Libraries are cool, but we also need librarians who can read children like a book

In some countries, a lack of investment risks turning growing minds away from books

Good librarians can use their knowledge to guide children around the library’s catalogue. Getty Images
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Cliches abound when I recall my earliest memories of visiting my local library. The expression “Aladdin’s Cave” comes to mind, and I groan inwardly at the reference because it is at once both an accurate and overused description for a library.

Yet it did contain treasures. Every book was a nugget of knowledge. The sections represented undiscovered territories waiting to be mined. I learnt about the hippopotamus and the life of Robin Hood actor Errol Flynn.

Taking home a book was like stealing away a whole world. I carried in my bag pieces of the history of the world or snapshots of great political figures and, of course, infinite stories written by brilliant authors and frankly, some mediocre ones, too.

Yet there was no jeopardy if the book you had chosen disappointed; you simply returned it the next day and picked up another. No money needed to change hands unless you fell foul of the dreaded late fees.

These days, only the experience of Netflix comes close to that feeling of going to the library as a child and seeing the breadth and depth of the content available to choose. But you have to pay to use Netflix, of course. Also, Netflix could never replicate the librarian, no matter how powerful its algorithm.

The duality of that role seemed to me to be that they had to be both like a wizard and the police.

The librarian seemed to be able to discern like a water diviner exactly which book would captivate my growing mind

If you needed help, they could guide you around the library’s catalogue with an intimacy of its contents that was greater than I had of my own home. Yet the librarian could also quiet me with a stern look and I did not want to have to face the look of disappointment when they checked my record to see I still had failed to return an overdue book.

Although by peering at me, the librarian seemed to be able to discern like a water diviner exactly which book would captivate my growing mind, and for that they still mean so much and always will.

So it was alarming to me when Anthony Horowitz and Meg Rosoff, authors of young adult fiction, told The Times earlier this month that there needs to be more investment in school libraries after a UK survey suggested that half of those aged eight to 18 do not enjoy reading in their spare time.

Rosoff, who wrote How I Live Now, said: “The demise of libraries … means that there are no longer professional people who match kids with books. So you give kids the wrong books and they say they hate reading, when in fact they just didn’t like the book you gave them,” she said.

Horowitz, whose work includes the Alex Rider series, said of the UK: “Literacy will be in danger if we do not support libraries in schools. It is still shocking that libraries and librarians are not in every single school in the country. Unless we feed the love of literature at school, then there is a chance that children will grow up without a love of reading.”

I am grateful then that in the UAE, the trend seems to be the reverse of that in the UK. For example, the good people who run the Mohammed Bin Rashid Library in Dubai are working with publishers, institutions and authors to ensure that school libraries have a wide range of books for children in both English and Arabic.

Equally, the eternal value of reading is evident at a new exhibition in Louvre Abu Dhabi. Some of the oldest and rarest texts of the three monotheistic religions are on display.

“It’s an exhibition about books. It’s really a way of going to the origin of the book,” said its co-curator Laurent Hericher, head of the Oriental manuscripts department at the Bibliotheque nationale de France.

As an adult and as an author myself, the librarian and their domain remain an invaluable support.

When searching for titles to compare my novel Muchafraid to, I struggled. My story is set in 13th-century Baghdad and includes the House of Wisdom, poetry and fantasy elements. There seemed at once to be too many books to choose from and none that really felt like a proper match to accurately identify a potential market and audience for Muchafraid.

Such things are important to know if you want to find a literary agent or publisher for your book. There was a happy ending to my hunt, thankfully. It was when a librarian with an in-depth knowledge of children’s literature came to my rescue. The librarian generously provided insights when I reached out from the cold seeking their help.

She didn’t know me, but she had the typical integrity of a librarian and was more than happy to help get another book into the world – and perhaps one day into their own library to be put in the hands of another curious child to read and enjoy (or not).

I will always be grateful for that spirit.

Published: September 22, 2023, 5:00 AM