Reading Allowed

Reading Allowed   by Chris Paling

The subtitle to this slight book is, True Stories & Curious Incidents from a Provincial Library.

Chris Paling is a published author and librarian. In Reading Allowed, he recounts his experiences from the day to day life of such a public facility in the UK. It makes for an engaging story.

I’m a massive fan of the library system. I remember the library van coming to our primary school, and the excitement it engendered when we got a chance to go in and pick out some books. My love of books has remained with me ever since, and the library has always been at the heart of it.

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Paling’s book is more than just a description of the library MO, it also provides insight into the place in the local community that the library holds. The ‘Provincial Library’ where the author works is perhaps more unusual in that it is set in a larger urban area where there are many strange and wonderful characters. Such incidents, as recalled in Reading Allowed, do not happen on too regular a basis in the smaller libraries that I have frequented all my life. Perhaps that is my loss, although I would imagine that the librarians are none too disappointed to have avoided such chaos.

Bessbrook library with Anne

  • Bessbrook library, County Armagh (with head librarian)

In Paling’s tales, the homeless feature often. They move into the library during the cold weather as it is the one place where they can find refuge from the elements. Many of these nomads also like to read, thereby dispelling the myth that they are simple-minded or uneducated. I have encountered homeless people who have simply chosen to leave the rat-race of modern life to live free. It’s a tough station and I admire those who choose it as a way of life. I know that I couldn’t do it.

Then there are the older people who are lonely and want nothing more than to visit the library so that they might pass a word or two with another person. Paling’s recollection of some of these people do not, in my estimation, reflect too well upon him. Perhaps he is simply modest, yet I couldn’t help but feel that in his documented interactions with the lonely, he was less than friendly or welcoming. I sensed distance. I accept that I wasn’t there so can’t know for certain.

I do believe that Chris Paling has a keen eye for detail. He notices things that many would not, such as the lone stay-at-home father who brings his little girl to the children’s groups, only to feel excluded by the mothers there. Paling also recalls the approach of the children themselves, their fears, their joy and their personalities.

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  • Inverness Public Library shown above

There are some heartwarming stories in Reading Allowed. Instances of kindness among ordinary people abound, restoring an ofttimes shaky faith in humanity. Yet there are also the heartbreaking tales. The drug addicts who shoot up in the toilets. The alcoholics who sleep their troubles away. The thieves who prowl the library in search of easy pickings. There is a plethora of such characters in this book.

There is the crazy cyclist who rides into the building and around the shelves trying to get out before security catch him. There is the Special Needs group and Trish who wants to marry the librarian. There is the man with dementia who has his good days and bad. There is Trev, the security guard, who appears to take even the craziest day in his large stride, and is respectful to even the most unruly customer.

In Reading Allowed, we are also introduced to the structures of the library itself. As someone who has been in many libraries, I gained great insight into the inner workings of a library from this book. The inner sanctum is detailed here, as are the processes involved in running such a facility.

Sadly, the library system in the UK is under enormous threat. Successive governments have deigned to strip the entire institution bare. I watch today as the resources available to the staff and customers are reduced bit by bit. This insidious practice, if allowed to continue, will eventually see an end to a once great public service. Book number are being reduced. Computers have software that fails regularly. Opening hours are cut. Staff numbers are slashed. The libraries are dying a slow death. It is disgraceful that governments always have the money to pay for  missiles, and guns, and submarines and battleships and jet fighters, yet struggle to keep hospitals open, to keep schools open, to keep libraries open.

The priorities of those who run the state are seriously messed up.

Librarians who have devoted their lives to the provision of a wonderful service are forced to look on as all they built is torn down by those whose children can afford to buy books, or whose families have their own libraries or access to fine universities with huge collections not available to the ‘hoi polloi’.

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  • Oxford University library (one of many) shown above

Internet? Bollox! Many families cannot afford to buy laptops, or pay for broadband. And that is setting aside the social aspect of the libraries where children go to listen to stories being read by hardworking librarians, where reading groups gather to discuss, where conversation is possible. I shudder to think of the type of world that is being fostered by those who see only profit and power as of import.

Reading Allowed touches upon all of these issues. We are gently reminded of how the local library is a social hub for many. It might be that that is the most important aspect of this enjoyable book, though I won’t discount the pleasure that the reader will get from meeting some of those who frequent a place where we can all borrow tomes of stories. I suppose, in this way, a library is a means of facilitating escape from our lives. Each book is a window, or a doorway, through which we can look or enter, if only for a while. All those books, all those escapes, all those dreams, the library holds them all.

Anyone who reads books will enjoy this book. Anyone who visits libraries anywhere will enjoy this book a lot. Anyone who supports the library service will be angry at what is being done to what we love. Anyone who favours the free provision of knowledge and information to their community will be impressed at all that the library does. Anyone who cares about creating a better society may wish to become involved in fighting the short-sighted ingrates who would see the libraries shut.

Reading Allowed is a must for bibliophiles and those with a curiosity to understand exactly what goes on in that building that you might visit, or indeed that building that you walk past everyday.

Sult scale rating: 7.5 out of 10. Reading encouraged of Reading Allowed.