There are many things we hold dear that are under threat in this not so brave new world of ours.
Truth is one. Justice is another. Compassion, too.
And one institution that can house all three is the library.
And, yes – you’ve guess it – they are under threat, too.
A library is more than a place to find the latest Lee Child or JK Rowling. It is a sanctuary for knowledge, for understanding, a building which can house the entire world.
What follows is a love letter I wrote a couple of years ago to Glasgow’s most famous library as part of a mass show of affection by writers for the entire system of libraries that we must honour and protect.
Dear Mitchell Library,
As a writer I’ve been privileged to visit many great Scottish libraries, primarily for research. Edinburgh Central Library, Carnegie Library in Ayr, Perth Library, the National Library of Scotland, the National Archives of Scotland have all proved invaluable but it is you, dear Mitchell, which has more often been my source, my fount of wisdom and knowledge. Hell – it’s proved the solid rock on which my writing has been based. Each of the facilities listed above are just as vital to the cultural and historical wellbeing of their community, and the nation, but my love letter must go to that magnificent building at Glasgow’s Charing Cross.
Maybe it’s because I’m a Glaswegian that I hold this great cavern of books and records and newspapers and documents in such high regard. It’s the jewel in the city’s library collection. A magnificent building in its own right, a venue for literary festivals and talks, a quiet spot above the thunder of the M8, a refuge from the sturm und drang of life.
It’s over 100 years old now – it opened in 1911 and has grown in size since then – and it houses over one million items. It is one of the largest public libraries in Europe. That’s something to be proud of. It’s also something good to come out of smoking, for it was created thanks to a bequest by Stephen Mitchell, a tobacco tycoon.
There’s something about sitting in its great reading room that is so settling. The quiet whisper of inquiries at the desk, the rustle of pages being turned, the gentle slap of a volume being laid on the table. As Randy Newman once wrote, feels like home to me. Of course, the same could – and should – be said of every library in the land.
But not every library in the land has what I still call the Glasgow Room.
When I was writing my true crime books and feature articles this was where I spent so many hours, poring over old volumes, sifting through newspapers, fast-forwarding through microfiche records. For as author and journalists Jack House once said, to steal from one source is plagiarism, to steal from many is research. I was there so often and for so long I’m surprised I wasn’t invited to staff parties.
I’m a crime writer so naturally my probes centred on murder and all things nasty. However, it’s so wide-ranging a subject that in the past I’ve had to research housing, social mores, the traditional history of Glasgow – and beyond – as well as matters bloody and unpleasant. And the Mitchell has never let me down. Here I’ve had queries answered by knowledgeable staff, been guided, led, pointed in the right direction until finally, like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, I found what I’ve been looking for. For it’s true, if you can’t find the answer there to any question about what was once known as the Second City of the Empire, then it just didn’t happen.
Over the years there have been cutbacks and changes. Nothing ever stays the same, especially when beans have to be counted and bottom lines have to be drawn. I recall at least one occasion when the Mitchell was under threat. Common sense prevailed, though, and it remains there still, its treasure trove of arcane knowledge a slip of paper away. Or, this being the 21st century, at the click of a mouse. But if it comes under threat again, I will be happy to man the barricades while humming ‘Can You Hear the People Sing?’
I’ve not been there for some time and I miss it. I moved away from the city and it was not so easy to just drop in and dip a toe into the vast pool of knowledge. The Carnegie Library filled part of the void while for two Edinburgh-based projects the city’s Central Library became the touchstone.
But my heart remains with the Mitchell.
For I belong to Glasgow.