“Standing in front of the adult shelves”: LGBTQ adults’ memories of libraries

A blog post by Sarah Pyke

“Living opposite the library saved me”, Carol tells me in our first interview, “completely saved me.” A clever, working-class girl growing up in 1960s South London, Carol read partly to escape an unhappy home life: “I read my way out of insanity […] to keep it together really.” As a child, she visited the library “literally every day.” For Jo, the library was a place of “comfort”: it had “a carpet. Colours. Comfy chairs” as well as “lots and lots and lots and lots of books.” Amy remembers the mobile library van that visited her rural Scottish primary school in the mid-to-late 1980s and early nineties. “That van had a lot of promise,” she explains. “It was very exciting […] Like, what can I find in here?” [1].

Carol and Amy identify as lesbians, and have done since young adulthood; Jo is a bisexual transwoman in her mid-sixties who came out in late middle age. Their recollections are just three examples from the oral histories of books and reading I’ve gathered from self-identified LGBTQ adults, in which the library figures as a crucial site of refuge, exploration, self-definition – even salvation.

Dulwich Library

LGBT section, Dulwich Library, 2017. Image credit: Sarah Pyke.

The library has historically fostered specific pleasures – and frustrations – for the LGBTQ reader. On first hearing “lesbian” as a teenager in 1945, Sandy Kern “ran to the library … and looked up the word lesbian and I felt so proud of myself” [2]. Some sixty years later, I circled two small shelves in my local library, then carefully labelled “Lesbian and Gay”. Eventually, I plucked up the courage to pick up a book, then to take one out. For the curious and questioning, those bent on carrying out what Doris Lunden refers to in another oral historical account as “the research that I think has been done by so many lesbians throughout history”, the library is a vital portal [3].

The “comfort” of the library can also be derived from its rules and systems, an ordering of the otherwise chaotic or unstable. Another of my narrators, Mary – a gay woman in her mid-forties – recalls her bafflement, on the cusp of adolescence, “standing in front of the adult shelves, going how do you decide what to read? How do you negotiate it?” At a similar age, Carol, like the teenage protagonist in Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), “started at the As and worked my way through.”

Yet for my narrators, and for other LGBTQ readers, this negotiation of the “adult shelves” can be a particularly delicate or risky business. Looking up “homosexuality” in the dictionary for the first time, Vince Mancino, interviewed by Kath Weston, “took the book and brought it into my room and I hid the dictionary”. For Mancino, there is something dangerously revealing about the circulation of the term “homosexuality” in print; “it was as if”, he says, “I had been found out […] as if I had always known the definition; now I knew the term” [4].

Not only are issues of sexual self-definition and textual definition often bound together, but reading is inescapably a social act. To read – particularly in a public library, subject to the scrutiny of others – is also to be read. “Friends of mine from an earlier generation who were interested in investigating sexuality and sexual identity”, commented Johanna Drucker during the AHRC “Books and the Human” debate held at Central Saint Martins, London, in December 2015, “were timid about going to the section of the library where the books were stored on the shelf.” For the LGBTQ reader, the relations between books and bodies, both so often socially and culturally circumscribed, can be peculiarly charged.

After watching a TV adaptation of Quentin Crisp’s 1968 memoir The Naked Civil Servant aired in the mid-1970s and experiencing “really strange feelings”, Tony, interviewed for the Hall-Carpenter archive of gay and lesbian life stories, “had to read that book. It became an obsession.” Locating it in his local library, however, he “found that it was on the reserved stock list. So it became impossible to get out […] Because it meant I would have to ask for it”. For Tony, his sexuality was – quite literally – unspeakable. “In the end”, he explains, he “wrote a little note to the librarian” and passed it, in silence, across the counter.

To read Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928) as a teenager in 1950s America, “you had to go to the locked room in the college library and explain why you wanted it”, says science fiction writer Joanna Russ – “a requirement”, she points out, “that effectively prevented me from getting within a mile of it” [5]. Kath Weston recalls her own “raid on the college library” during which she “uncovered” a copy of Violette Leduc’s 1966 “boarding school romance” Therese et Isabelle. “Hands shaking”, Weston checked out the book with “a borrowed library card” [6].

