Postal Reading group
October 2019
Notes on the book The Librarian by Salley Vickers

The librarian by Salley Vickers is one of my two favourites from the last year, the other was The lido by Libby Page. These are, of course, quite different novels, but with a common theme in as far that both centre around much loved facilities in the local community: a public library in this case, and an outdoor swimming pool in the other. Both are examples of facilities that are presently under threat across the country, usually because the local council can’t see value beyond the balance sheet. A library is more than just a collection of books, and a lido is more than a hole in the ground filled with water!

This present book, therefore, is a celebration of libraries and their place in the community. Sylvia, the newly appointed children’s librarian, is trying to bring the collection up to date but, unsurprisingly, meets with resistance from the rather conservative Mr. Booth. Similarly, as Sylvia is drawn into a love affair with the local doctor, and befriends a number of the local children, she attracts the prejudice of the local community which ultimately threatens her job and the children’s library. Although it is difficult to imagine such a relationship developing as both parties have too much to lose, it would certainly have far reaching consequences.

The book is well written, making for a quick and easy read. One particular feature is the diverse cast of characters, most of whom seem to be entirely realistic. Mr. Booth, the head librarian, would appear to be a good fit for the ‘librarian stereotype’. This is perhaps unfortunate in a book which is supposed to be a celebration of reading, but nevertheless Sylvia does provide some balance, and it does serve to show how public libraries have changed for the better. Even if relentless budget cuts mean that the book stock is no longer as comprehensive, it is difficult to imagine anyone lamenting the loss of titles like “the joys of obedience”. At the other extreme, there is a diverse range of children including the twins who seem loud and indistinguishable. Caught in the middle of this, the central character, Sylvia, seems ideally suited to the role of children’s librarian, even if she didn’t excel in formal schooling. However it is difficult to see her performing well on the Library Association exam papers on the Dewey Decimal Classification, and the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, which were then a core part of the syllabus at library school.

The central theme running through the book is that of the joys of reading, and the importance of libraries in general. It is remarked that the post war period saw an expansion of publishing for children, a trend that continues to this day. Sylvia is anxious to stock many of her (and presumably the author’s) favourites. This includes many classics which were still popular during my own childhood such as Swallows and Amazons, and The lion, the witch and the wardrobe. The other role of libraries in supporting learning, which is especially important where children do not always have access to books in the home environment. Hence Sylvia encouraging school groups to use the library, and helping some of the local children prepare for the dreaded “eleven plus”.

Although it is very much a secondary theme, the book also offers a look at society in the 1950’s, which, I believe, the author has captured well. This shows the advantages of a more cohesive society where, in general, one could count on the support of one’s neighbours. It also shows the disadvantages where some narrow minded people seem more concerned about the nature of the relationship between Sylvia and Dr. Bell, and the threat of one particular book to the ‘values’ of that society. Here again, the role of a library is to help people access books and you therefore have to wonder about those who concern themselves with the morals and choices of others. If the aim is to increase publicity, then banning books is very effective; an a massive ‘own goal’ for the censors. Some public library authorities have now discovered this and are running effective features on previously censored books.

In summary, I found this to be a very readable book which does a good job of conveying both the joys of reading and the importance of libraries. Although some aspects of the story seem a little unlikely, these do not detract from the book and the importance of libraries. Just as censorship is rarely successful, let us hope that library closures will fail.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler