Libraries, Serendipity and Me

Judith Eagle, author of The Secret Starling, shares with us how libraries shaped her path in life.

It all started in Burnt Oak Library, in a building my sisters and I considered the height of ‘modern’ – a sort of concrete pagoda, with underfloor heating and enough books to keep us occupied for a life time. We’d go there every Saturday, after popping into the Co-op to inhale the smell of the lemony Bronnley soaps, and before visiting ABC bakers, for cream buns to be eaten on the way home. Libraries have always loomed large in my life, not surprising considering both parents were librarians: the hush; the endless shelves of books; the helpful staff; the borrowers from all walks of life. Stepping into a library always feels like coming home.
The library in Burnt Oak was housed in an upstairs gallery, with books on one side and a wraparound balcony on the other – perfect for observing the adult library below. Here we would lounge on the floor, browse the shelves and – because we were regulars – sit behind the desk and file tickets for Daphne, the children’s librarian, who had lovely shoulder length bouncy hair.
In the afternoon, back at home, I’d dive into Richmal Crompton, Alan Garner, anything by Frances Hodgson Burnett or E Nesbitt. Later, came Flambards, Watership Down, Fifteen by Beveley Cleary and The Outsiders by SE Hinton.
When I’d exhausted the teenage section, it was onto the adult library: Agatha Christie, Jean Plaidy, Jilly Cooper and (sigh) the tumultuous Angelique by Sergeanne Golon, Libraries have shaped me. They’ve soothed me. They’ve gently nudged me in the right direction in, dare I say it, the most serendipitous of ways.

My first Saturday job was at a school outfitters, run by a dictator-type who sent me home for wearing trousers. My second Saturday job was in the library, where everyone was nice and no one batted an eyelid, whatever you wore.
At 16, I was not considered University material. My mum wanted me to be a secretary at the BBC and work my way up, ‘like Mrs Jones’ daughter’; my heart was not in it. Then one day I found a box of prospectus’s tucked under the library desk, and bingo! In an elegantly bound book I found the perfect course: a degree in Fashion Communications at Saint Martins. The future took on a rosy glow. I was fashion mad. I went back to school, took an Art O level, got into Saint Martins and then several years later, won my dream job, as Fashion Assistant on Honey Magazine.
For some years I worked happily in fashion and then for many more years wrote magazine articles on pregnancy and parenting. But one day, after filing a piece on why babies dribble, I decided I’d had enough. I needed a change.

Then, two things happened.

  1. I read American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld, where the Laura Bush character just happens to be a children’s librarian.
  2. I visited a new library in my neighbourhood and was particularly taken with the sense of peace that stole over me as I stepped inside.
    On a whim, I applied for an assistant’s position in a secondary school library. I got the job and quickly found out it wasn’t the oasis of peace I’d imagined. It was noisy, sometimes chaotic, packed with young people before, during and after school. But it didn’t matter! I was rediscovering the joys of children’s fiction; speaking to the students about what they loved to read; recommending books, and getting a buzz when they came back, asking for more. At the same time, I embarked on an MA in Children’s Literature. And I started to think
    about what makes a book tick.

There are libraries aplenty in The Secret Starling. In Leeds, Clara visits a library for the first time and ‘it was as if she had been catapulted into a treasure trove.’ She and Peter explore ‘three whole shelves groaning with ballet-related books’ and on the way out, spot an exciting clue on the library noticeboard. In Colindale Newspaper Library where there is ‘a velvet hush, the kind of all-enveloping quiet where you can hear every creak and sniff,’ Clara and Peter make the biggest discovery of all, unearthing information that will change their lives forever.

Libraries changed my life too.

If I hadn’t had my Saturday job, I wouldn’t have found that prospectus; if I hadn’t read the Sittenfeld book, or visited that neighbourhood library, I doubt I would have found my way back into the library fold. But mostly, if I hadn’t read all those books from Burnt Oak Library, the ones that seeped stories deep into my bones, I’m pretty sure I could not written The Secret Starling.

So thank you libraries. I owe you big time.

The Secret Starling is out now, from Faber and Faber

About Caroline Fielding

Chartered School Librarian, CILIP YLG London Chair, Bea-keeper

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