How to Save a Library and Lise Meitner goes to Maghull

For National Libraries Day I read at Meadows Library in Maghull, Sefton. With the closures and threats of closures, Meadows seems to have taken a novel approach – unless more libraries are doing this? – they are based in a leisure complex. The building is open plan and on the left is a swimming pool and on the right is the library. You can see people swimming while looking at the books. It’s not a quiet library. There’s a TV screen playing a music channel and from somewhere I could hear the pump and beat of an aerobics class. But the library was a community and social space, and not cut off.The librarian said that the library and the leisure centre supported each other. But they had been hit by other cuts. There had been a drop in children coming to the library since free swimming had been stopped.

As a child I loved libraries. So did my mother. We were members of quite a few: Eccles Library, Hope Library, Height Library, occasionally Swinton library. Going to the library was a family day out. My mother was – is a big reader. But we don’t go much anymore because she is dependent on others taking her, and others, like me, aren’t always reliable. So we tend to buy books in bulk from Waterstones.

This reading was a family day out as my folks chauffered me there. I’d checked the library was accessible (I get really angry about places not being accessible). What I liked about this event was that it wasn’t in a secluded room at the back of the building, but in the middle of the library space on the first floor. The doors were closed so we weren’t disturbed by people going to the gym, but we weren’t hidden away either.

I was worried about reading ‘Crystal Night’. I wasn’t sure whether the audience was expecting a story about the discovery of nuclear fission, and I didn’t want to blind them with science, but they seemed to really enjoy it; there was a lively discussion, which continued after the event had finished. I told them that when I wrote the story I had had a moment of feeling I understood the experiments, but now I’d forgotten what the hell it all meant. The science and explanations in the story had been down to James Sumner’s excellent input and Ra Page’s equally excellent editorial help. But what I had also been interested in was Lise Meitner’s experiences fleeing Germany in 1938. Her story resonated with other stories I was writing in The War Tour about refugees and the effects of war. She was, of course, very fortunate to be whisked out of Berlin by Neils Bohr and Dirk Coster, but she was a woman who had overcome the barriers of gender to become one of the few renowned female scientists at the time, and then had her position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry taken from her. What also fascinated me was how she was at once sidelined by history (alone in Stockholm and pushed outside of the discovery of fission) and also absolutely central to world events.

When I was writing the story I thought of giving a bigger picture of her life and perhaps including what happened afterards – Hiroshima and Nagosaki and Otto Hahn being awarded the Nobel. But I wanted to stay in that moment in history – the beginning of 1939 when WWII was yet to begin and she wasn’t aware of the devastating possibilities of nuclear fission, and though I hope I didn’t reduce the story to a clichéd eureka, for Lise Meitner there was a moment when these were ‘beautiful results'(to quote one of her letters).

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