Libraries. Wonderful, glorious, magnificent libraries. When I was a child the library in Edenderry was a quiet hushed temple. While Mammy browsed for her books, I took myself off to the children’s section and discovered the worlds of Mallory Towers (Enid Blyton), Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery) and so many other beloved children’s authors. As the years progressed I graduated to the grown-up books, and Mammy and I would browse together, recommending titles to each other and sharing our choices when we got home.
Libraries have changed a lot over the years, partly, I guess, in response to the death grip of governments that don’t quite see their point. Libraries have diversified. They’re no longer just about books. As libraries have become noisier, librarians have grown less stern and stereotyped (Noel Whelan, God bless him, always frightened the life out of me). Since my own children have come along, I’ve been to libraries for baby massage classes, rhyme times, story times, craft activities; and I’ve used libraries as quiet places to write and to mark exams, and to get internet access. When we’ve lived anywhere for any length of time we’ve joined the local library, giving the children a varied and endless supply of books. When we’re on the move, we seek them out. Even if we can’t borrow books, we can still spend a couple of hours reading stories together.
On Saturday we took the dinghy the two miles up river from our pontoon to the City of Truro. Truro is a city by virtue of its having a cathedral and being the county town of Cornwall. It’s a lovely market town with footbridges crossing little streams and lots of locally owned cafes and shops.
At that very moment – noon – a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party was beginning in the library’s garden. Library staff served a selection of delicious foods – sausages, tomatoes, home-made cakes and biscuits, all sorts of chocolate delights, and jelly – and in the garden the children could make their own Mad Hatter ears, go on a treasure hunt, and have their faces painted by the Queen of Hearts. Another member of staff called the children around her and read stories from a ‘Nursery Alice in Wonderland’.
The garden itself was beautiful – opened two years ago by one of the girl’s favourite TV characters, Mr. Bloom. It contained a mixture of ornamental and edible plants – carrots, lettuce, chard, spinach, peas, beans, strawberries and herbs were growing in raised beds, hanging bags, and even in the drawers of an old filing cabinet. In one corner a large bug garden hung on a wall, with bricks and twigs and old odds and ends designed to attract insects to the garden. The walls of the garden were decorated with paintings and murals and, for the Tea Party, larger playing cards and other references to Alice in Wonderland were planted in the beds.
The girls and I had a wonderful time at the party, while Julian went off to explore the library’s collection of sailing books. When the party ended, we went to the children’s library and spent over an hour reading wonderful books – some old friends we hadn’t read for a long time and others new to us. Shortly before we left a staff member came and asked the girls if they were Lily and Katie. They had won the treasure hunt and were presented with a gorgeous knitted Alice in Wonderland doll. It was the icing on the cake for them!
Thank you to the wonderful and creative staff at Truro public library for giving us such an unexpected treat. And to anyone who thinks that libraries are an unnecessary waste of taxpayer’s money I suggest you spend a couple of hours in a local library – you’ll soon change your mind. Not only do they open up worlds of reading to children and adults, but they provide an essential space to people who want to develop skills, look for jobs, or who simply need a quiet space to think.