Week 12: Libraries
When I was a little girl, my mother used to take me to the local Boots’ Booklovers’Library. For the infants among you who are looking at each other with a baffled air, let me whisk you back to a more civilised age when men wore hats – even, if you believe the really rather splendid illustrations in my parents’ copy of How To Grow and Produce Your Own Food, while applying an oiled feather to an egg-bound hen – shops shut on Wednesday afternoons and Sundays, and Boots – yes, that Boots, the chemists – ran a subscription library. They often had rather fabulous, sub-Liberty architecture as well. As I remember it, my mother would scan the Sunday papers’ review pages, note down the new books she wanted to read in a special little notebook and take that into the Boots’ Library to place her order. To be completely honest with you, I can’t remember whether they also catered for the younger reader, but I do recall earnestly lisping to Miss Harris, the librarian, ‘Ith’s my bairthday’. Which was strange because (a) I did this every week and so it usually wasn’t and (b) I do not otherwise have a Scottish accent.
We also patronised (something my mother was rather good at) the local Public Library, which was definitely an also-ran on the interior design front but which did have children’s books. And thus was instilled in me The Library Habit. I am presuming you have it too? Unless of course you are a multi-millionaire, and even then, frankly, and while I applaud your extravagant expenditure on books, you’ll kick yourself for buying some of the duds that you get to sample for free at your local library.
Or used to. Now, it may be my dark suspicious mind, but I am not the only person around here to think that the newly-refurbished Hexham Library now has fewer books. Do not let me in any way put you off going there, however: not least because of the joyful serendipidity of whoever is putting the books back on the shelves entirely randomly, so that I have just tripped over Michael Wood’s Story of England in Fiction (must go and check out the Smallholding section in the eager anticipation of bumping into Animal Farm). Times are hard, and, for reasons that escape me, councils are preferring to spend money on – well, I’m not quite sure what: certainly not pothole-restoration – rather than on books. Poor show and short-sighted.
University libraries are quite good fun. The very greatest pleasure of a spell living in Oxford was the possession of a Bodleian Reader’s Card. The trick with these is to wait until there is quite a gaggle of tourists clustered round the ‘No Entry: Readers only’ sign at the threshold before weaving importantly through, looking scholarly (don’t lie to me, professorial readers: we’ve all succumbed to this particular shallowness). So, for those of you who don’t have one, sorry to rub your face in it but it is terrific. Especially Duke Humphrey’s Library, where you can actually smell the books decaying and the only sound apart from the faint scratch of pencils (no pens allowed) is the full-volume jolly chat of the librarians. My, they lead trivial lives. I have a very soft spot for the gorgeous library at Trinity College Dublin, and I love the (admittedly a tad arcane) Dr Williams’s Library in Bloomsbury, but my all-time favourite is probably the Rare Books and Manuscripts Room at the British Library. I am, of course, so old that I cut my academic teeth under the rotunda at the British Museum – unparalleled fabulousness – but, once I had got over the appalling Walk of Death that takes you, Indiana-Jones like, across the yawning abyss of the atrium (yup, you guessed, I get vertigo) from the (compulsory) lift to Rare Books – the King’s Cross Building is just lovely. It’s not often that we readers get treated as well as plants, with thought given to our access to light and air. Take your own pencil-sharpener, though. But, children of the digital age, forget Sinead O’Connor or indeed the unfeasibly tiny Prince: NOTHING compares to the realisation that you are the first person to have handled some particular book since, say, George III’s librarian. Or the discovery that the book you have ordered from the stacks is somewhat carelessly bound in a 12th century manuscript, cut to fit.
Children of the internet (and let me take the opportunity now to say thank you, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, not least because he seems to be a terrifically nice self-effacing chap as well as the inventor of the World Wide Web), we have had the immense privilege of living in a world in which we can sit at home and, with the click of a mouse, trawl through a thousand libraries or turn the page of a million books. At a loose end for an hour? Go and play on Project Gutenberg or, indeed, the British Library website. Better still volunteer with Project Gutenberg. And while you’re on the computer, read Neil Gaiman’s spirited defence of libraries which was this year’s Reading Agency annual lecture: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming
Back among the deliciousness of paper (I used to teach a course called – a bit pretentiously – ‘The Materiality of the Text’, which simply means, ooh, let’s stop and wonder at the paper, the ink, the layout, the size, the physical history of some particular volume, and unravel all the philosophy and politics that have resulted in it being the way it is), I am looking forward to reading The Library Book, which I am expecting to be a lovely, rambling (very often a recommendation) collection of writers’ responses to the idea of the library. We’ve talked about Unseen University’s sublime simian librarian before, and we can reel off The Name of the Rose and the slightly ubiquitous H. Potter as books-with-important-libraries in them. But I haven’t mentioned Jill Paton Walsh’s The Wyndham Case before, which is remiss of me, because it is highly enjoyable. Bodies have a propensity for libraries, now I come to think about it, from Agatha Christie onwards. And, no, it wasn’t because they were overwhelmed by all those books.
But the best library of all is available only to you. Each of you. It’s the one in your head, and, dearest reader, you can replenish and add to it every day. At no cost to your local council, if need be. A simple, daring, thought: lend people your books. And borrow theirs (and give them back, please). And leave books behind you when you go: no, not that sort of final departure (though that would be good too); once you have read a book and will probably not need to do so again, leave it somewhere – a train seat, a public bench, a café table – for the next reader. It just might be the best thing you ever do.