This is a light, enjoyable read which will make you appreciate the value of the local library, it certainly made me miss my closest one, closed indefinitely due to the discovery of RAAC. It is informative yet conversational, with little snippets of life witnessed on his visits and in the local areas. Each library receives no more than a page or two of space, some even less, yet Bevis manages to bring them to life. A wonderful read for any book lover, and a bright beacon calling us all to do whatever we can to keep these wonderful institutions open and accessible. 

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