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What do you think of when you see the word library? Books, most probably, shelf upon shelf of wonderful books, free to borrow. A kindly librarian there to help with your inquiries in a hushed voice. People working at computers, the gentle thump of the library stamp. This was how I used to see libraries, as a quietly magical place where I’d borrow books and then leave once I’d made my selection. But all that changed seven years ago, when I had my first child.
I was delighted when I discovered I was pregnant, and imagined all the fun things I’d do in London with my newborn: I’d visit museums and art galleries, my baby sleeping soundly in a sling, and meet work friends for long lunches in Soho. I wasn’t going to be one of those new mums who stayed on the sofa in their pajamas all day. I was going to carry on leading the fun, busy life I’d always loved, just with a baby in tow.
Clearly, I didn’t have a clue.
Reality hit hard when my baby arrived.
When my baby was born, the reality kicked in pretty fast. I struggled with breastfeeding, and my colicky daughter screamed for hours every time we tried to put her down for a nap. My husband returned to work when she was a week old, and I found myself trapped at home, paralyzed with fear at the idea of taking the baby out on my own. What if she got hungry and I had to struggle to feed her in public? What if we went to a restaurant and she started crying and annoyed all the paying customers? My dreams of roaming London quickly vanished into a mist of dirty nappies and daytime TV.
Then one day, as I stared at the clock counting down the hours until my husband got home, I decided I had to get over this fear and take her out on my own. I threw everything in a bag (a task that sounds quick but took hours), put my daughter in her buggy and left the house. We walked up the road until we reached my local high street, and that was when I saw the library.
The library offered us a place to belong.
We’d only lived in the neighborhood for a few months at this point, and I hadn’t been to the library yet. It has large floor-to-ceiling windows at the front, and through them I could see what was clearly the Children’s Room, parents and carers sitting in chairs and on the floor, children playing with the books and toys. I remember pausing in front of the window, wanting to go in but scared that my daughter would start screaming and we’d be asked to leave. I took a deep breath, and walked in.
It soon became apparent that a nursery rhyme session was about to start. I felt a bit self-conscious being there with a newborn who was incapable of holding up her own head, let alone singing “Wheels on the Bus,” but then I caught the eye of another mum with a baby who smiled at me and so I sat down at the back. For the next 20 minutes, my baby wriggled in my arms while I listened to small children tunelessly shout the words to nursery rhymes, as happy as if I was in the front row of a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. At one point, my daughter let out a loud cry, but nobody even looked up. A toddler roamed the room, pulling books off shelves like a frenzied shopper on Black Friday, but the librarian carried on her enthusiastic singing, unperturbed. When the session finished, most of the parents stayed, catching up on gossip with their friends while the children played or flicked through picture books. And my daughter, who up until now had seemed to view sleep as some form of torture, happily drifted off in my arms.
Library dates gave me back my social life.
From then on, libraries became my lifeline. I measured my growing confidence as a new mum by the increasing distance I would travel from my house to different libraries. I became a connoisseur of nursery rhyme sessions, walking for an hour to a particular library because the women who ran that one was especially brilliant. I began to arrange “library dates” with other mums I’d met there. And my daughter became an enthusiastic participant in the sessions, clapping her hands in anticipation whenever we walked through the door.
The more time I spent visiting my local library, the more I began to see the same faces, and not just in the Children’s Room. There was the older man who came in most days to read the newspaper in his favorite seat at the front. The teenager who used to skip school to hang out there on her phone when it rained. The man in a suit who came in to use the computers to job hunt. A whole community of people who, like me, used the library for reasons beyond simply borrowing books.
Libraries provide vital services for our communities.
It was during this time that I first came up with the idea for my novel, The Last Chance Library, about a library threatened with closure and the eccentric group of patrons who fight to save it. I wanted to show how vital libraries are for communities, and the different kinds of people who come not just because they like the library, but because they need it. In Britain, libraries are under threat, and in the last decade more than 800 have been closed. And in the U.S., the pandemic has brought huge financial challenges for libraries, many of which were already facing staff cuts and reduced budgets.
Yet as the past 18 months have shown us, libraries are as important as ever. Even though many had to physically close their doors during the pandemic, that never stopped librarians working tirelessly for their local communities. Services quickly moved online, offering everything from virtual nursery rhyme sessions to read-alouds and even cooking classes.
Many libraries extended their WiFi signal, and their parking lots overflowed with families going online for school classes, work Zooms or virtual appointments. And even while physically distanced, library workers continued to go above and beyond to help those most in need. I heard of one librarian who called a lonely 102-year-old lady every day to check in on her, and when the woman happened to mention a particular book she remembered from her childhood, the librarian tracked the book down and made a voice recording of it so the old woman could listen to the story again.
I honestly don’t know what I’d have done if I hadn’t been able to visit the library when my daughter was born. And so in The Last Chance Library I wanted to celebrate libraries as the heart of our communities, and places worth fighting for.
Freya Sampson's book, The Last Chance Library, debuted on August 31, and is available now from your favorite bookseller. This essay is part of a series highlighting the Good Housekeeping Book Club — you can join the conversation and check out more of our favorite book recommendations here.
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