The_Well_Of_Loneliness_by_Radclyffe_Hall_-_Permabooks_P112_1951

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (Permabooks, 1951), via Wikimedia Commons.

A few years after his hesitant encounter with Crisp’s memoir, Tony also turned his attention to Hall’s notorious novel. Once again, the book was on the reserved stock list, but this time he requested it without embarrassment. “It had last been taken out in 1953. This is in a local library, in Salford,” he explains. “And, I mean, I’m talking now about 1983 or ‘84, so it’s thirty years since anybody had ever had The Well of Loneliness, from that particular library.” Brought into suggestive conjunction with the body of the reader, Tony’s phrasing invites a consideration of the book as an object to be touched and held.

Andy, a gay man in his fifties, remembers during a conversation with me “the yellowed pages and the smell of library books and where I was when I read them”; these are tactile, sensory objects, invitingly material things of paper, ink and glue. While Tony conjures the last imagined reader who “had” The Well of Loneliness, “some lesbian who lived in Swinton in the fifties”, for Andy too, libraries create moments of community and connection with other bodies, other readers: “going into [the library] and getting [the book] and reading it, and knowing other people had read it, and being able to look at the date stamps and see approximately when they’d read it.” These are the “intimacies”, as Leah Price observes, established “even between strangers who handle the same piece of paper, unbeknownst to one another” [7].

“When the book was put back,” Tony continues, “they put it back on the shelves, not in the reserved stock list.” The new positioning of Hall’s novel is both a significant political act in its own right, and a metaphor for Tony’s own ‘coming out’, as the object of the book and the subject of the reader overlap and mesh. In, as he triumphantly puts it, “liberating Radclyffe Hall” – making the book visible, accessible and public, bringing it out of the ‘closet’ of the reserved stock list and onto the general shelves – Tony reflects his own increased confidence in living openly as a gay man.

In carrying out this research, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that libraries hold stories which proliferate beyond the classified and shelved: stories of confusion, fear and shame, yes, but also stories of connection, community, resistance, affirmation, recognition. For every locked room, reserved stock list or borrowed library card, there are those committed to upholding the library as a democratic, free, civic space – the “heroic librarians” recalled by poet Sophie Mayer in Ali Smith’s Public Library and Other Stories (2015), who displayed work by queer authors in the “small suburban library” of her childhood “even after the passage of Section 28” [8].

Oral histories provide a unique opportunity for these stories – many of which may otherwise have remained untold – to be heard, and, importantly, to be amplified to policy-makers and politicians. In the current climate of austerity, perhaps listening to, sharing and preserving what library users have to say is more necessary than ever. Silence in the library is one thing, but as the UK’s public libraries continue to be subject to punishing funding cuts, staff layoffs and local branch closures, we must not remain silent about them.

Sarah Pyke

Notes

[1] Quotations from Carol, Jo, Amy, Mary and Andy are taken from oral history interviews I carried out with them during 2015, as the PhD researcher on the Memories of Fiction project.

[2] Sandy Kern, in The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, ed. Joan Nestle, (Boston, MA: Alyson Publications, 1992), p. 56

[3] Elly Bulkin, “An old dyke’s tale: An interview with Doris Lunden” in The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, ed. Joan Nestle, (Boston, MA: Alyson Publications, 1992), p. 110

[4] Kath Weston, “Get Thee to a Big City: Sexual Imaginary and the Great Gay Migration.” GLQ, vol. 2, no. 3, 1995, p. 258

[5] Joanna Russ, “Introduction,” in Uranian Worlds: a reader’s guide to alternative sexuality in science fiction and fantasy, ed. Eric Garber and Lyn Paleo, (Boston, MA: Hall, 1990), pp. xxxiii–iv

[6] Kath Weston, “Get Thee to a Big City: Sexual Imaginary and the Great Gay Migration.” GLQ, vol. 2, no. 3, 1995, p. 259

[7] Leah Price, How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain, (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012), p. 12-13

[8] Ali Smith, Public Library and Other Stories, (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2015), pp. 75-6

Advertisements

A tale of two libraries

It is striking how different book groups organise themselves. Take, for example the two that meet in Putney and Roehampton public libraries. They seem to be alike. Both are in the London borough of Wandsworth; they are about a mile and a half apart; within walking distance of one another. They meet monthly, are overwhelming female in membership and both have professional librarians making reading suggestions and facilitating discussion. There similarities end.

