I have a recurring dream. I borrow a pile of books from the library and spread them around my house: bedroom, living room, kitchen. Suddenly, I discover they were due back a week ago. I try to gather them up, but I can’t find them all and the 20p fines are amassing. I will go bankrupt. Why on earth did I ever scatter these books so far and wide?
A friend of mine is ecstatic about this dream. It is an anxiety dream, she tells me, with altogether a little too much glee. During our waking hours, she is more anxious than me, and so it is a relief for her to discover that underneath I am a bundle of nerves and neuroses like everyone else. A calm swan on the surface, but below, legs paddling like mad, grasping for library books.
Childhood memories are always tastes and smells and textures; your senses are so sensitive that everything takes on extra resonance. The library I went to as a child had a particular smell: old books, carpet, a dusty musk. By the doors was a high-pitched ringing generated by the book-theft detection system. I know now it was about 21,000hz, beyond the range of normal hearing, but my childish ears, undamaged by decades of noise, could hear it. Inside, the whine was drowned out by the rhythmic beeping of librarians scanning books and thumping ink-dated stamps on inside covers.
On the way in, a small mechanical device clicked when you went past. I was fascinated. Sometimes I would wave my hand in front of it, listening to it click as my hand blocked the invisible rays. I used to see how small a motion I could make to generate a click. Later I discovered it was counting people entering the library, and worried playing with it had artificially inflated the council statistics and I would get in trouble. Now, I suspect, librarians would be grateful for my efforts.
The library in my home town was nothing special. But it was my library. As a child, you experience things differently. My mum came to the library with me, but she couldn’t hear the high pitched noise. She wasn’t fascinated by the clicker, and she never crawled on the floor on her hands and knees and so doesn’t know about the prickly carpet. She was too big to fit in the book train. She didn’t get out the same books over and over again to revel in their familiarity.
I google dream interpretation to find out about my library fine dream, clicking through pastel-colored websites, filled with adverts: one simple tip to cut belly fat, 10 celebrities that completely changed, number six will shock you. I am not hopeful about the reliability of these sites.
“To dream that you are in a library,” one site says, “denotes that you will grow discontented with your environments and associations and seek companionship in study and the exploration of ancient customs.” The interpretations are so specific, halfway between a horoscope and a tarot reading. They suggest a spurious universality of thought as if dreams are messages from beyond rather than the working of my mind. It would be nice to think that dreams have a definite, universal meaning that can be decoded to discover something. A puzzle with a definite answer waiting to be found. Like a crossword. I can see why, with the weird complexity of the 21st century, people are turning back to horoscopes and dream interpretation. We welcome the suggestion that there is a knowable answer.
A different site seems to suggest, in stilted, archaic prose, that I’m going to have an affair with a librarian: “To find yourself in a library for other purpose than study, foretells that your conduct will deceive your friends, and where you would have them believe that you had literary aspirations, you will find illicit assignations.”
None of these match my dream. Having a recurring dream about library fines is not common enough to make it onto the hallowed list of dream-analysis.com.
I’ve never had a library fine. I suspect that’s one of the reasons I unconsciously fear them. When I was a child, my mum, like a sort of literary Brian Hanrahan, counted the books all in and counted them all back out again. The total was marked on the calendar against the due date.
As an adult, the idea of a 20p fine doesn’t worry me unduly. I’d find it annoying, but I’m gainfully employed. I’d still be able to make my mortgage payment at the end of the month.
To face my fear, I find my local library website and go to the fines page. They were 20p when I was a child. But that was nearly three decades ago. Inflation will have sent that number shooting up, I think.
They are now 23p a day.
That’s still not going to break the bank, but I can’t help thinking it’s almost more annoying. 23p requires more coins. Maybe libraries take ApplePay.
However, the site also says “library fines capped at £10”. For years, in this recurring dream, the fines have accrued relentlessly. Now I discover they eventually stop themselves. Perhaps most people know this already. Or maybe no one else is worried about library fines. It is so often true that our fears only lurk in the shadows. Shine a light on them and they shrivel.
I try to communicate this to my subconscious; tell it that it doesn’t have anything to worry about. That is not how subconsciouses work. Usually, in my dreams I’m accruing these fines in a house I haven’t been to since 2007. It’s going to take decades for my dreams to catch up with this new information about fines.
Of course, it’s not really about library fines. Even the pastel-colored websites know that. For a start, I haven’t been to my local library for years, so the risk of getting a fine is at an all-time low. But still, in my dreams, I find myself hunting for library books to stop fines.
