Another post about books? Sorry. I can’t help it. I love them libraries, big and small. Large ones are great because they stock every book you’re likely to want, and then some. This is Cambridge University’s Library (known as ‘the UL’).
You may or may not find it aesthetically pleasing but it’s a researcher’s dream and the staff are second to none. The UL holds 9 million books, and what it doesn’t keep on its shelves, it houses in 5,000 square metres of storage space near Ely that opened in 2018.
Smaller libraries may not provide as many books, but they’re gems – and they still smell of books which, as any bibliophile will tell you, is an integral part of the experience. There are two delightful community libraries near me in North London.
Keats Community Library is in Keats Grove, Hampstead, and part of Keats House, a listed building.
Belsize Community Library is in Antrim Road, Belsize Park. Built in 1937, it’s a beautiful and much loved space that’s vital to the local community. More about this library later.
My affection for libraries goes back a long way. When I was living in Washington, DC, I loved our library so much that I’d often take my cat along, even though she couldn’t read. I wanted to share with her the lovely book smell, and that hushed atmosphere where nobody shouts or screams, unless a cat suddenly goes on the loose.
I have no photos of the public library at Cleveland Park, but I plan to include it in a future novel. Here’s a short scene from the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, featuring Catherine, a 10-year-old American girl.
The only possible conclusion was that our phone was bugged. I took a look under the desk where the phone cord led to a box on the wall. A bug could look like something stuck onto it like a blob of Play-Doh, couldn’t it? Uncle Hank might have bugged it, or else gotten the janitor to do it when he came to fix the blown fuse we had the other day.
After a good feel around, I didn’t find anything that looked as if it shouldn’t be there. Only dust and a dead spider all shrivelled up.
I needed some help, but who could I trust? Nobody. That was who. Then it clicked! I’d look it up at the library.
Now here I was in the children’s section flicking through New Elizabethan, waiting for Mommy to go grocery shopping with a handful of money-off coupons.
At last. The coast was clear. I went to the main information desk and cleared my throat.
‘May I help you, young lady?’ asked the librarian.
I glanced right and left then lowered my voice. ‘As long as you don’t tell anyone.’
She looked nice, so I continued. ‘Where do you keep books on spying?’
‘Well, now, the junior section is right over there.’ She pointed. ‘And it has its own librarian.’
I gave her a serious stare above my new glasses. ‘Ma’am, I am looking for adult books on spying.’
‘I see.’ She consulted a drawer of index cards before she was able to point out the shelves I needed.
‘Thank you, ma’am. One more thing. Please would you forget I mentioned spying?’
A smile played on her lips. ‘You may rely on my discretion.’
I dashed off towards the adult non-fiction as she’d directed. I’d hoped to find something like Teach Yourself Espionage, but there were only books on photography, fishing, coin collecting, and magic tricks. I checked the entire alphabet of hobbies. Nothing.
Oh no! There was Mommy coming through the door. Act normal, I told myself. I grabbed a book on stamp collecting and went to the desk to check it out.
On Thursday March 17 at 7.30pm, I’ll be talking about the importance of setting in a novel, and particularly the appeal of medical settings and exotic locations. Based on my first-hand experience, I use both of these as integral parts of my stories, as some of you already know. Whether you’re a reader or a writer, I’m sure you’ll enjoy taking part in the chat.
Organised by the Friends of Belsize Community Library, this online event is free, but donations to the library are much appreciated. I hope to see you on the night.
To join by Zoom on the day, click here (meeting ID 889 6466 1765).
To donate to Belsize Community Library, please click here.
Do you have a favourite library? Do let me know, and tell me why.