23 September 2006 Welcome - Charles - Junior Library

Me and the Junior Library

photograph of Barry's old Town Hall and Library Once upon a time there was a junior library.

I read my way around it.

Learning to read is something I don't really remember as a formal thing, but I do recall my early visits to the junior library. I had two tickets. This was way back in the days when each reader had tickets, and each ticket could be exchanged for one book to borrow for two weeks. I vaguely remember the sort of soppy teddy-bears picnic style of book - lots of big pictures and a few words that said only what the picture had already said. I soon got tired of that. What followed is what I now find very interesting...

The junior library was laid out so it's plan was like a very wide, squat letter E with the horizontal lines being where the shelves were. The entrance and issue desk were at the open end of the E. As far as I remember the middle bar held the reference and non-fiction books and either side of that were the nursery (soppy, see earlier comment) books. The two long side shelves were home to the fiction.

Although I had learned to read (a bit), no one had explained to me how a library worked. It was just a case of "Find something you like. Perhaps there's something over there." So I turned from the nursery shelf and looked. What I remember finding very soon was a set of books, conveniently at eye level (for an eight year old), enticingly shelved as a set. The volumes had hard covers, lots of pages, very few pictures and were a manageable size - in short, real books.

I didn't know how a library was laid out, either. It was much later that I realised that the books were arranged alphabetically, by author's name. "A"s were next to the soppies, starting at the top of the bookcases. "B"s were a bit lower, right where I could see them. The set had been tidied by some wonderful librarian so that they were in story chronological order. So I met the first one first. That's how it should be; no confusing references to previous stories.

Now I ought to digress just a little here and mention comics. Here I mean publications for little kids: titles like The Dandy, The Beano and The Victor. The Victor was relevant here as it is where I learned that words were better than pictures at telling stories. Most of the stories were standard picture boxes with the cartoon characters' speech represented by speech balloons. But there were a couple of more advanced techniques used. One was to tell the story in a sequence of pictures but with a few sentences of real narrative under each one. On reflection this is probably the most significant teaching aid for reading that I have come across. Meanings for new words can usually be deduced from the illustrated context. That, after all, is how we learn in everyday life. The second technique is a short, complete, written story. Maybe a whole page or two. I still remember "Snapshot Sid" and "Jungle Joe Jagger"...

Meanwhile, that set of books I referred to was the Rick Brant Science Adventure series. Happily, I started with the first one (The Rocket's Shadow) and was instantly hooked. I am amazed at how little things can direct lives. The Rocket's Shadow was written by John Blaine [2]. To find it I had turned to the right (from the soppies). Had I been on the other side of peninsular shelves (middle bar of the "E", remember) and turned to the left, life might have been different. Instead of finding a modern science adventure, I'd have found the "classics". Instead of a career involved in technology, I might have been doing - who knows what?

I was but a naive child. What I read in books, I tended to believe. Oh, I knew the story was make-believe, but accepted that the incidental information was correct. When the story talked of rocketry, I understood the principles from the story, when the story included incidental references to, say, flying a plane, I absorbed that, too. The world of science and technology that I was introduced to was interesting, alluring, feasible and, above all, consistent with what I was finding out elsewhere. John Blaine, the author of that series, seemed to know what he was talking about. I was indeed fortunate in finding such a series which, being seeded with real [3] technical information, was truly educational.

As I grew, I simply worked my way round the shelves, more or less in a clockwise direction, and just got as far as Verne before moving up to the Adults' Library, where I caught up with H. G. Wells... On the way I found many other books, independent titles as well as series, and of different genres. Other series had what I shall call the integrity of the Rick Brant books (though not science oriented!), for example the Ken Holt [4] detective stories, and the Green Sailors [4] sailing adventures. I think that that integrity results from two things: consistency of author, and that author's pride in the work. On the other hand, series like The Hardy Boys were farmed out to any number of different jobbing authors and so the characters were inconsistent, plot references vague and story lines hardly researched at all.

That library probably had more impact on my education than any other institution. After all, we only learn what we are interested in. Schools are effective only to the extent that we want to learn, and who learns about what they have no interest in? Reading introduces ideas, personalities (both real and invented), facts and more subtly, different ways of thinking and explaining. Children who read a variety of books are, I think, more likely to develop the ability to learn effectively from different types of people, and from information delivered in different ways.

In retrospect, a further interesting thing is that the library being there was a result of a donation from the Andrew Carnegie Trust [5]. I didn't know that an American magnate had funded a library in a small town in Wales, but I'm certainly grateful for his doing so!


UPDATE: The library has moved back into the enlarged building!

[1] The Library was in what was then the Town Hall in King's Square, Barry. The picture shown is recent and the building was being renovated. The white door to the right used to be the entrance to the libraries and newspaper reading rooms. It also used to be varnished wood and had steps leading up to it, but the square has been "landscaped" somewhat. For a more detailed history of the building see Tom Clemett's page about Barry's Town Hall.
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[2] John Blaine was actually one of the pen names used by Hal Goodwin. If that name had appeared on the books, they might have moved along the shelves a bit!
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[3] I recently became curious to know whether or not Blaine's books were as good as I remembered them being. So I have reread some of them, and read some that hadn't been published by the time I had to move up to the adult library! My notes about the books are on my Rick Brant page.
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[4] The Ken Holt books were well written by a husband and wife team. The Green Sailors books were all written by a Royal Naval officer and, as you might expect, they were hugely informative about the (dare I say it?) craft of sailing.
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[5] Andrew Carnegie was a steel magnate of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was born in Scotland where he made much use of libraries, and after making his fortune in the USA decided to build libraries for other folk. More information in available at the Wikipedia article on Carnegie libraries
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