Libraries

I have loved books and reading for as long as I can remember. I was thinking about libraries the other day and I realised that I use libraries less now than ever before in my life. The reasons are the same as they are for everybody else –

I can now look things up myself on my phone, ipad and laptop using the mighty Google.

I can now buy second-hand books in charity shops for as little as 50 pence and also very cheaply online and often postage free.

New books, too, are extremely affordable when bought in supermarkets or online.

I can also buy e-books and read them on any of my electronic devices. (I don’t, because I still prefer books, but I could.)

It’s no wonder that libraries and independent bookshops are closing in Britain.

All through my childhood, teens, twenties and thirties, being a member of a library was very important to me. Wherever I lived, I joined a library, sometimes being a member of more than one at a time.

As a child in the 1950s, we went to the library whenever we were in the nearby town which was five miles away. Below is a picture of the building it was in – taken a bit before the 1950s! When I lived in that area the building housed the library , the Labour Exchange and my dad’s office – he worked for the Forestry Commission. Although there was no library in our village (it was tiny) there was a lady who lived in a little house next to a chapel who ran a small book lending system from her front room. The main library used to drop new books off with her every so often.

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What I remember about libraries in the old days (even though I loved them) is how quiet and serious they were. You absolutely did not make a noise of any sort or you would be told off. I loved them because I love books and reading but I can see how someone less committed to reading could have been put off by the interior of a library.

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Above – the interiors of a couple of old libraries. The pictures can’t convey the deathly hush which prevailed!

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The pre-digital way of book-lending.

I have no recollection of ever being asked to do any independent research for homework when I was in school – not even when studying for A-levels. Lessons were all based on notes dictated by the teacher then and on learning by rote – but that’s another blog post! While I was at university I preferred to do most of my work in the university library. This was partly so that I could use the reference books but also because the atmosphere was more conducive to study than a cold, gloomy student rented house.

Libraries now often have art or history exhibitions running, they have computers the public can use, they are bright, friendly and welcoming. The children’s sections have toys and games and regular organised activities. Yet libraries are still closing all over the country. Where they have been saved and continue to function, they are often rehoused in a smaller space in a new building. The one shown below is a Victorian library building near where I used to work. In spite of a well-fought campaign to keep it open, it was closed over ten years ago. I believe it now houses offices so at least it isn’t empty or worse – demolished. The new library which replaced it is in a modern purpose built community centre. Public lending libraries began here in Britain in the 1850s, the main pioneer being William Ewart. Since 2010, nearly 500 libraries  have closed in England, Wales and Scotland. Some libraries facing closure have been taken over by volunteers.

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Finally, a nice little tale of recycling!

The iconic red telephone boxes found all over the UK are beginning to disappear but, thanks to a BT scheme called Adopt a Kiosk, many unused payphone kiosks have been transformed into libraries. This preserves the heritage of the red kiosk, particularly in rural locations and provides a library service in areas which lack one. Most of these libraries are left unlocked and are stocked by donations from local people. Anyone is free to borrow a book and donate a used book.

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reading and And now, a few quotes about libraries:

Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while. —Malorie Blackman

Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation. —Walter Cronkite

Libraries will get you through times with no money better than money will get you through times with no libraries. Anne Herbert.

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body. —Joseph Addison

As usual, I would like to say that all images and facts used in this post have been gleaned from the Internet and are readily available. However, if anyone objects to anything in this post, for any reason, please contact me directly so that I can remove it.

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Mental Health

This post looks, from the title, as though it could be a bit more weighty and serious than many of my others. I hope it won’t turn out that way. What I’m going to look at is the difference in attitude and outlook where mental health is concerned between the 1950s and now. I have to bear in mind that I was a small child in the 50s and so what I remember is a child’s view and might be different from an adult’s. However, the point of this blog is to share my memories of growing up in the Welsh countryside in the 1950s and 60s and I like to stay true to that and avoid putting in all sorts of researched facts and figures and quoting other people’s opinions.

It is a fact that mental health is now discussed more openly than it used to be. I have seen that change in my lifetime. There has been a big push here in Britain recently to bring mental health issues out into the open. There have been famous people telling their stories, mental health awareness events and various films and documentaries. This is excellent – but we still have a long way to go. People still find it much easier to say they’re suffering from arthritis, bronchitis, migraine or flu than to admit to going through a spell of depression or to talk about a lifelong battle with anxiety.

Back in the 1950s, these were some of the expressions you would hear adults using quietly when they thought you weren’t listening. ‘Had a nervous breakdown’, ‘bad with her nerves’,  ‘suffers with her nerves’. We all know now that that mental illness can affect any age, any gender, but at that time I only ever remember hearing women talked about in those hushed tones. Sometimes a person was described as being ‘not right in the head’. Occasionally you would hear about someone who had ‘taken to her bed’. Apparently my grandmother had an aunt who ‘took to her bed’ at some point in her life and never left it.

What we did know about was the large mental hospitals where people ‘ended up’ if they were really bad with their nerves or had a breakdown. Some people with very severe mental disabilities spent their whole lives in them. Fortunately, these places don’t exist any more. Originally they were called ‘lunatic asylums’. This was often shortened to ‘loony bin’. It seems appalling now that we could use such expressions.

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The mental hospital which was nearest to us when we lived in South Wales, called St David’s. It was operational from 1865 until 2002.

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The one which was nearest to us when we lived in North Wales. Both vast places! This one opened in 1848 and also closed in 2002. I have looked at maps showing the distribution of these institutions in the UK at that time and it seems there was at least one per county. Many are still standing and are either crumbling or have been converted into conference centres, apartments, hotels etc.

Since drafting this post I have been looking in two old books I have here on my shelves. They are ‘home doctor’ books. I believe many homes had one on their shelves for looking up any family ailments and deciding whether a visit to the doctor was needed. In fact I had one which I bought when my first child was born in 1980. After all, we didn’t have the Internet in the 1980s. Neither of these two old books have publishing dates but from some of the adverts and diagrams in them I’ve worked it out that the oldest one is from the late 1800s and the other one is from roughly the 1920s. Always an avid reader, over the years I have often enjoyed looking through them and marvelling at some of the weird and wonderful advice which was given.

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The oldest one (above, it’s lost its cover) came from my grandmother’s house after she died. I remember taking it down from her bookshelves as a child and browsing in it. It used to amuse me that unwell people seemed to be offered a lot of gruel, broth and bread soaked in or tea in Victorian times.

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The newer one (above) was from our house but, as it would already have been old when my mum and dad married in 1950, it might also have come from one of the grandparents’ houses.  I decided to see what was said about mental health issues. In the oldest one I could find no reference to any of the terms we now use such as anxiety, depression and stress. The only item relevant to mental issues which I could find in the older book was Nervous Disorders.

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The main recommendations at this time were active exercise in the countryside, regulation of the bowels and early rising.

Progress had been made by the 1920s and the newer book has Anxiety, Depression and Nervousness listed.

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By the this time, complete rest and exercising in the open air were still suggested but also the help of a doctor was mentioned.

Compare these extremely brief entries with the abundance of self-help books on the subject which are available today.

self help books