There have been so many influences on me as a writer; one of the first of these was American author Ray Bradbury. Bradbury grew up in the depression-stricken Midwest, and his family couldn’t afford to send him to college. Young Bradbury’s solution was to spend three days a week in his local library. It was an experience that left him with an almost religious respect for libraries and their role in society. In his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, libraries were the first to burn. He said: “Without libraries there is no civilization”.
I tend to agree with old Ray. Six years ago, I won the CWA Dagger in the Library, a huge honor for me and a great honor. As far as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. But the moment that vague ambition turned into absolute certainty was when I read Barry England’s Figures in a Landscape when I was a teenager.
The American publisher of Figures in a Landscape recently asked me to provide an introduction to their edition, which I duly did. It was a weird moment for me because they used the cover from the first edition. I remembered that hard cover so well. The other thing I remembered was the library insert, stamped with the return dates, on the inside of the cover.
The book that most inspired me to write was a library book.
I have many other reasons to promote libraries. My dad started to lose his eyesight later in life and benefited from large print books first and then audiobooks provided by his local library. Likewise, when my mom became less mobile, the local library tour service became not only a convenience, but a lifeline.
Libraries open the world, the universe, to people. You could argue that the Internet does the same thing, which I would strongly dispute. Yes, we live in an information technology driven world constricted by universality of connection and access, but one could argue that information without understanding is not knowledge. It’s inconsistent. White noise. Chaos.
Libraries are not just another source of information, they are knowledge centers. And, above all, they are centered on real communities, not virtual ones. We need it more than ever. And my advocacy is not just for libraries, but for librarians: professionals who provide a very definable set of critical skills. Cuts in public services at national and local government levels mean that the vast majority of libraries depend on the goodwill of volunteers. Volunteers play a vital role in maintaining our libraries and their services, but we need professional librarians to connect with communities.
We need to support libraries. If we don’t, Bradbury’s vision of burning books may not become a reality, but abandonment and neglect will do just as well.
Craig Russell is the author of Hyde (Little, Brown) which won the 2021 McIlvanney Prize.