Shelf life – Fionnuala Ward on libraries and childhood

An Irishwoman’s Diary

There’s a library at the end of my road, right beside the park. Having a park and a library at the end of the road is a double bonus. Much more, in fact, because the park is a joy and the library a wonder.

It’s an art deco building with all those added shapes and patterns and functionless details that some architect at some stage deemed necessary for a public building, and budget be damned.

There are times when I'm walking under the trees, with the library in full view, I half expect Miss Marple to pass by and smile sweetly at me from under her bonnet.

And now that I think of it, my first book to take out of Drumcondra library was a collection of Agatha Christie short stories, which I ended up reading while house-bound with the virus. And since then, I've just ordered books that have taken my fancy. The ever-helpful staff have put all requests into the system and a week or so later a note will pop up in my email that they're there to collect.

I’m not the greatest of readers. I read much more as a child. Back then, it was part of our Saturday morning routine to join the queue winding its way down the stairs of Navan library.

The library was on the top floor of a building and the children's section was minuscule. Not much more than a table, in truth, so a lot of sifting through had to take place. Some books had high status. There was an American series about a mystery-solving quartet of siblings called the "Bobbsey Twins", and boy, if you managed to get your hands on one of their adventures, you felt you'd really scored. There must have been Enid Blyton there as well. I'm not sure. But I had a bit of an obsession with the Famous Five at the time and had already got my hands on every one of their exploits and read them cover to cover.

Looking back on it now, I could have saved myself time and just read the one as it was the same plot in all 21 books – sea and islands and disengaged adults and smugglers and lights flicking on and off in the dark and an awful lot of food and something called ginger beer, which I never fully understood at the time and to be honest, still don’t now.

We have a library in the primary school I work in, which the children love. For all their talk of video games and devices and Netflix shows – and I was doing jobs with some sixth class pupils recently, where they took to meticulously dissecting the plot of season after season of a show involving never-ending battles with angels or possibly aliens or possibly non-aliens or angels – they do love a book.

If you go into an older classroom, there are always the thickest of novels sitting there on their tables.

And then there are picture books, which are associated for the most part with younger classes. But there are the most glorious picture books out there now and I defy anyone to be in a room where a picture book is being read out loud and not kind of, really, absolutely want to know what happens in the end.

The library is in an old listed building on the same campus as the school. It has a corner seat you have to climb up into with a lovely squishy cushion. The children make a bee line for it whenever it’s their turn to have access to the room, and in contravention of all known rules of physics, they’ll somehow manage to tuck every part of their body into that cushion while curling themselves around a book.

A lot of work has taken place in the library of late, categorising books and the like. The children spent an afternoon perfecting their origami skills and the library now has a soaring butterfly display with the message “Reading gives your imagination wings” in pride of place.

The Lord Mayor, Alison Gilliland, came to visit the school recently and as part of her visit officially opened the library.

Alison is a friend and former primary school teacher with a huge interest in children’s literacy and was therefore very much at home talking about books and the importance of libraries.

As for me, I’ll continue to pass by the library at the end of my road and occasionally look up to take in its odd, sublime symmetry.

And, of course, every now and then I’ll actually mount its steps to collect whatever book it is I’ve ordered, which will be sitting there on the shelf to the left, just as you enter.