Do It Yourself Libraries

One of the huge drawbacks about living in a foreign country is the lack of libraries carrying books in your mother tongue. Up until we moved into the rural depths of England, I’d always lived within walking distance of a well-stocked library. And even in the depths of rural Devon, it was still only a ten-minute car journey away.

We had been hopeful that we might find the odd book in English in a French library, but we didn’t find a single one when we tracked down our nearest library in South West France. In fact there weren’t that many books at all. Maybe there were other larger and better-stocked libraries elsewhere, but we gave up looking and turned to Amazon.

Then when we moved to Normandy we discovered that one of our neighbours, a French man, ran a mobile library. He subsidised it himself, filled his car with books and drove around the commune every other week, stopping at the homes of all the members. It was a brilliant service – not a huge collection of books, but people donated their own books to boost the collection. He tried to get a grant from the mayor but was met with a shrug – ‘Books? Who wants them?’ Sad to say he could no longer afford to run the service and he gave up.

But he wasn’t alone with his thirst for books and a desire to run a library. Many expats have started their own libraries. Some are ‘Library and Coffee Mornings’ where someone opens their home for two hours every week for people to come and swap books. Or donate and buy. The need for, and love of, libraries is something deeply ingrained in us Brits. The weekly or fortnightly trip to that palace of books, never quite knowing what treasure you’d find, is a magical childhood memory for many of us.

One of the best private libraries in our area is run by Helianthus in Pre-en-Pail. It’s an animal charity that opened a shop in 2010 stocked with donated goods. Several thousand of those goods are books which means they have a whole room upstairs crammed with books – 99% of which are in English. Each book costs 10 cents to buy. The 10 cents goes to help the animals and most people return the books when they’ve read them to keep the shelves well stocked. So for ten euros a year you get 100 books to read.

Brilliant value and a brilliant service.


French FriedChris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. His novelette, What Ho, Automaton! was a finalist for the 2012 WSFA Small Press Award for short fiction. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .
An Unsafe Pair of Handsa quirky murder mystery set in rural England charting the descent and rise of a detective on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Which will break first? The case, or DCI Shand?
Medium Dead – a fun urban fantasy chronicling the crime fighting adventures of Brenda – a reluctant medium – and Brian – a Vigilante Demon with an impish sense of humour. Think Stephanie Plum with magic and a dash of Carl Hiaasen.
What Ho, Automaton! – Wodehouse Steampunk. Follow the adventures of Reggie Worcester, consulting detective, and his gentleman’s personal gentle-automaton, Reeves. It’s set in an alternative 1903 where an augmented Queen Victoria is still on the throne and automata are a common sight below stairs. Humour, Mystery, Aunts and Zeppelins!
French Fried the international bestseller – true crime, animals behaving badly and other people’s misfortunes. Imagine A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell.
International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth?
Resonance “This is one of the most original new science fiction books I have ever read. If it is as big a hit as it deserves, it may well be this book which becomes the standard by which SF stories about … are judged.”

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Do It Yourself Libraries — 6 Comments

  1. Is there a tradition of public libraries in Europe? The US has a long history of libraries; the first lending library was set up by Benjamin Franklin and a magnate (Andrew Carnegie) used his fortune to fund free public libraries in the early 20th century, kick-starting the modern system. When my daughter was stationed in Frankfurt she was horrified at the scant book supply in the base library. I and my friends funneled SF there for years, and it probably now has the best genre collection west of the Urals.

    • According to Wikipedia the first public library in the UK was in London in 1425 and there were several city libraries by the early 1600s.

      The National Library of France was founded in 1368 – but only for the royal family. It was opened to the public in 1692. Italy had a public library in 1452.

  2. What a wonderful idea! And for a community like yours, it’s good for you all to get to know each other too!

    I live so far from my local library – in either direction – that I’d have to catch a bus or two to get to and from the ones I am near; and they’re about 3km away each way. So, when I moved out my parents house a little over 10 years ago, I had 100 books in one bookcase. Over this time, I’ve joined Bookcrossing and gathered and collected over 1,000 books and housed them in my spare room in 4 bookcases! Now, I have my own personal library. Friends are always amazed at the books I have and they borrow them to read; as do family.
    Now, I’m quite the collector of old, first edition and signed copies as well as out of print books – and people often ask me about how to find those books; and I’m more than happy to give them advice about it all. I mean, why keep all the goodies to myself?

    I don’t need to go to my library outside my house now… nope, I have one at my disposal whenever I want… just upstairs! 😀

    • Do you get your loaned books back? I think largely because books are so easily acquired here (US) they aren’t always treated well. I loaned one book to my sister–she promised to return it–and never saw it again. Probably fifteen years later, maybe longer, she told me I should read that book, that everyone she loaned it to LOVED it, and it eventually disappeared and never came back. She didn’t remember that she originally got it from me. I also notice that evidently she had friends who were better about returning things than she was, ahem.

      An editor once told me that if she loved a book, she always bought a second copy to loan and kept one on her shelf that would not leave the premises.

      I found a darling old-fashioned library kit that I swore I would use if/when I loaned any more books. It had an envelope to stick in the front of the book that held the card, and a date stamp to stamp the date it was due back, and a little book to record the name of the borrower.

      I have no idea where it is. (wry smile)

      • I once did loan a book out to my brother and he told me he lent it to a friend of his to read. When he asked for it back, the guy said to him he had lent it to his cousin, who lent it to… well, you get the idea. The book was never returned and my brother took strips off his friend saying that he had told him it wasn’t his in the first place.

        If I’m ever lent a book I tell people that it’s not mine and I’m not in the place to lend it out. This way, my friends get their books back. I was lent a book once – a Jack Finney book – by a friend and she let me keep it for years. And I asked her once if she wanted it back and she said that she’d read it twice and not to bother. So, I didn’t. I never gave it away as he’s one of my favourite authors… but she did forget I had it and wondered where I got it from only two years after she told me to keep it.

        One of my close friends has a Yoga book of mine and his wife is getting into yoga; however, I’ve decided to lend them another – more basic – yoga book until she gets into a class near their home. the one she has is very advanced and I don’t wish for her to hurt herself. So, I’m hoping to organise a time to get together with them soon to exchange the books so she can read up on it better. The best thing is that I don’t mind how long they have this book as it’s for a more basic level… and they’re good enough friends that they’ve also lent books to me for long periods of time and know I’d never give those books away.

  3. At beach houses, on cruise ships, and in resort hotels, they sometimes have a library. These are almost always stocked with rejected paperback bestsellers, abandoned by previous customers. I have found some truly wonderful works in such libraries. I picked up a copy of AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST at a resort in Antigua; it was a British edition and still had a bookmark in it, a hundred pages in, where some fatigued beach reader abandoned the effort. And I found Sylvia Engdahl’s ENCHANTRESS FROM THE STARS in the shipboard library of the USS Woodrow Wilson.