What libraries mean to me with Val McDermid

Crime writer Val McDermid is a perpetual favourite with Edinburgh Library borrowers. Her books, with their atmospheric covers and poetic titles, tell stories of crime, justice and retribution in Scotland. She has also written an updated Jane Austen novel, set during the Edinburgh Festival, Northanger Abbey, and picture book My Granny is a Pirate.

A long term champion of books and libraries, here McDermid tells us what libraries mean to her, and why the written word is what will ultimately carry us through.

Val McDermid, photograph by KT Bruce

What do libraries (including Edinburgh City Libraries) mean to you as a reader, and as a writer? Are the meanings different?
When I go in to the library with my borrower’s card, I feel like Little Jack Horner with his pudding and pie – I stick in my thumb and pull out a plum! There’s always a moment where I encounter something new, and that’s half of the pleasure of reading.

As a writer, libraries have been a huge part of learning my craft. Not just by experiencing the work of other writers and stealing their tricks, but also as a place for research. I started publishing back in the days before Google, when research meant physically searching reference sections, calling up books from the stacks and inter-library loans. And there are still times when only a library will do. Newspaper archives, for example, are a nightmare to search online. The indices of historical biographies lead to all sorts of interesting paths! So I still see them as a valuable resource.

What is your earliest library memory?
When I was a toddler in Kirkcaldy, my mum used to push me across our sprawling council estate to the Templehall Library where she would read me picture books and nursery rhymes.

Are you struggling to cope without a library? What advice would you give to those who love the library and can no longer go in?
I’m frustrated because I’ve got an idea for something new and I need the National Library of Scotland’s archives to help me develop it.

For regular library users, I’d recommend discovering what digital resources your library offers – audio books, ebooks etc. Find an online book group that shares your tastes, or challenge yourself with one that doesn’t!

The hard thing is finding something to compensate for the social life of the library. These days, libraries offer so much more than access to books!

A lot of people are struggling to read books right now. They have time, but they find their attention span shattered by the strange and frightening situation we’re in. What are you reading at the moment? What books would you recommend to those struggling to read?
Even the First Minister, a devotee of fiction, is admitting to finding it a struggle right now. I’m doing a mix of old favourites and the new books that still keep arriving through my letter box. What always works when all else fails are short stories. You’ll find all sorts of treats here. Favourite authors often have collections of short stories, and I return to Ali Smith, Katherine Mansfield, Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, Isaac Asimov and PG Wodehouse regularly, among several others. And perhaps the perfect book for right now is James Robertson’s 365 – a story a day for a year, each one exactly 365 words long!

This question is from Bronwen who runs the Art and Design Library, and is connected to the question above. Is it better to read a challenging book or a comforting one at this time?
It’s a matter for personal choice. Read what you fancy, is my motto. And if a book hasn’t grabbed you by page 20, swap it for something that does! I’m enjoying a mix of comfort and challenge right now, and unusually for me, I’ve got a couple of books on the go at once. One of which is always either an old friend or a new book from an author I know I can trust!

Are you able to write at the moment? Would you recommend writing as a way to get through this time? What are some gentle easy writing exercises that people can give themselves at this time?
I am writing – this is the time of year when I always write the current book. But I am making slower progress than usual. It’s harder to concentrate for long periods, I find. At this time of year, I do very few events normally so I can concentrate on writing. But paradoxically, this year I have had more calls on my time than ever before!

Most of us are taking advantage of the daily outside exercise where we can. I find I’m noticing things I’d not picked up on before. A writing exercise I’d suggest is composing a few paragraphs – or a poem, if that’s what you prefer – about something you’ve noticed on your walk, run or bike ride. If you can’t get outdoors, spend some time looking out of the window, paying attention to what or who you see. Writing about something outside yourself offers more resources – and it can also be a useful way of reflecting your thoughts and feelings.


How can we connect, as librarians, borrowers, readers and writers when the library is closed? Can social media be a replacement, or do we need more? How powerful is the written word right now?
Social media is doing a great job of making us feel connected, and of forming new connections. But it’s not a replacement for human company and contact. Screen time is also, strangely, more tiring than face-to-face encounters. However, making the most of what it can do will carry us through this. And when it’s all over, we will appreciate old – and new – friends so much more.

In the meantime, the written word can be our comfort and our companion.


With huge thanks to Val McDermid and to Hope our #stayathome interviewer from Central Lending Library.

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