My first library was situated at one end of a hut. The scout hut doubled up as the village library, providing a few bookcases, which were sealed off when the library was shut. I remember the floors echoed with footsteps, but little else.
My next library was based in a medieval house with black timber beams (which were subsequently stripped down and returned to their original grey bare wood). Again, I remember the silence, the wooden floor boards. A lot of wood and paper.
Then, I left home and went to university. Suddenly libraries were mammoth rooms with shelves up to the ceilings, complicated classifications and I heard the word Dewey mentioned for the first time. Talking, except by the helpful librarians, was frowned upon and I spent hours barricaded in a tiny cubicle, one of many, pouring over journals, squinting at the tiny print.
Years later, I found myself managing a corporate R&D library. Never quite what I had in mind, but my skills were of sufficient match to put me in charge. I learnt the value of libraries from my time trying to defend their existence to senior managers.
One senior bod would appear unannounced, “Why is there nobody using the library? Why do we have a library?” he boomed across the reading area.
“Um.” I paused. Did I point out people can use a library via email, their desktops? They might ring up and ask something. Clearly bums on seats counted for this man.
“We should close it.” He paced around.
“Um,” sensing the situation might become precarious and he might actually carry his threat out, I had to resort to justifying the library…. again… as I’d done countless times to his predecessors. “You see, we do get people. They appear, look something up on the catalogue, read it or make a copy, and dash out again. They’re busy and we’re here to save them time. If they find what they look for in a few minutes, and depart with a smile on their face, we’ve done our job.”
He seemed perplexed the idea of success lasting only a few minutes.
“However, sadly, some come and spend hours in amongst the shelves, piling books and journals on desks and admitting defeat, they leave empty handed. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to help them, but, of course, they look like they were busy here, when obviously, they should be busy elsewhere. Which would you prefer – the five minute dash in and out, or the wasted hours of a useless library?”
The measure of success for a corporate library is not the same as a public library. My current community library is a delightful place. Gone are the wooden boards and shelves, instead there is carpet and metal shelves. There’s a children’s corner with little chairs, a table for Saturday morning craft session, the book club meet up once a week and there are a few computers for internet access. During the school holidays, the puppet show visits or a magician.
A busy public library is a successful one. Whereas for my closed access library, it was a quiet one with the fleeting visitor dashing in and out, armed with the important fact or article they desperately needed right there and then.
Whatever type of library which springs to your mind, then remember they have been with us for centuries, their value in society has stood the test of time – until now. They’ve inspired writers, researchers and avid readers and given refuge to many a frozen student escaping their cold digs. Oh, yes, I’m a fan of libraries.
Support you local library!
Today’s book – an anthology written by authors, artists and musicians in praise of libraries.
The Library Book published by Profile Books