In 1882, Nottingham Industrialist and political radical Samuel Morley noted that the new Nottingham City Library situated in what is now Nottingham Trent University’s Arkwright Building was only open to those over the age of 15. Understanding that a love of books is best engendered at an early age, he decided to do something about it, and as such opened The Children’s Free Public Lending Library and Reading Room on Shakespeare Street, just across the road from the adult version.

In 2017, we published an article from children‘s author Jonathan Emmett on the library, and how it had been all but forgotten – despite being the first free library in the UK solely dedicated to children. Jonathan thought this was undue: surely we should commemorate this? When it comes to libraries, Nottingham has long been a world leader: the success of the Boots Booklover’s Libraries spurred the introduction of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, making it a statutory duty for local authorities to provide “a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons”. Surely, as a UNESCO City of Literature, we should be celebrating our pioneering ways?

With the help of Nottingham Civic Society and other stakeholders, a plaque to mark the library was unveiled by the Lord Mayor, Cllr. David Trimble, earlier this month at the site of the library. Jonathan’s hard work had paid off, and we now have something to mark where, 140 years ago, our motto ‘Building Better Futures With Words” was put to practice. The unveiling was followed by an event attended by the next generation of readers, pupils from Forest Fields Primary, who were treated to a fantastic show from Jonathan around his book on multi-generational bibliophiles, The Book Family Robinson.

What about today? Who are the modern day Morleys?

To answer this, we headed down the A52 to Stapleford -Stabbo to its friends- to meet with Laura Goffin, Headteacher ofAlbany Juniors. After taking over as Head, she has been ensuring that every child in her care has an equal chance to fall in love with books, a relationship which will not just help their chances academically, but brighten their imagination and capacity for empathy throughout.

Her work is evident on visiting the school: books are everywhere, two dedicated libraries, with corridors also doubling as book-lined libraries, and incentives to read throughout. The school runs a a ‘Starbooks’ challenge every half term – if children read three times a week they receive a hot chocolate; and for every week after they get added toppings. For summer, there’s ice cream treats for those who continue to read.

We are here today for the second strand of this strategy: to provide a comfortable and quiet space for children to read. We’ve been asked to open the Albany Reading Room, a snug, light and smart wooden building that sits across the playground from the main school building. Inside its all soft furnishings, playful decoration and, of course, books! Lots of books: the first we notice is one by Jonathan Emmett, which feels entirely right with the universe.

The Albany Reading Room: a place of magic

Helen Naylor -a successful writer herself- gave a short speech “You are SO lucky! This would have been my absolute dream when I was your age, to have a lovely place to escape into a book so I hope you keep it looking as beautiful as it is now. I hope you all enjoy your new special space where you can find adventure and excitement, peace and understanding and a whole world of experiences inside the pages of books”

Ribbon cut, doors open, and the children politely file in to see their new space. The awe in their faces is wonderful to witness: this is THEIR library, THEIR space. They leave reluctantly, keen to return soon.

With school libraries in decline – it is mandatory to have a library in a prison, but not a school – and some of our city centre public libraries at risk from closure, it’s wonderful to see individuals such as Laura Goffin channelling the spirit of Samuel Morley and understanding that instilling a love of books at an early age reaps rewards through the generations.