At a time when library services are being reduced all over Britain, Salley Vickers’s new novel, The Librarian, inspired by a ‘remarkable’ librarian whom she knew as a child, is testimony to the lifelong influence of childhood reading. It is set in the late 1950s, when the Second World War was a recent memory, and success or failure in the eleven plus examination determined the future prosperity of children in state education.
Vickers’s heroine, Sylvia Blackwell, arrives at East Mole, a ‘small middle-English country town’, in the spring of 1958 to take up the post of children’s librarian. Aged just twenty-four and a graduate of one of the new library schools, Sylvia is evangelical about the importance of reading for children. At first, her efforts to attract East Mole’s children into the library are successful, thanks in part to the support of the Women’s Institute and her overtures to local teachers. A generous budget means that Sylvia is able to update the collection, replacing works by 19th-century moralists with her own childhood favourites. When, with Sylvia’s assistance, her landlady’s granddaughter, Lizzie, passes the eleven plus exam against all expectations, Sylvia’s future and that of the children’s library seem assured.
As in many human enterprises, rivalry and sex intervene. The librarian, Mr Booth, treats Sylvia’s popularity with distrust. Pompous and self-regarding, with the Brylcreemed gloss of an ageing matinee idol, Booth socialises with influential members of the community, including Sylvia’s unpleasant neighbour, Mr Collins, chair of the Library