National Library Week: The libraries that made all the difference in my life


Being a book detective at the University of Rhodesia (Zimbabwe as it is now) back in 1978 was undoubtedly one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. 

I was charged with finding books that had mysteriously disappeared. In those days, that meant searching for clues in old check-out cards stamped with purple dates and scribbled names; ensuring that the book was still in the card catalogue and hadn’t been intentionally removed from the inventory – and, most excitingly – scouring the stacks for those which had been incorrectly shelved. 

I’ll (conveniently) give the example of my own novel, Nature Lessons (St. Martin’s Press, NY 2003). My search for that title in the library, had the book existed then, might perhaps have taken me from travel to nature to pedagogy sections, instead of fiction, where it should have been shelved.

How I loved pondering where an ambiguous title might land, and how I rejoiced in finding the lost book. 

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Taken the year I worked at the University of Zimbabwe Library (University of Rhodesia in 1978); on a tobacco farm with long-ago boyfriend Graeme (not a patch on my now-husband Bill…)

Not to mention the pleasures of wandering among the stacks, breathing in the smell of old pages and fresh print, scanning the shelves for the out-of-place publication, occasionally coming across a fascinating memoir, or novel, or book about nature or science… 

…and then playing hooky, plonking myself down on the wooden floor between stacks, cross-legged, eagerly reading in short bursts, fingers turning dusty pages, before reluctantly returning to my more mundane duties.

My love of libraries began early in life. Every week my father would go to the library and come home with three titles.

At the age of eight, I was determined to read every book in the house. 

Many were beyond me, of course, but still I loved the mystery that the words contained, couldn’t wait to be old enough to understand them all: the memoir of the woman in the iron lung because of polio; Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K Jerome, so funny, which would later become one of my all-time favorite books; all of PG Wodehouse; and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which my dad gave my mom, inscribed, “Love, Scot,” before they divorced, before he died.

The only, very blurry, photo I have of me and my dad

After his death, much changed in my life. Paranoia took over my mother’s thinking.

Her brothers and sisters, she said, were in cahoots with the government, spying on us, eavesdropping, plotting, planning our downfall. We fell into poverty. Cockroaches skittered in our kitchen, there were lost jobs, there were evictions; there was anger, and frustration, and hatred; the air in the flat thick with her bitter accusations and the smoke of her ever-burning cigarettes.

But I always had books. 

At the Durban library, I borrowed tales of myths and legends of the world, long before I knew of Joseph Campbell; I devoured Agatha Christie and Gerald Durrell and Jane Austen and fell in love with Middlemarch and Vanity Fair along with Alistair MacLean and Wilbur Smith and so much more. 

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Downtown Durban during the 1960s: the library was a block away from City Hall See the trolley bus in the foreground

In high school, I took refuge in the library during break; it was a quiet, soothing place, away from the rush and noise of kids who seemed so confident in themselves, kids I didn’t dare approach.

For me then, as it is now for so many young people – poor, ostracized, or lonely, needy for all kinds of reasons – the library was my umbilical cord, the books I took home nourishing me with tales of lives beyond my own, letting me know that others out there thought the way I did, felt the way I did, that there was logic and reason as well as magic and mystery in the world that I would one day, as an adult, inhabit. 

Libraries must be treasured, cared for, and fully funded. Libraries offer more than education, more than escapism. They give hope, they give respite.

All that I am today, I owe to those libraries and the books within them, and to my father, who first taught me the wonder of the written word.

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