John Bevis is a writer and book-lover on an eccentric quest: to obtain a membership card from every library authority in England.
In a ten-year mission criss-crossing the country – from Solihull to Slough, from Cleveland to Cornwall – he enrols at libraries of all shapes and sizes: monuments to Art Deco or Brutalism; a converted corset factory; one even shaped like a pork pie.
With the architectural eye of Pevsner and the eavesdropping ear of Bill Bryson, he engages us at every step with anecdotes and aperçus about the role of the public library in our national life, while ruing its decline in the age of austerity.
As interested in the people he finds as he is in the buildings and their history, he is a humane, witty and erudite guide. The result is a book to be treasured by anyone who has ever used a library.
Just in case I haven’t mentioned it before, I love libraries. In addition to being one of the few places left on the average high street that isn’t actively trying to sell me something, libraries provide a vital community service that extends far beyond the loaning of books. In addition to the loaning of books, ebooks, and audio books, for example, my local branch offers a community coffee morning, several craft sessions, a mother-and-baby rhyme time, and free access to internet-connected computers, alongside printing and copying services. It also doubles up as the local information centre. It remains, in essence, the beating heart of the local community – despite funding for its many services having taken a beating in the age of austerity.
John Bevis is clearly a man after my own heart. In An English Library Journey (with detours to Wales and Northern Ireland), Bevis extols the virtues of libraries and library services whilst cataloguing the challenges they must face as austerity bites.
Whilst taking a short break from his day job, Bevis finds himself working from several local libraries and discovers, quite unexpectedly, that, in many places, he is able to request a library card despite not being a permeant resident of that locale. Thus begins an eccentric quest: to obtain a membership card from every library authority in England.
Bevis’s quest comes with some unexpected complications. Some libraries, it transpires, have reciprocal arrangements that allow their cards to be used in neighbouring authorities. Others require evidence of long-term residence. Some have separate cards for visiting users. As Bevis travels around the country, the vagaries of unitary authorities and county borders become clear to him, as does the sheer variety of libraries and the scope of their services. From Brutalist modern structures to Art Deco Carnegie libraries, Bevis’s ten-year-tour takes in libraries of all shapes and sizes, and charts their role in public life across a turbulent decade.
Although occasionally whimsical, Bevis never veers away from confronting the challenges faced by libraries. He observes, for example, that many Carnegie libraries, although beautiful, are often expensive to run and challenging to adapt for the multiple purposes that libraries now serve within their communities. He also reflects on the way in which a library building has become more than a silent reading space. Instead, libraries have been transformed into community hubs and, depending on time of day and location, quiet is no longer a given within one!
Witty, humane, and erudite, Bevis makes for an engaging narrator and his quest – which eventually strays beyond the borders of England to take in Wales and parts of Northern Ireland – allows him to reflect upon both libraries and their users. Chapters range from musings on the structure of libraries to observational anecdotes about encounters with fellow library users, or conversations overhead between librarians.
Fans of Bill Bryson’s relaxed yet engaging narrative style are sure to enjoy Bevis’s work – his style has the same combination of fine observation and humane wit. Indeed, for anyone who loves their local library, Bevis’s gentle travelogue makes for a relaxing way to while away the hours until your next library visit.
An English Library Journey by John Bevis is published by Eye Books on 22 March 2022 and is available to pre-order from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!