Readers in the Putney Library group follow the standard practice of picking a book which they all read and then discuss. The books chosen for deliberation are usually those that have attracted positive press reviews and include novels short-listed for major literary prizes. The discussions that follow are reminiscent of university seminars. In contrast, members of the Roehampton Library group each individually select a novel to read and then discuss their choice with a view to convince fellow members that their choice of book is worth reading. Roehampton readers are much less likely to restrict themselves to fiction endorsed by recognised literary critics and commentators. While Roehampton’s reading would include science fiction, horror and historical family sagas, Putney’s would not.

Individual interviews with members of both book circles provides evidence of important variations in their past lived experiences. The Putney group are in the main retired from occupations that involved critical discussion and most recall working in some capacity or another as professional readers, including teaching. In contrast, most of Roehampton’s members have been employed in a range of unskilled or semi-skilled occupations with periods of unemployment. Some remember coming late to literacy and then making up for lost time by voraciously reading later in life.

Putney Library

Attribution (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) Mark Pack, Putney Library, 2010.

The individual life histories are in tune with statistical surveys undertaken in the Borough. Putney’s library sits at the centre of East and West Putney, with East Putney being one of the more affluent wards in England. Roehampton in contrast houses the much less well off.  Since the inter-war years Putney’s residents have been traditionally drawn from the higher professions, including today’s elite of bankers, entrepreneurs and footballers.  E.M. Forster and Nigel Williams are on the area’s long list of former and current notables. While Putney has retained its open green spaces, and remains popular with runners and cyclists, Roehampton’s once similar landscape underwent dramatic change in the twentieth century. The ward claims one of the earliest council housing developments in Britain, now called Dover House Estate as well as one of the largest housing schemes, the Alton, with 2,000 flats on 100 acres. Built by the London County Council in the 1950s, it provided the bleakly dystopian backdrop for Francois Truffaut’s 1966 film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.[1] Thirty-two years later English Heritage awarded the scheme status and more recently the estate that still dominates Roehampton has been praised as a fine example of the British Modern Movement – or ‘New Brutalist’ school of architecture – mainly by people who don’t live there. Roehampton library sits at the edge of the estate.

Roehamption Library

Attribution  (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) Graham Smith, Roehampton Library, 2016.

The two localities are also dissimilar demographically. Published government statistics, suggest that Putney’s residents are much more likely than Roehampton’s to have been educated to a higher standard and have either retired from or continue to enjoy more secure, interesting and better paid jobs. The same source suggests that the people of Putney are also much more able to defend their public services than those living in Roehampton.[2] Unsurprisingly, in their group interviews, Putney’s readers were keen to discuss their concerns about reductions in their library provision. At the time of the interviews, the Roehampton circle were meeting around a table in the middle of the library, with other readers wandering past. This was an arrangement put to and successfully resisted by Putney’s group and instead their meetings had been relocated to the library staff’s common room.

However, it isn’t just occupation and environment that provides contrast between the two adjacent wards. The population of Putney have long enjoyed much better health than those living in Roehampton. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, official statistics were recording significant differences in life expectancy. This amounted to an additional average of 6.8 years of life for females and 8.9 years for males in least deprived areas of Wandsworth compared to the most disadvantaged.  Such variances are amongst the widest in London for both men and women, with the two most frequent underlying recorded causes of death in the under 75s being cancer and circulatory disease; mobidity patterns more prevalent amongst the less well off. [3] Little wonder that members of the Roehampton group frequently observed that ‘life’s too short’ to read a novel that cannot hold the reader’s attention; regardless of the praise it might have received from literary critics.

1969324_447325358732738_791772825_nAt a time of continuing austerity, public libraries are in danger of being perceived by politicians as a luxury. Yet, the social value of libraries and their buttressing of the public good are recurring themes in our research. No matter the groups we worked with, our libraries remain significant in the everyday lives of both the better and the less well off. As community resources in localities as diverse as Roehampton and Putney, public libraries provide space and most importantly the expertise of librarians helping in turn to promote discussion. Readers understand libraries as places where civic society can flourish. Libraries continue to be important in the production of informed citizenship. But libraries are under threat. One final point: the risk from cuts and resulting diminishment is greater to libraries in places such as Roehampton, despite the population’s more obvious need for resource and thirst for reading

Graham Smith

[1] See here for a scene from the film set on the Alton (last accessed 8th July 2017).

[2] Extracted from the Index of Deprivation are available from the UK Government Website English indices of deprivation 2015 (last accessed 8th July 2017).

[3] Wandsworth, Key messages 2014: Health inequality, (last accessed 8th July 2017).

Remembering children’s books and libraries – a report

It was a privilege to participate in two recent events at Putney and Balham libraries on 31 May and 7 June 2017 as part of Wandsworth Heritage Festival.

Pic of book display left

Some of the books displayed from Wandsworth’s Children’s Books collection

At Putney, it was delightful to see the range of early children’s books selected by children’s librarian Ferelith Hordon, from fairytales to Enid Blyton and many, many more. Ferelith is a font of knowledge on children’s books and also shared some of her own memories, while it was also very interesting to hear memories and comments from the audience. Special thanks to Ferelith and to Diane Norman who brought in a few of her own books, such as Heidi (see image below). It was also a good chance to talk about the memories we’ve gathered through the project’s interviews, of children’s books ranging from The Hungry Caterpillar and Alice in Wonderland to Blyton’s (the most frequently recalled books, by about half of the people we talked to, were Blyton’s). In particular, I talked about how people remember scenes of reading at least as much as the content of what they read, as where Alison Barton remembered her dad theatrically reading Alice, and Sandra Newnham recalls sitting on the bus with her nana and a board book. We also took a look at Strewwelpeter (translated Shock Headed Peter), a book recalled by Johanna Williams, who rightly describes it as ‘very gruesome’: its moralistic stories include the boy who sucked his thumbs and had them cut off.

Pic of Heidi

Diane Norman with Heidi and photograph of herself as a child with the book.

At Balham there was much enthusiasm for libraries! We have found that people value libraries as public spaces as well as sources of books (as reported in earlier blost posts on this website; see below). Libraries have helped people to get through difficult periods of childhood, for example, while they provide places to study, enabling older children and young adults to get the grades and opportunities they hoped for. They provide spaces for individuals to have some quiet time to think but also social spaces for reading groups to meet, and our discussion led into Alison Barton’s (librarian and book group facilitator) wonderful observations about reading groups, not least how different people experience books very differently according to their life experiences, and how peoples’ initial reactions to a book can be completely changed by what others say about it. It was also fantastic to hear the discussion amongst everybody who came along, to hear a range of memories and thoughts about libraries, including Pat Kahn’s childhood memory of living across the road from a library which offered her a hugely exciting sense of independence, freedom and discovery.

I will next be writing a post to contribute to the Libraries Taskforce website (now posted here). We are keen to use all this material to help support the case for libraries and to inform how libraries continue in future.

Thanks again for all your contributions, and also to those who have commented on various posts.

 

 

Libraries

Just a quick post to thank all who came to the events at Putney and Balham library. The discussions were very enjoyable and informative indeed.  Just back from a trip to Victoria in Canada to the annual conference held by the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing, and now about to go on annual leave for a week, so I haven’t a chance to report further right now but look forward to doing so in a couple of weeks!

Wandsworth Heritage Festival

Looking forward to participating in Wandsworth Heritage Festival with the two Memories of Fiction talks on 31 May and 7 June 2017:

(1) Memories of Children’s BooksWe invite you to discuss your memories of children’s books, especially as material objects: their covers, their smell, their feel. Led by Ferelith Hordon (Children’s Librarian) and Shelley Trower, and accompanied by a display from Wandsworth’s collection of early children’s books.

