SINCE the first lockdown followed by gradual easing of restrictions there have been moments of euphoria: going to restaurants and bars again, the opening of gyms, and being allowed to travel abroad.

But it took me until this week to experience another freedom I’d almost forgotten about – a visit to my local library.

Libraries are the unsung heroes of Scotland’s cultural life, and like all those going quietly about their vital business, they are easy to overlook.

Libraries have been open for a while now but with restricted opening times, and with buying books only a mouse click away, I’d got out of the habit of browsing the shelves for serendipitous finds.

Book Week Scotland’s social media campaign #ILoveMyLibrary, encouraging people to post memories of their favourite library, prompted me to pop into Pollokshields Library on Glasgow’s south side for the first time in 18 months, and where I’d been in the habit of going since I moved into the area 22 years ago.

READ MORE: Maggie Ritchie: Compassion and respect – why it felt so good to be out of Brexit Britain

I was in book lovers’ heaven, coming away with armloads of books to help research my next novel as well as those I’d picked up just for the fun of it – a collection of darkly, funny vignettes by waspish American writer David Sedaris I hadn’t read, a Carson McCullers I’d once owned but given away years ago, a collection of essays from the Paris Review, and some classics I’d always meant to tackle were just the antidote I needed for the mostly disappointing and over-hyped new novels I’d been reading.

Despite many people turning to reading during the pandemic, I’ve heard a few friends – formerly avid readers – complain they’ve lost their appetite for reading fiction. Perhaps because we’ve been stuck at home more and become reliant on recommendations from Amazon and bestseller lists.

A library will cure the reading doldrums with its themed displays of books, new books, and shelves of fiction, crime, non-fiction and classics – along with knowledgeable librarians keen to encourage everyone to share their love of books.

My local library was quiet except for what appeared to be another writer, her laptop, index cards and Post-its spread out on a table. The bank of new computers with their free wifi – vital for jobseekers, benefit and asylum claimants, and students – lay silent and unused.

The librarian said it’s been quieter than pre-pandemic because there aren’t the usual bounce and rhyme sessions for toddlers. Suspended too are the homework clubs, storytelling sessions, book groups, local history groups and other free services.

I suspect too, that, like me, lots of people have simply got out of the habit or been too fearful to venture into an enclosed public space. When I was there an elderly man came in and told the librarian it was the first time he’d been in the library for two years.

Traditionally in Scotland, libraries were the route to self-improvement taken by the working class, my dad among them. The son of a welder, he spent his spare time in the magnificent Carnegie library in Coatbridge, reading his way into Glasgow University and a career in the British Council that took him to the far-flung places he’d dreamt about in adventure books by H Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling.

READ MORE: Maggie Ritchie: What's gone wrong with our restaurants?

I remember libraries from my childhood as being hushed temples for book worshippers, but they have kept pace with modern life and its competing distractions.

Bridgeton Library in the refurbished Olympia Cinema in Glasgow’s east end shares a space with the British Film Institute archives where you can watch films. The magnificent Mitchell is the home of the popular AyeWrite! book festival, as well as having a theatre and café, a business centre, study spaces, and the city archives.

Glasgow Women’s Library specialises in literature by women, holds a popular story café, and organises walks highlighting notable women and their achievements.

University libraries with their fantastic research resources are open to the public for a small annual membership fee – I wrote my books on the tenth floor of the well-equipped Glasgow University library – while the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh is a haven for researchers with its vast collection and rare manuscripts.

You can even run your business from some libraries. The Scottish Co-Working Network run by the Scottish Library and Information Council offers workshops, meeting rooms, hot desks and break out areas in Edinburgh, Dundee, Dunfermline, Troon and Inverness libraries, all for a reasonable fee.

Hopefully, just as we have returned to shopping, drinking, eating and dancing, people will go back to libraries, which are lifelines in many communities. I was glad to hear five libraries in Glasgow – Maryhill, Whiteinch, Barmulloch, Glasgow Museum of Modern Art, and the Couper Institute – that closed during the pandemic are to reopen after securing £450,000 in Scottish Government funding.

Writers and thinkers through the ages have praised libraries. Albert Einstein said: “The only thing you absolutely have to know is the location of the library” while bestseller J.K. Rowling suggested: “When in doubt, go to a library.”

Author and feminist Virginia Woolf admitted she would “ransack public libraries and find them full of sunk treasure” and Cicero held the view: “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”

More prosaically and provocatively, American musician Frank Zappa declared: “If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.” Sage words indeed.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.