All this has made me miss libraries, so I visit my local one. When I arrive, it is different. For a start, it isn’t there anymore. Where it used to be is a branch of the sporting goods shop Decathlon. The library itself is tucked away, squeezed into a gap next to Argos. Inside I find my card has been deactivated through lack of use. Around a quarter of the inside space is computers. In the book train, a group of parents and children are singing about fingers being bitten by fish. The library has an upstairs. But it is for events, not books, and sits in darkness, a vast empty, bookless space.
I’ve moved away from where I grew up, so even before Decathlon moved in, this wasn’t my library I went to as a child. It’s modern and white and airy with glass on all sides. I have no idea how prickly the carpet is, and if there is a high-pitched whine my ears are too noise-damaged to detect it. My childhood library was dark wood, shadows, and tiny windows with corners and cubbyholes. I suppose the modernness of this library is desirable. But it feels somehow too airy. As if all the knowledge has escaped. Perhaps I am being romantic, but I find it upsettingly functional.
Libraries are in trouble. Across Britain, nearly 800 public libraries have closed since 2010. These numbers are saddening, but also vague. Is 800 libraries a lot? It’s difficult to tell when you don’t know how many remain and I really couldn’t tell you how many libraries there are in Britain: 1,000? 100,000?
The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy comes to my rescue. They carry out an annual survey of UK libraries and recorded 3,583 libraries in the UK in 2019. The sobering reality is nearly a fifth of libraries across the country closed in the last decade. 800 is a lot.
The reason for these closures is council budgets. Funding for libraries is devolved to local authorities, which had budgets reduced after the 2008 recession. Rob Whiteman, the chief executive of CIPFA, told The Guardian that “local councils on tight budgets had been forced to redirect funding to priority services such as social care”. We can have books or we can care for our elderly relatives. Obviously paying more tax and having both isn’t an option.
I think the dream started after university. My subconscious mashed together a feeling of not getting everything done with the high volume of books that I borrowed at university. Snapshots of memory got mixed in too. A sentence from my university library website: “Fines still outstanding at graduation will be treated as debts to the University and affect the award of a degree.” Affect the award of a degree! Make sure you bring back your books on time or no degree for you. Imagine being the person stopped on graduation day by the proctors because you owed 20p. (I don’t really know what proctors do, but this feels like it would fall to them.)
I remember discovering that the History library at my university charged 25p per hour for overdue books about specialist subjects. I think, before this, I’d always found library fines a tiny amusement. I regarded them as an irritant more than a punishment. But here they accrued hourly, and if you didn’t pay them, three years and thousands of pounds of tuition fees were for nothing.
Even when it’s only 20p a day, those costs add up. Across the UK, students paid £3.5m in fines in 2017. Many councils are owed hundreds of thousands of pounds in uncollected library fines. Sometimes people stop using their library because of the fine they owe. It turns out I am not alone in my fear after all.
Yet even librarians don’t like fines. “Why on earth are public libraries charging any fines at all for books not in very heavy demand?” Frances Hendrix, a library consultant, asks. “What is the purpose of a fine and what does it do for customer relationships?”
Increasingly UK libraries have stopped charging fines. Rutland was first. Then Bath, Blackpool, Oldham, Leeds, Kirklees, Bridgen, and Shetland. Trafford abolished them across the whole council district. My dream of library fines, it seems, is becoming just that. A memory from a bygone era. Halton ran a one year pilot of no fines. Portsmouth scrapped them for three years. Borders dropped fines and asked people to donate to a foodbank. We can be fine-free or people can have dinner. Always there are these choices.
I get my library card reactivated. I have to bring proof of residence and write my details on a piece of paper using a pen chained to a desk. The pen is pleasantly old-fashioned as if to say that despite the changes in libraries (the airy look, the lack of fines) they are still the same. I’m not usually this romantic, but once I’ve signed up, when no one is looking, I furtively crouch down and feel the carpet. It is not prickly, but smooth and soft. Perhaps my hands are too calloused to feel the abrasions I did as a child. Or perhaps library carpets too have moved on, ready to provide a different set of memories for today’s children. Maybe I am being too sentimental.
I have happy memories of libraries I no longer go to. I love them, but I don’t use them. They are an incredible institution, one that, if it didn’t exist, would surely never be invented now: the publishing industry would lobby governments to stop them. Amazon would run a smear campaign. But somehow, they’ve survived. They’ve hung on. Perhaps one reason this dream has stuck with me is that libraries themselves feel like a dream, a fantasy quite out of keeping with the rest of the twenty-first century.