Neil Gaiman has long been on record as a fan of libraries, sometimes even calling himself a “feral child” raised by librarians among the stacks. So it should come as no surprise that the American Library Association chose Gaiman to be the Honorary Chair of this year’s National Library Week. As both a librarian and a fan of Gaiman, I was thrilled to be able to interview him about National Library Week and what libraries have meant to him.
Kate Pritchard: What role would you say libraries have played in your own life?
Neil Gaiman: I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t be the person that I am, I’m very very certain that without libraries I wouldn’t have the career that I have. I had a fairly decent local library, I used to get my parents to drop me off there on the summer holidays on their way to work, and I would just read my way through the children’s library and as an adult I would read my way through the adult library. I was much more selective in the adult library; in the children’s library I would just read everything: you know, start with the A’s. . . . They had a wonderful subject index, like an old card index, I would go to that and I’d look up robots, or ghosts, or something, and it would list all the books they had, all the fiction works they had with robots or ghosts or whatever, and I would go and read them.
The school that I went to in Sussex as a young man had obviously—you could sort of tell when they’d had money for books. They’d definitely had a big batch of money in sometime around 1920. Nice big bequest, because they had an incredibly solid collection of Edwardian, late-Edwardian literature, people like Edgar Wallace and so forth. And then they’d got another batch of money in in the fifties, so there was, you know, lots of nice old hardback novels and the works of people like Baroness Orczy and so forth. But what was fascinating about that is it wasn’t until I was in my twenties and talking to academics that I discovered that I accidentally had a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of Edwardian popular fiction. I didn’t set out to have that.
I loved libraries when I was starting out as a young writer. The most valuable thing to me, in some ways, both valuable in terms of what I was doing with it and also valuable as a morale thing, was my British library card. I had a card to the British Library, which at that time was in the Reading Room of the British Museum, and I would go, and I would research whatever it was that I was trying to write there. And just the knowledge that I was in a place that—Karl Marx was here! All these people, and you could list the people who wrote or researched in the British Museum Reading Room, and going, I’m part of them.
I remember the joy as a small child, I would have been about nine or ten years old, of the interlibrary loan. I’d wanted to read a W.S. Gilbert play, and they didn’t have the plays of W.S. Gilbert, and the librarian explained to me they could do an interlibrary loan, because there was a library in the system that had this book. And the amount of power was so exciting. And after that I started doing interlibrary loans all the time, because—it was like nothing could stop me. I’d go up to them and I’d say, you know, “Alfred Hitchcock, The Three Investigators. You only have one book in the series, but it says on the jacket there are 29 of them. How do we get the rest of them?” And they’d say, “Well, there’s a library in London that has them”—“Good!” It was great.
KP: Do you have a favorite library?
NG: My very favorite library of all is fictional, because it’s the one that I made up in The Sandman. That’s the library of all the books that people dreamed of writing but never wrote, all the sequels that never happened, all that kind of thing.
KP: Do you remember what the first book was that you checked out of the library?
NG: I remember the first book I ever took home from a school library. It was an Enid Blyton book. Enid Blyton was a very odd English writer. She never caught on in America. She has very very little in the way of redeeming literary value, it’s all about the story. And she’s somebody who is almost unreadable when you are past her target age, which I find fascinating. To the point where, by the time you’re seven, it’s hard to go back and reread the Enid Blyton books you liked when you were three or four. But it was an Enid Blyton book, I think it was called The Book of Wonder, and it was just a bunch of short stories about elves and fairies and little animals all having misunderstandings. Lots of little evil wizards casting spells that then rebound on them terribly. So that would have been the first book. I remember the pride of taking it home and the terror that something awful might happen to it.
I think the first book that I remember taking out from the library, my local library, was a book called The Winter of Enchantment, by Victoria Walker. I’m pretty sure. And it was the kind of book that I remember just reading and reading and reading and reading and taking back to the library and then checking out again and taking home again.
KP: I think a lot of readers and writers have had that experience with libraries, taking it back only to take it out again.
NG: One of the sweetest things that any librarian ever said to me was a librarian from the Appalachians, and she was talking about how the Sandman books, they got through a lot of them because they went out and they didn’t come back. And I said something apologetic, and she said, “No no, it’s okay, because sometimes a book finds its person.” And she said, “And then I guess we don’t want it back.” And I thought that was so sweet.
KP: There’s been a lot of talk in the library world about the future of libraries: Do they have a future? How can they stay relevant? What do you think the future holds for libraries?
NG: For most of the human race, pretty much all of the lifespan of the human race, information was currency. Information was like gold. It was rare, it was hard to find, it was expensive. You could get your information, but you had to know where to go, you had to know what you were looking at, you had to know how to find your information. It was hard. And librarians were the key players in the battle for information, because they could go and get and bring back this golden nugget for you, the thing that you needed.
Over the last decade, which is less than a blink of an eye in the history of the human race, it’s all changed. And we’ve gone from a world in which there is too little information, in which information is scarce, to a world in which there is too much information, and most of it is untrue or irrelevant. You know, the world of the Internet is the world of information that is not actually so. It’s a world of information that just isn’t actually true, or if it is true, it’s not what you needed, or it doesn’t actually apply like that, or whatever. And you suddenly move into a world in which librarians fulfill this completely different function.
We’ve gone from looking at a desert, in which a librarian had to walk into the desert for you and come back with a lump of gold, to a forest, to this huge jungle in which what you want is one apple. And at that point, the librarian can walk into the jungle and come back with the apple. So I think from that point of view, the time of librarians, and the time of libraries—they definitely haven’t gone anywhere.
In other ways, we’re in a time of economic difficulty. Libraries are the best place to go to start getting information. They’re the place where most Americans who do not have Internet access go to get Internet access. And we’re in a world now in which jobs are applied for online, jobs are advertised online. You need to be able to know which social services to connect to, you need to know how to retrain, you need information, and all of that information—the focal point for it is your library. So from my perspective, libraries are as important as they have ever been, and they may be more important than they have ever been.
KP: In American Gods you expanded on the idea that there are gods and spirits everywhere in our world, not just in temples but in places like roadside attractions, and so I wondered if you had any thoughts about what kind of gods or spirits might live in libraries.
NG: I have no idea, but I do know that I’d like them. There’s a wonderful kindred spiritry of the library, people who like being in libraries, people who are comforted by books, people who like being around the ideas of the departed. And I know that whatever gods or spirits are in libraries, they’re my kind of people.