Essays,  Random

Change Starts One Book at a Time: A Love Letter to the British Public Libraries

The first thing that I did when I finally settled down in the UK was joining a public library. As I was only in the country for a few months, I didn’t bring any books with me, and I thought: What kind of life can one live without books? Not one worth living for me. So, I walked into the public library, asked a very lovely young woman – who would later become my friend – if I could join, and she gladly gave me my card. It must be said here that I didn’t get a regular card though. As I was a visitor, I could only borrow 3 books at the same time, which is actually the number of books I can borrow from my public library in Spain, so it didn’t bother me.

And then the hectic borrow started. I finally had access to an unbelievable amount of books, some of them recently released. In English. By women authors. There was even a crime section! I couldn’t believe it. I think that during the first weeks I just borrowed books to take a look at them. For the simple pleasure of having them in my nightstand, knowing that I could read them at any time. The massive borrowing became unproductive at one point. I read Ali Smith’s How to be Both and then I decided to borrow 3 more of her books. But did I really want to read more Ali Smith when I could read Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff? Or Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman, which I had wanted to read since review copies started showing up on my Twitter feed? So, I made the decision to pace myself and just enjoy the book I was borrowing at the time. And just one at a time, please! OK, maybe two if they were different genres.

Thanks to the British Public Libraries I discovered that like many of you, I am a fan of Ali Smith’s work too. How to be Both was a profound reading, and it still haunts me weeks later. I also got the enjoy the latest in the Marnie Rome series, a personal favourite of mine, by Sarah Hilary. This one was extra special, as Sarah is a friend of Books & Reviews now, and the copy that I borrowed was a chunky and clearly very solicited hardback copy. I also discovered that I will always go for the hardback copy, until I realise that carrying my laptop, its charger, the phone, the mess of personal items that I usually need, my lunch, and a hardback copy was not the better ideas. I learned to find the beauty in battered paperbacks too.

Bristol Public Library

But my British Public Library was not just a place to visit a few times a week. It also became my office. Thanks to hot-desking and the thousands of sockets available, I was able to spend my days reading and writing in a building that I now consider my second home. Public libraries in Spain are places were silent must be kept, and where eating and drinking is not compatible with reading and writing. Imagine my surprise when I found out not only that I could eat a few feet away from my laptop – we can discuss the benefits of getting some fresh air another day – but that there was also a cosy café where I could buy a hot cup of tea (milk and sugar, please).

As if it wasn’t enough, the Public Library that I visited also had a reading club that met weekly where we were provided with a short story and a poem that we read out loud and commented. The young woman who made my library card suggested I joined the group when I said I had just arrived to the city, I didn’t know anyone, and I needed some friends books to keep me company. There I met women all ages, some with very interesting backgrounds, and all of them with a love and a passion for reading that could rival my own. They made me feel at home by asking me questions about my favourite books, and they welcomed my sometimes inevitable gender and feminist criticism about the works we were reading.

I hope to see the women in my book club one last time before I leave, and I hope to spend as much time as I can at the Public Library. As I write this I only have one book with me, but I’m thinking whether I should borrow more in an effort to make the most of these last days(*) that also happen to be filled with friends and celebrations. But if I don’t, and if I only have time to finish reading my current book, this is my love letter to the British Public Libraries. This is also my plea to all you who live in the UK to visit your local public library today. Keep these wonderful havens open so that people of all races, genders, sexualities, nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, and religions can visit them. Because change starts one book at a time.

(*) Barely two minutes after writing this post I borrowed 2 more books from the library that I won’ t probably finish reading in time to return them before I leave.





  • inessotrondio

    Dear Elena, I loved this post!! I also love visiting my local public library in Spain whenever possible, and I have decided to borrow more books these days. Currently I’m finishing Dolores Redondo’s trilogy, whose installments I read quite fast (they’re really intriguing). And, following another recommendation from Books and Reviews, I also borrowed “The Ages of Lulú”, by Almudena Grandes. Thanks for all your literary love!! xxx

      • inessotrondio

        Absolutely!! 🙂 I used yo go a lot when I was a child, but then I stopped doing it because of all the homework I was asked to do at school. In fact, although I studied Spanish at university, I hardly found time to read during the academic year. Now that I am with my PhD and I can work from home, I am determined not to drop my beloved reading habit and to read more women authors thanks to this blog. I also want to borrow as many books from the public library as possible (there’s quite a lack of space at home, and sometimes the price is a little expensive, so…).

        And, as for the Baztán Trilogy, I’m enjoying it immensely!! I liked the first installment, but the second was just so absorbing that I almost couldn’t stop reading it! Now I’m with the third one, which I like very much for the moment. I’m really intrigued (I’ll keep you posted about it!) xxx

  • bookbii

    Lovely blog Elena. I adore the library, I am a member of two (Manchester and Lancashire) and they sustain and support me in ways that are irreplaceable. Libraries are the best of our society, they are places which encourage learning and sharing and which offer support to everyone irrespective of their means. There are few places in this country where you can stay all day for free and no one will force you to leave or pay to stay. Thank you for championing the library system. It remains, sadly, under threat but I think there is enough evangelism in this country to keep them going.

    • Elena

      Totally agree, BookBII. The fact that you belong not only to one but two public libraries makes me so happy! I’m sure that people like you will eventually save public libraries and, one day, they will never under threat.

  • Laila@BigReadingLife

    This is wonderful! I wholeheartedly agree with you – public libraries are treasures (and I don’t just say that because I work in one.) It is one of the last places in modern life where you can access information and entertainment and community all for FREE regardless of your class or race. We abandon libraries at our own peril.

    • Elena

      I have been staring at your comment for a few minutes now, Laila, not really knowing what to say. You work at a public library? That’s AWESOME. It’s one of my dream jobs! Keep the amazing work, please. No other public space feels as safe as a library.

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