It is Banned Books week, a time to celebrate the freedom to read and the value of free and open access to information. I have always enjoyed that freedom, and it began in a library on Antrim’s Dublin Road in Northern Ireland. Not a bricks and mortar library, the mobile library of my childhood was essentially a bus full of magic that visited our housing estate every week. Although far from America, I suspect it was exactly what Thomas Jefferson had in mind:
“I have often thought that nothing would do more extensive good at small expense than the establishment of a small circulating library in every county, to consist of a few well-chosen books, to be lent to the people of the country under regulations as would secure their safe return in due time.”
So, the library came to me. Every Wednesday, the mobile library parked around the corner, its desultory young driver oblivious to my excitement as I climbed the steps up into the back of his van, an improbable space transformed by well-chosen books into what Jefferson may have envisioned. It may as well have been Aladdin’s Cave, its unexpected treasures waiting for anyone who ventured inside. There, I fell in love with books.
The driver, erstwhile “library man” was reminiscent of an early Dr. Who. My brother does not share my opinion of the library man, finding him not at all desultory, rather a cool cat with wire-rimmed spectacles who could have handily passed as a member of Clifford T. Ward‘s road crew. Irrespective of our impressions or the library man’s academic qualifications, he was also considered another “man” among the diverse cast of men that peopled our childhood: the coal man, the bin man, the bread man, the milk man, the mineral man, and the ice-cream man. The library man, however, brought along a female assistant whose task was to hand out the books. Imagine the disappointment of one of my neighbors, Paul Crilly, when he reached up to her with 5 pence, expecting an ice-cream cone in return.
Unlike Mr. Softee’s van, the mobile library was an industrial-gray and did not announce its arrival in Green Park Drive with a tune. It lumbered around the corner, its sides emblazoned with scarlet letters proclaiming it property of the North Eastern Education and Library Board. Keith, my brother, remembers the mobile library experience in minute detail, from its gray carpeted floor and the impossibly huge steering wheel at the front, to the doors that opened in the middle revealing the welcoming sight of a full length of the van festooned with books neatly arrayed from floor to ceiling. At one end, there was a counter, behind which Dr. Who was stationed along with the nice lady who gave out the books. As Keith describes it, “the counter spanned the width of the vehicle and could be partly opened when Dr. Who wished to venture out from the inner sanctum to assist with queries from pesky kids and pensioners.”
This area behind the counter was a veritable cockpit from which Dr. Who ran his show. “For Office Use Only,” nobody else was allowed back there for a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the library man ‘s fastidious filing system. Governed entirely without computers, it relied on little cardboard boxes of index cards, the notations on which were most likely based on the Dewey Decimal system we had to memorize for Mr. Smyth some years later at Antrim Grammar School. I have since forgotten Mr. Dewey, but quite clearly remember the day Mr. Smyth taught us, with flair and panache, the correct way to open a book . While as non-vital a lesson as how to conjugate a verb in Latin, it nonetheless crosses my mind every time I buy a new hard-bound book.
In fairness, our library man never seemed to mind how we opened our books. He knew what we liked, and he let us order books that he would bring the next week. My mother often asked him to reserve books for my brother, and she would wait patiently while the library man retrieved them from a special stash behind the counter. As much as she loved to read, she never once borrowed a book for herself. Other than my mother, I remember the occasional grown-up poring over the Agatha Christie collection or asking the library man to set aside Jaws for the following week. It was generally accepted that the mobile library really belonged to us, the children of the Dublin Road. With its never-ending supply of books, we were never lonely.
At the mobile library, I discovered prolific children’s author, Enid Blyton. My best friends were her ‘famous five, and her girls who attended very posh boarding schools, St. Clare’s and Malory Towers. Written in the late 1940s, Enid Blyton’s books are now lambasted – and have been banned in some schools - for reinforcing class and gender stereotypes. True, true, but her books provided hours of escapism for a working class girl in 1970s Northern Ireland.
To this day, I cannot bring my presumably enlightened and evolved self to criticize Enid Blyton or the worlds she created. Every time I opened one of her books, it was to immerse myself in secret passageways, coastal caves that needed exploring, treasure maps, midnight feasts, and the unsavory albeit formulaic plans of ne’er-do-well adults that were, foiled, in the eleventh hour, by “the five,” armed only with torches, the batteries of which rarely ran out. Each of their adventures began or ended with a picnic in uncharacteristic British sunshine. Always on the menu were piles of ham sandwiches and chocolate eclairs, washed down with the obligatory “lashings of ginger beer.” I read these books over and over, borrowed and re-borrowed them. In my ten-year old imagination, I was the “sixth” friend. I belonged with them. I was every bit as feisty as ‘tomboy’ George, as clever as Julian, playful like Dick, and kind as Anne. And, Timmy, the dog, loved me best!
My little brother read Enid Blyton’s books too. He began with the adventures of children who ran away from home to join Mr Galliano’s Circus. Duly inspired, he tells me he often fantasized about hiding behind the counter and waiting for the mobile library to careen out of the Dublin Road estate, a safe distance from our house, before pouncing on the unsuspecting library man with his plans for life as “a literary stowaway on the road.” My brother, the Jack Kerouac of Antrim Primary School, who knew even then that this was but a delightful reverie, and that our beloved library was likely bound for a prosaic council parking lot, where it would sit behind a padlocked gate with nothing more romantic on the horizon than Artie Warwick’s petrol station, Hugh O’Donnell’s pub (wee Hughie’s), or perhaps the laundry of the Masserene Hospital.
