Allie Morgan’s new job at her local library saved her life. Unemployed and her mental health in crisis, the 29-year-old was given an unlikely lifeline when she got the call offering her the job as a librarian that stopped her from killing herself.
After experiencing the magic of libraries first hand, Allie has written a book, The Librarian, telling the story of how she went from rock bottom to community activist and spokeswoman for library workers.
Here, in an extract from her book, she describes the characters who came to depend on her library.
And she tells why libraries are a sanctuary society cannot afford to lose…
As autumn brought with it longer nights and a chill in the air, it was not uncommon to find several poor souls huddled in the hallway of the Colmuir Community Centre up to an hour before opening time.
Over time, I got to know these gaunt, poverty stricken men and women (often young, always polite) as the residents of the local tenement flats who had their heating cut off due to lack of payment or neglectful landlords.
I was shocked by the depths of poverty I came to see in that time.
I was born to a working-class family and while we did have our share of difficult times there was nothing that could have prepared me for the daily realities some of the users of that little library and community centre experienced.
One of them, a young man called Aaron, was an ex-heroin addict who spent every minute of library opening hours within its walls, either using a computer or thumbing through a novel.
Some days, Aaron was the only person in the library with me, which quickly created a sense of familiarity between us.
We’d chat about the status of his job search (useless, nobody wanted to hire an ex-addict) and his plans for lunch that day. (Nothing today so that he could have chips for dinner. Some days I’d see the poor boy with a loaf, just eating slices of plain bread to stave off the hunger).
Poverty was awful but boredom, he said, was the killer. Nothing will turn an ex-addict back into a full-blown user like boredom.
He couldn’t afford to go shopping or travel, so he came to the library. Aaron quickly became part of the furnishings of Colmuir Library.
At the weekends, children from the local primary school would shuffle in with their parents or guardians to take out books on their history research topics for the year: usually Vikings, Romans, Ancient Greeks or the Second World War.
Only one child came in alone. She must have been around seven or eight, chubby in the way that children who are about to have a growth spurt are.
For the first few weeks, I would ask if she would like some help, to which she would shake her head and run outside.
After three weeks of the same routine, I became determined to connect with this red-haired, wide-eyed girl. I recognised the uncertainty in her stare. I knew the anxiety in her fidgeting hands. I recognised myself in that little girl, all alone in a place that could be a haven if she just took the next step.
The next time she appeared, I was flicking through Roald Dahl’s Matilda at the front desk. She hesitated upon seeing me and I took my chance. “This one’s my favourite,” I said, holding it up. “Have you ever read it?”
She shook her head. “Oh, it’s great! It’s about a girl with magic powers! She uses them to beat her big bully of a headteacher.” The girl dropped her hand from her face. “What sort of powers?”
I held the book out to her. “She can move stuff with her mind. She’s super- smart, smarter than everyone she knows.” The girl took the book from me and examined it. I’d had a feeling the first time I saw her.
The way she studied the books suggested that she wanted to be a reader, maybe was one already. What was holding her back from the library was the fear of strangers.
Silently, the girl took the book to the children’s section, sat on one of the plastic seats and began to read. The next day, the girl, Rebecca, returned, but this time she wasn’t alone. “Th-this is my dad,” she whispered, clutching the large man’s hand.
Rebecca’s father wasn’t particularly tall but he was wider than the doorframe, all of it muscle. His face and arms were pitted and scarred. His teeth were cracked and uneven, and he appeared to have several amateur-job tattoos.
He said: “’S’cuse me, I uh … lost some books a while back. Other lass that worked here said I had to bring them in. Thing is, they’re baby books for the wean and I’ve been, uh… in the jail.
“The other lady said I can’t get books because the card is blocked.”
“Do you have your card with you?” I asked. The man shook his head. “Er … nah … it all went. When I was in the jail. She usually looks me up by my name. Craig Young, that is.”
I turned to Rebecca. “That’s OK! You go and pick some books and I’ll sort this out with Dad.”
Her eyes lit up. “Can I take them home?” I nodded and she ran off wordlessly, almost tripping over herself on the way to the children’s section.
“All right, Mr Young, I’m going to look up your account and you’re going to tell me that you’ve just had an extended stay in the hospital, OK?”
“Uh … what will I say I was there for?”
“That’s a private matter, none of my, or any other staff member’s, business,” I emphasised. “Maybe we should sign Rebecca up for a card of her own, too.”
“They have books about WITCHES!” Rebecca called from behind the stacks.
Mr Young mouthed a “thanks” at me and left to join his daughter.
“Do you want your own card?” he asked. From behind a display about local wildlife, Rebecca shrieked with excitement. Perhaps there was still some magic here after all.
But, sadly, Covid-19 has taken an enormous toll on local authority budgets and the process of reopening is not only slow but very expensive. This means that our libraries are in real danger right now, at a time when they’re needed more than ever.
How this story ends depends on you: the library user, the reader and the community. We have a fight on our hands and you should know by now that I love nothing more than a good fight.
The value of a library to a community cannot be easily measured, especially not monetarily.
We need you, dear reader, dear lover of the magic of libraries, to make a noise!
We need you to share what your library means to you.
We need you to step through our doors if you can, to remind your friends and your family of this precious community resource.
We need you to keep that magic alive, whether by protest, petition, volunteering or a simple reminder to your local authority that you want to see what your taxes are being spent on.
In the meantime, we librarians will do what we do best – keep the place running, keep it accessible and keep the magic alive.
Extracted from The Librarian by Allie Morgan, published by Ebury, out now at £16.99, Copyright Allie Morgan, 2021.
Some of the names and places have been changed.
Cost-cutting blitz would be tragic twist to the tale
The fate of some beloved libraries will be decided tomorrow by council leaders.
Proposals on the table in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, for instance, include slashing 99-year-old Bethnal Green Library’s opening hours or closing it, cutting the operating times of other libraries in the borough and the closure of Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs.
Bethnal Green Library was at the heart of working-class defiance during the Blitz and the Save Our Libraries campaign is calling on council leaders to rethink their plans.
Author and campaigner Kate Thompson says: “I wonder how much any of them know about the remarkable history of the building and those within it, who ensured that even in the darkest of times working-class East Enders had access to books.
“As the fallout from the pandemic puts pressure on councils to slash budgets, I suggest they look back to find imaginative ways to tackle the funding crisis and draw inspiration from their wartime predecessors. Because surely, on the eve of the library’s centenary, they should be planning celebrations, not cuts.”
During the Blitz, Bethnal Green’s borough librarian, George Vale, and his deputy, Stanley Snaith, transferred 4,000 volumes down to the Underground system and using a grant of £50 built a tiny library over the tracks of the westbound platform of the Central Line.
Kate adds: “Libraries are vital to the future of communities, now more than ever. Many people don’t have access to the internet and not all children have access to remote learning. That’s compounded in Tower Hamlets, where hundreds of children live in cramped, overcrowded homes.
“Many rely on the borough’s precious libraries as a sanctuary and an extension of their living room.”
Campaigners have written to Tower Hamlets mayor John Briggs, urging him to reconsider and more than 2,000 have signed a petition.