In our latest library Q & A session, we ask writer Heidi James, what libraries mean to her.
Heidi James is the author of novels, Wounding, So the Doves and The Sound Mirror and the novella, The Mesmerist’s Daughter. She has had poetry published in many journals and has a PHD in English Literature.
What do libraries (including Edinburgh City Libraries) mean to you as a reader and as an author? Are the meanings different?
The library was, and I mean this without exaggeration, a life saver for me. My teenage single mum was skint, I was book-mad from an early age (I was reading from age 3) and our weekly visit to the library after we’d done the shop was magic for us. The luxury of lingering in the warm safe quiet, savouring the sweet dusty scent while choosing books couldn’t be beat. It’s staggering that they are under threat considering that they provide so much more than books for the community that is absolutely essential.
My relationship with libraries has changed throughout my life. I used to hide out in the library and read all day when I was teenager bunking off school, learning more than my lessons could convey. As a student, they contained the vital and mysterious sources of knowledge I was desperate for and felt I would never be able to understand or discuss. As a writer and someone who spends a lot of time alone, libraries maintain a contact point with others, they are a beneficent host, offering a feast of thought and connection.
What is your earliest library memory?
With my mum (see above) holding a book in the queue to check it out, staring out the huge floor to ceiling windows at the river Medway. It was raining, and I remember not wanting to leave.
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 very lucky that I have access to books and the peace and space to read them, so I’m not struggling. I know my local library [Crawley in West Sussex] is closed for in-person browsing but you can browse the catalogue online, reserve and then collect, which is great. They also have digital copies available. I think what’s so difficult for many at the moment is not having the peace/time/space to read what with many families being together all the time and of course, the library provides so much more than books. I wouldn’t presume to offer advice, but Twitter can be great for book lovers, lots of us are on there talking about books we love, sharing recommendations and support.
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?
I completely relate to this, and I find myself feeling frustrated and angry with myself for ‘wasting’ time, but I’ve realised that’s pointless and that being unable to focus is entirely justified. What’s helped me is reading lots of short stories (many great ones available online too); particular favourites are by Wendy Erskine, Maria Fernanda Ampuero and Kathryn Scanlan. The Common Breath, Visual Verse and 3:AM all have great stories online.
I’ve also been reading lots of books about nature and listening to podcasts. That’s really helped.
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, but the lack of attention and sense of unease isn’t helping! It’s slow going to be honest, but it is what it is! I would keep a journal, and be patient with yourself. Just writing short passages describing what you can see from your window or on your walk, writing down thoughts and worries, your response to something on the TV or a conversation is all good work. It’s exercising the writing muscle and you may find you uncover a rich seam of ideas and if not, it doesn’t matter.
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 proving to be really vital at the moment, and while it can’t replace that connection we have in real life, it’s at least maintaining those links. I wouldn’t want to put more pressure on anyone at the moment – we’re all doing our best (well, most people are!). I can’t imagine a world without books, without stories; as humans we understand ourselves, others and the world we are in through stories we tell or are told.
With huge thanks to Heidi for talking to us about what libraries mean to her.