(2) Our Lives in Libraries. A discussion of our memories of libraries and what they mean to us, ranging from childhood to the present, from book groups to cuts and hopes for the future. Led by Alison Barton (librarian) and Shelley Trower.

The full festival programme is now available, with talks and walks and much more. Hope to see you there!

Public discussions and archive launch

Happy to announce two events this coming May and June 2017: public discussions on the topics of ‘Memories of Children’s Books‘ and ‘Our Lives in Libraries‘ as part of Wandsworth Heritage Festival in South London. The events are free, refreshments provided, and all welcome!

We’d also be delighted if you have any memories of children’s books, or libraries, to share (at the event, or in the comments below). Could you name a book you remember reading in childhood? What do you remember about that book? Can you describe a memory you have childrens_libraryinus
of visiting a library, from childhood or more recently? Can you remember any of the books you encountered there?

Also pleased to report that Memories of Fiction interviews are now available on the University of Roehampton’s project webpages (click on the ‘Archive’ tab). Thanks again to all the interviewees for their thoughts, memories, and insights into reading experiences… We look forward to further discussions in Putney and Balham libraries soon!goya_y_lucientes2c_francisco_de_-_woman_reading_to_two_children_-_google_art_project

Libraries and reading groups

It’s time to begin to foreground what readers have to say about libraries and especially their reading groups. The people we’ve interviewed have provided wonderful accounts of the rich and varied ways in which libraries can benefit our lives. We’re in the process of making more of the audio recordings available, but with our interests in reading it also seems pertinent to read, as well as listen to, what people have to say. First stop, is an extract from Jane’s interview about her library group (which was somewhat buried in the previous post):

  • Because I don’t live with somebody, and I don’t have a partner, and even when I did live with somebody, he wasn’t a reader… everything I read, I don’t discuss it with anybody. And when I was really lonely in my teens, I would read and read and read and read… I would have dreams where I was talking, I was talking about books and talking about what I was reading, and I just was so, starved of anybody to discuss what I was reading, or comment on it, or, so, I think reading for me has become just a very, very solitary thing, which is why the book group amuses me immensely. I love it, I just love it…  I’ve palled up with a couple of the people, just in a quiet way, but that’s a sort of nice way of meeting people, and you kind of, you listen to what they’ve got to say about the books, and I just think it’s really, a really nice thing to do… and people are very caring. There’s an elderly lady who’s very ill, and people are very very caring, and trying to see if they can get her in the car to get her to come, and they always make sure she’s got the book, and people obviously help each other…
  • I’d fight on the barricades to keep the libraries open, but there’s rumours they’re going to knock that one down… Libraries are now the only free places that people can go, aren’t they. I mean where else can you go? You can’t go anywhere else that’s free. Nowhere. Shopping malls. That’s all… The main Battersea library has got the most beautiful reference library, and now, at this time of year, every – with the lovely old desks – it is chock-a-block with students revising… I think people should know that, that young people, who haven’t got room to study in their flats, I mean it is absolutely packed at this time of year.

Anonymous:

  • [Asked about her reading group:] It kind of reignited my interest in reading, because I hadn’t really read properly apart from magazines and stuff for maybe years… I love, I just love the bond that we have… and I think that it would be hard to leave, I think we still enjoy reading, so we enjoy it all. That’s something that’s important for me anyway, and that’s my date, you know… I have to be there regardless, unless I’m going on holiday or something, I’ve got to be there.

Audrey Bishop

  • Though I go to the library now, I never went to the library before I joined the reading group, not very often anyway… I was at work full-time, so for a long time I didn’t go anywhere very much. And as I say, until I was 74 I never went to the cinema on my own. I never went anywhere on my own. And it’s actually the knitting group [also at the library] and the reading group have made such a difference to me. I’ve made friends with people.

For the full interview with Audrey click the following link (the extract is around 1 hour 27 minutes into the first interview): www.roehampton.ac.uk/research-centres/memories-of-fiction/archive/audrey/

We’re in the process of tidying up and making more interviews available online.

