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Author: Diana Stevens

A library with secret stairs – how exciting was this to a ten-year old! At my Austrian school we learned about Admont Monastery which had burned down in the eighteenth century – but the library was saved. This library, we were told, had secret stairs, the only way you could access the books on the second floor. We drew a picture of the abbey with flames in red and yellow roaring out of the roof.

Now we were on holiday and actually going to visit the library. I was deep into adventure stories with secret passages, pirates and smugglers and couldn't wait to see the hidden stairs. At the end of our tour, reaching the main library with its high painted ceiling, rows of decorated bookcases and long windows through which sunlight was casting shadows on the tiled floor, it seemed our visit was over. I had to pluck up courage and ask the cowled monk who was our guide if he could show me the secret passage. He frowned and wanted to know how I knew about it and for a minute I wondered if I was going to be locked up. Then he smiled and led me to one of the bookcases with its rows of leather books covered in gold lettering, twisted something at the edge and the whole bookcase swung open to reveal a staircase winding up towards the next floor. More an architectural feature than the dark underground passage I had been imagining but nevertheless exciting.

This was the first library I had seen. It was only a few years after the end of the war and I had been living in Austria since I was three and a half. The city of Vienna where I lived, was still recovering from the devastation of the war and beginning to re-establish its public buildings. The only books I had access to were school books, written, of course, in German. However, my mother discovered that Foyle's Bookshop in London, by request, would send a box of books, sale or return. I can still remember how exciting it was when one of the brown cardboard boxes arrived. Some of the books were new but most second-hand. The treasures that were inside – I don't know whether my mother had suggested authors but there were the Adventure books and Mallory Towers by Enid Blyton, school stories by Angela Brazil - my mother told me she had read Angela Brazil as a girl. Not only the Abbey Girls Series by Elsie Oxenham, but also The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, translated from the Swedish, not to forget What Katy Did, Arthur and his Knights and classics like Uncle Tom's Cabin, Little Women, The Children of the New Forest and Lorna Doone. I feel sure my mother must have extracted and returned some books she thought unsuitable but I seem to remember we kept most of them. I read books everywhere, up trees, lying flat on my bed, at night, hanging out of my bed so I could see to read by the landing light when supposed to be asleep, under the bedclothes with a torch. An only child, books became my friends and a life-long love.

I didn't encounter libraries again until we returned to the UK when I was eleven years old. The first English school I went to was a converted manor house and had a proper library with floor to ceiling shelves. I volunteered to be a monitor during my lunch hour, taking great pleasure stamping the books with the date stamp from the small rectangular ink pad. Another advantage was unpacking newly arrived books and being first in line to borrow the latest book in The Lost Planet series by Angus McVicar.

Libraries are always places in which I feel comfortable, happy to browse and read. I only wish I could live long enough to read every last book. Perhaps we will be able to celebrate the re-opening of the country's libraries later this year.