Along with Enid Blyton’s entire oeuvre, my brother ran away instead in the pages of all of the Asterix the Gaul books, most of the Adventures of Tin Tin, a collection of Hitchock inspired adventures, and The Three Investigators, one of whom bore the splendid name, Jupiter “Jupe” Jones. He also read The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and reached the inevitable conclusion that Nancy’s sleuthing skills were superior. He even admits to reading the entire non-boy Malory Towers series. Such was the allure of Enid Blyton.
Equal to our books from the mobile library was the impressive variety of comics delivered weekly by a lanky paper boy, Hugh “Pick” McGarry. For my brother, there was The Beano and The Dandy, the latter filled with characters whose names I still remember, Desperate Dan, Minnie the Minx, and Beryl the Peril. For the Crilly girls and me, first came The Twinkle, “the picture paper especially for little girls.” Then, there was The Bunty, notable only because I have yet to meet a real-life person named Bunty, The Judy, The Mandy, and then in our adolescence, The Diana and The Jackie. In my mind, The Jackie was a bona fide woman’s magazine, complete with fashion and make-up tips, quizzes on how to “win his heart,” and the much anticipated pin-ups of pop stars of the day, usually one of the three Davids – Bowie, Essex, or Cassidy. Circa 1975, my bedroom wall featured a very young David Cassidy grinning at me, and I was doing quizzes in The Jackie to see if, by some stretch, my personality might match his.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, a young Gloria Steinem, was making her mark, navigating in a way she would describe to Oprah Winfrey thirty years later:
“I had learned in Toledo, growing up, how to get a man to fall in love with me. Now, this is an important survival skill and we should recognize it. It’s a survival skill because if you make much less than men, if you need marriage, society says, in order to enjoy sexuality or have a child, you learn as a survival skill, in a deep sense, how to get men to fall in love with you.” GLORIA STEINEM
I don’t know how many women in Antrim in 1971 knew about Gloria Steinem or even if her books were available to them in the mobile library, but I would wager they knew exactly what she was talking about.
The Crilly children, my brother, and I are all grown up now and far away from the Dublin Road with children of our own. We live in houses where you are likely to find high-brow books – literature – the likes of which we would never have sought in the mobile library. We know that James Joyce’s Ulysees is “better” than Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, but none of us would want to imagine an Antrim childhood bereft of the latter. Former Children’s Laureate, Michael Morpurgo agrees and remains a staunch advocate for Enid Blyton, whose books his father banned from the household, deeming them superficial and unfavorable to his development as a reader:
“But he was wrong. Her books were terrific page-turners in the way no others were. I had all sorts put into my hands when I was very little – I was offered Dickens at eight – that were not suitable for boys my age at all. But with Enid Blyton, I found I could actually get into the story, and finish it. They moved fast, almost as fast as comics, and there was satisfaction to be had on every single page. Were they great literature? Of course not. But they didn’t need to be.”
No. They didn’t. Not for my brother and me or any of us who devoured those adventures. It was this eclectic mix of books borrowed from the mobile library, our cherished comics, and the thick volumes of Great Britannica encyclopedias that planted in us an unshakable love for the printed word, a passion for books. Behind this, were parents who cared not what we read but only that we read. They spent a small fortune on those weekly comics throughout our childhood, more volumes of The Encyclopedia Britannica and annuals every Christmas that included an updated Guinness Book of Records, and, as we grew older, the classics appeared in beautiful hard-bound leather editions.
The halcyon days of the NEELB mobile library are in my rear-view mirror now. I loved it, and it loved me back, unconditionally, granting me free access to experiences and places that would otherwise have been beyond my grasp. I think it was the greatest gift my mother ever gave me – taking me to that space filled with books. I could borrow any one I wanted. “Get whatever you want, darling,” she’d tell me - again and again.
Isn’t it a pity that along with so much that is plain good for a community, mobile libraries are fading from the landscape. According to a survey by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), before the budget cuts of 2010, there were 430 mobile libraries in Britain providing the services I enjoyed as a child. By 2012, 28% of councils had reduced mobile services, with an estimated 120 vehicles either decommissioned or assigned to reduced routes. Add to this a 7.5% cut in funding, over 2,000 layoffs, and the future of my beloved mobile library is bleak.
As is always the way, those hit hardest by budget cuts are people living in remote rural communities, the elderly, those for whom mobility is a problem, the under-served and under-represented. Those without access to broadband connectivity are unable to download books, and then there are all those people who have neither the access nor the means to go online to purchase a book. Every community needs books. Somewhere in some remote part of the country of my birth, are children poised to discover that they are what author Philip Pullman describes as “citizens of the republic of reading. Only the public library can give them that gift.” In 2011, Pullman made an impassioned plea to defend Oxfordshire libraries. For anyone who questions the value of public libraries or the power of reading to forever change the trajectory of a child’s life, he has this to say:
But what a gift to give a child, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination. And the secrecy of it! The blessed privacy! No-one else can get in the way, no-one else can invade it, no-one else even knows what’s going on in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued. You’re a citizen of that great democratic space that opens up between you and the book. And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?