We will continue to bring together experiences and memories of libraries, not least for a discussion at Wandsworth Heritage Festival in late May or early June which is in currently being organised. More soon!

Libraries

Working at a university, I’m bound to think libraries are pretty useful. In my year on maternity leave, I’ve been reminded of their value not only to gather books and information, but also as spaces for children among many other people at different times of life, doing different things. I’ve taken my baby to the singing group at my local library, and on rainy, tired days, the library is there to dive into, where my oldest child loves digging out books for us to read on the carpet. More than just getting through the day, we encounter a whole lot of books we wouldn’t otherwise have come across, opening our minds to new stories, to new ways of thinking and imagining and new kinds of knowledge. And that’s all before we’ve even borrowed any to take home.img_1069-2

These trips to the library have been reminders of our project, and when I’ve had a moment I’ve sometimes listened to the interviews and book group discussions carried out over the last two years. Many of the readers point out that it’s through their library-based reading groups that they encounter books they’d not otherwise have known about or got around to reading, and that these have been enlightening, surprising, enjoyable, providing experiences beyond one’s own very limited world. We’re keen to begin to make use of the insightful and fascinating things people have said, and with the closure of many public libraries, and the threatened closure of many more, it seems important to prioritise this issue. We’re keen to support the campaign for libraries, to help make a case for why libraries matter.

As the interviews illustrate, libraries are not just places where you borrow books. Nowadays, with so much to read on the internet, with cheap books on Amazon, it’s easy to imagine they’re becoming redundant, but while the availability of books continues to be important, libraries also serve many other purposes and needs. One point that comes across again and again in the interviews, is how libraries provide a space for people to spend time in, browsing, sitting, thinking, reading, away from everyday concerns. When Jane moved to London as a child, for example, she says she was ‘saved by Roehampton library’, where she spent much time reading. Reading has provided an escape, helped to fill empty time and to evade loneliness. As for many others, books have become ‘old friends’. Ferelith would spend hours in an Edinburgh library discovering a great range of books, which surely led to her career as a childrens’ librarian. For Julie and others, school libraries were ‘fantastic’, providing access to a wealth of reading material and helping to educate. Libraries provide spaces for discovery, for relaxation, a time for quiet, for opening your mind.

Beyond individual lives, libraries are home to numerous reading groups, providing a social space where people can talk about books and forge new communities. Jane has felt welcomed to her reading group, which she finds ‘very very caring’ and a great community to be part of. For Audrey, her local reading group introduced her to the local library and has made a great difference to her life. She never used to go out on her own and is now more confident, also making new friends.

The interviews provide a wealth of material that illustrates the importance of libraries. This blog post does not do justice to the words of Jane and the others. We look forward to the next stages of the project, which include plans to make the interviews themselves more fully available. For now, for a sample of extracts from an interview containing a passionate account of libraries and library groups, please click here.

We will also be organising a series of public talks in libraries in 2017. Watch this space!

Update and conference report

Just a quick post to explain why it’s been quiet around here lately: two members of the project team, Shelley and Amy, are on parental leave. We look forward to returning in December (Shelley) and February (Amy).

In the meantime, here’s a report on the recent Oral History Society conference, ‘Beyond Text in the Digital Age? Oral History, Images and the Written Word’, which the AHRC and Memories of Fiction project helped support. Some great papers from Mary Grover, Sarah Pyke (another project team member), and others on oral histories of reading, and also a wealth of other talks and topics responding excellently to the conference themes. Thanks to all involved.

Fully funded PhD studentship available – apply now

The Memories of Fiction project is delighted to announce a fully-funded 3-year postgraduate research studentship at the University of Roehampton, and based in the English and Creative Writing Dept. Proposals that can link in with the Memories of Fiction project are particularly welcome. Such proposals might relate to one or more of the following areas: reading, memory, oral history, life writing, voice/writing, book studies.

Full details and info on how to apply can be found here
Please note that the deadline is 31st August.

Find out more about English and Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton here.