In a recent conversation, I was informed by an otherwise reasonable-seeming man that “We don’t need libraries anymore because you can buy books for 99p from charity shops.”

I wish I could have hired him as my Passepartout on my Read Regional tour this spring (‘Around the North in Twelve Library Authorities’), as I’m sure it would have made him have a rethink. I’ve always loved libraries – I’m a former librarian and a heavy borrower with three maxed out cards. But visiting such a wide variety of them, meeting their dedicated and enthusiastic staff and engaging with the communities that use them has given me a fresh insight and an even bigger love.

I’m halfway through my Read Regional tour and so far I have taken my novel The Companion to Tyne and Wear, Merseyside, Northumberland, and East and West Yorkshire. I’ve mostly given author talks, but I’ve also led a Literary Quiz for World Book Night in Hull and a Creative Writing workshop for Hexham Book Festival.

The libraries have varied in their size and resources but all have been welcoming, inclusive places where for no money at all – not even 99p – books can be borrowed, read, shared and discussed. One librarian talked about the role libraries play in “encouraging a reading community”. Both Read Regional, which brings together writers and readers, and library reading groups, who have been out in force for my events, are important parts of this. Reading group members talked about trying out books and genres they would never have otherwise thought of reading, of how that had led to recommendations of other authors and visits to places where books were set, and of how much they enjoy the monthly meet-ups, “especially when we disagree about the book!”

My favourite part of my author talks has been the Q&A afterwards, when the talk becomes a conversation. The questions asked by readers and the discussions that have followed have made me look anew at my writing and my writing processes. Face-to-face questions about ‘Why did you choose a particular voice / tense / structure?’ and ‘How do you turn an idea into a full-length novel?’, have brought forth honest and sometimes unexpected answers that have helped to shape my approach to the writing of my second book.

One of the themes of The Companion is the importance of hearing people’s stories. There are three giant Storytelling Thrones outside Kirkby Library in Merseyside; one of them has a sign next to it that reads: ‘If you stand still in Kirkby someone will come over and tell you a story.’ I found this to be true not only in Kirkby, but in the other places I have visited for Read Regional – particularly in the libraries. A story of bereavement spilled out at the counter as a stack of books was checked out; tales of renewed pride and the sense of community that came from exploring a town’s past; the history of life-long friends who meet in the library twice a week; a young woman with learning difficulties’ own journey to publication. Memories of places and people that, when shared, become stories.

I started off on this tour thinking it would be about me telling people about my book. But it has turned out to be much more of a two-way experience, in which, thanks to the safe, shared space of public libraries and their hardworking staff (and the amazing support of New Writing North) I’ve been able to listen to other people’s stories too. I can’t wait to find out what the second half of my Read Regional journey brings.

To find out more about Sarah Dunnakey’s The Companion and her upcoming Read Regional events click here.