After a librarian friend suggested An English Library Journey by John Bevis, I borrowed a copy - from my local library, of course.
Although published in 2022, this hardback book has been given a vintage look and cover. A slightly eccentric account, it made an interesting interlude between reading-group commitments and non-fiction titles.
However, to my mind, despite the title and all the library locations, Bevis’s account does not feel like a geographical study: focus on specific landscapes, topography or economic regions. The book is a chronological account of visits to almost two hundred English libraries and what gives the content relevance is that his trips took place between 2010 and 2019.
This was the decade shaped by the Big Crash, the EU referendum, Osborne’s austerity, the ‘Big Society’ idea and the subsequent decline in government and local authority funding, especially to libraries. Bevis’s lightly amusing quest ends by revealing the damage done to the public library service and the success and failures of various cost-cutting initiatives.
The author, it must be noted, is not a librarian but a freelancer. An occasional builder, decorating and gardener, Bevis has also been a typesetter for the V&A, poet and writer, designer, printer and publisher, and bookseller at Whitechapel Art Gallery.
He does, though, respect books and libraries. In his dramatic opening chapter, he describes how, as a nine-year old, he helped when fire broke out in an upper room at the Guildford Royal Grammar school. Though the flames had been doused by the fire-brigade’s hoses, water was running through to the school’s precious library below.
He became ‘part of a human chain stretching the width of the school grounds . . . books were passed hand to hand or cradled four or five at a time . . . I do not remember how many hours we worked but the effort seemed endless . . .All the books that passed through our hands were saved. . . .’ They were all aware of the rare 15th Century chained library nearby but safely out of reach of the fire.
The chapter develops into a short history of library provision , from early circulating and subscription libraries, the library acts, Carnegie’s philanthropic provision and the growth of the public library service during the twentieth century. Clearly, Bevis loves everything about books.
But how did this journey begin? Years later, after a health scare, Bevis becomes his wife’s chauffeur. Once he has driven her to her work at a variety of prisons, he has the middle of the day free. His plan is to find the nearest library’s computer suite and continue with his writing project and commissions.
This is when the eccentricity begins. Bevis must have a membership card to use the computers, but he can only get that by pretending to be “resident”. After outwitting the system a few times, he finds himself the proud holder of five different library cards. Inspired, he now starts on a personal quest to collect a membership card from as many libraries as he possibly can.
An English Library Journey is his account of all the libraries visited on this odd quest, year by year. The locations seem quite unconnected: for example, in Section One, dated 2019, he briefly records visits to Telford and Wrekin; Isle of Wight; Shropshire; Central Bedfordshire; Luton; Essex; Norfolk; Surrey, Nottinghamshire. Some libraries are given only a few lines, while other entries are much fuller than others.
Bevis’s interest is mainly architectural, along with comments on the how the building appears within its general setting. He writes that Leamington Spa’s ‘broad streets and terraces’ remind him of ‘TV and costume drama” and hint at ‘an England that’s too good for the English’. Meanwhile, Milton Keynes’s library ‘had made no space for itself but had blended into the constructed homogeneity of (the) town centre and Darlington Central was ‘a magnificent edifice with an art gallery’ and many ‘bare rooms and the scant library itself rather rattling around in the family mansion.’ It is ‘trying to downsize.’
Bevis includes the history of many buildings, noticing the architecture and occasionally the architectural firm. Newport, Shropshire, has a ‘modern generic fit-out . . . but the upper storeys are a family at war: the left hand building stolid in its plain stay-at-home Neo-Georgian brich while to the right is the crazy cousin, A Gothic stone gateway with castellated battlements (is) all that’s left of an 18th Century folly that housed a wool merchant and a draper. ‘ Luton’s influential Central library is ‘a pale floating box on peg leg pillars’; March (Cambridgeshire) has a feisty glass wedge of a building, now it its tenth year and, after a run of depressing visits, he finds that Slough is unexpectedly ‘bucking the depressing trend. . . A wrapped aluminium and glass cultural flagship.’
Although rather startled by the noise and the range of activities – music sessions for babies, Knit and Natter groups, the strange behaviour of some computer users - he is very conscious of the design of the interior of some individual libraries, the layout of space and shelving, the windows and light and atmosphere, as well as the ease and kindness with which he gets his card.
The book has a slightly uneven style, with some visits clearly more interesting and longer than others. Occasionally, as part of his quest, he tries visiting two or three libraries in one day. Yet, gradually, as the journey continues, Bevis’s observations darken. The design and lettering on his library cards also leads him into the history of library unions and consortiums around London, particularly the subsequent withdrawal of richer authorities, unwilling to keep sharing their stock. He draws attention to private providers, describing how one giant company went bankrupt, with several library contracts taken back in house by local authorities.
He notices the publicity given to Little Free Libraries, and telephone box libraries, pointing out that not only are they not true libraries, they rarely occur in areas that are without library provision. To them that have, more shall be given? He highlights the hub model (where a single, central librarian looks after smaller, mainly volunteer run-libraries) as a way of cutting staff costs, the council’s biggest worry. Alongside, he notes that volunteers come from a certain age and class, creating a model that works in prosperous areas but not in poorer communities.
Bevis also notes cuts in hours, the growing use of self-service tills, the long term thinning of library book-stock, in number and in depth and the practice of proudly including a “library” among several council services within one site, mainly because the library is often diminished by the practice. When he visits the ‘Rowntree Library Cafe’ in York, he seems appalled by the meagre offer of three sets of shelves. How can this shadow be publicised by the council as a valid library?
Revisiting one site, several years on in the decade, he finds the library that was always so busy has no more than a dozen users during the time I was there. . . It is the result of some other order of catastrophe.’
Of course, along with his descriptions and interactions with local people, Bevis does discover successful locations and libraries, such as the provision in Richmond on Thames, although even then he points out that the authority is ‘fortunate to ride austerity with the wealth of its populace and a below-average social fund budget.’
An English Library Journey was a slightly uneven experience for this reader. At times, I felt cross that Bevis’s card-collecting wheeze was wasting staff time and resources, that some visits were too brief, simply a chance for him to tick off that card, and also that his attention was more focused on his work in the computer suite rather than the work within the main areas of the library and books as a whole. I would have liked more about the books on offer in these libraries.
However, re-reading it, I felt that Bevis’s account, with its growing emphasis on spreading the word about our libraries, whether to geographers, to history and design enthusiast, to local studies nerds and a mix of casual readers, was probably a useful enterprise along with such fascinating oddments as the photographic pioneer brothers and their very own Stuffed Ox.
Additionally, although Bevis’s journey is two, three or more years out of date, An English Library Journey could also be a useful reminder about the need for extra vigilance about the coming rounds of cuts.
An English Library Journey is published by Eye.