Why are you here?
Before I was seventeen I had a fear of public libraries. For me, the problem was that I didn’t think I belonged. I would go into the library and immediately feel as if someone was going to come over, work out that I had not read many books and ask me: Why are you here?
To get a book, I’d say.
What book? Who’s it by? What’s it about? Why? Who? What? When? Where? How?
I don’t know, I’d panic. I’m not sure…
And then my mind would freeze.
This never happened, of course. But that conversation in my head was enough for keep me from doing something or going somewhere. It kept me from the library. Until I needed the library.
I didn’t start needing to go to libraries because I wanted to read fiction. I wanted facts. I wanted non-fiction.
It started with football. My mum had got me reading about football in newspapers and magazines. I was more confident as a reader. Now I needed books. But there were no books about football in my house. And I couldn’t go in bookshops because I didn’t have enough money and – to be honest – I had a deeper fear of bookshops than I did of libraries. But that’s another story…
So, age seventeen, I decided I needed to go to the library. I had to take on my fear. And I needed a plan to achieve that. I figured that the best time to hit the library was Saturday morning at 9 a.m. I chose the city centre library, rather than my local one. There would not be many people there at that time. And, being in the city, even if there were people there, I wouldn’t know them. They would be less likely to ask me Why are you here?
I walked into the library the moment they opened the doors on Saturday. I kept my head down. I had fifteen minutes and six library tickets from when I was a kid. I found the football section.
I took a book about my favourite football team. A biography of England’s striker. A guide on how to play the game. Then I went to the counter – the huge frightening counter – and I did not speak as the librarian stamped my books and handed them back to me, smiling.
She smiled. Why did she smile? Did she know? You’re not a reader, she was thinking. Why are you here? Except she wasn’t.
I read the football books that week. All of them. I knew that my favourite team had played all over Europe before I supported them. I found out that the former England striker had a drink problem. I worked out how to beat an offside trap and find myself one-on-one with the keeper. I returned to the library the next Saturday. I borrowed more books. And the librarian smiled again.
Once I was confident – and once I knew how much amazing non-fiction there was in the library – I stopped feeling afraid. I only felt excitement.
Months of Saturday mornings later. I would look at all the shelves of non-fiction, not just sport. I would trawl them end to end. I would forget the time and forget getting out of the library before other people came. I would even sit in the library and read books there.
I could go on for hours about the books I found in the non-fiction part of the library, but, to be brief, the non-fiction section that changed my life the most dramatically was Travel. Guide books about France and Italy and Yugoslavia. Picture books about Germany and Austria and Holland. I read about all the countries in Europe.
Then I found an atlas. I worked out the top ten places I wanted to visit in Europe. I worked out a route. Then I saved up some money and followed that route: Calais, Paris, Nice, Genoa, Milan, Venice, Split, Zagreb, Vienna, Salzburg. Well, if I could conquer the library, why couldn’t I conquer the world?
And when I got home from that trip, I went straight to the library and found books about the places I’d been to and the things I had seen. And I read more books about countries farther away than Europe, like the Atlas Mountains and the Arctic Circle. And I still do it.
Tom Palmer is a children’s author. His books are often set in foreign countries. In 2011 he travelled to the Arctic Circle to research a book. In 1998 he walked through the Atlas Mountains, where he met his wife. He goes to the library every two weeks. He is never asked “Why are you here?”