In praise of libraries

One of my earliest memories is of my dad taking me to join the local library. I was four or five years old and was allowed to borrow three books. Not one, not two, but three! I was hugely excited. Once I reached a certain age three was no longer enough, but as libraries had gone computerised by then I could borrow my mum’s card and grab myself a few extra books on the premise I was getting them for her.

It wasn’t only my love of books that made the library and important place. It was where I used to go with my best friend. We both found it an incredible and absorbing environment. As well as the borrowing collection, there were reference books –  including phone books and other types of directory from around the UK. It was as if you could find out anything you wanted in a library. Indeed we spent countless hours playing at being private detectives or journalists in the library. I think the librarians got sick of us. I remember them viewing us with some suspicion. Not that I think we particularly misbehaved when we were there. Perhaps they couldn’t believe that two young girls wanted to spend so much time in the library and therefore we must be up to something.

The library was to us what the internet is to youngsters today, a huge source of information in one place. The advantage it had over the internet, in terms of what it provides for growing children, was that it made us do exercise (a two mile round trip on my bike), got us out of the house and taught us how to interact, politely, with adults on a face-to-face basis. Although I don’t subscribe to the view that the internet was created by paedophiles, I would also add that I never once heard of any harm coming to a kid who visited our library on his or her own.

As I got older I found I’d outgrown the local library’s selection of books so I used to take the bus to the next town and borrow from there instead. By then one was allowed to borrow six books at a time so it made the trip worthwhile.

One thing that used to irritate me about going to the library though was the lack of a public toilet. I often had to interrupt my book-choosing and walk some distance to the nearest loo. It was a pain in the arse. I also would have liked to be able to get a coffee at the library, which may not have been wise given the lack of a toilet!

But the lack of facilities not related to books is what made me write this blog, or rather the opposite issue. Libraries, or at least some of them, are moving with the times. Not everyone approves however.

I think there is a chance of going too far with modernisation. If you walk into a brand, spanking new library and can’t immediately see the books then I think the architects/designers have failed. Libraries are about books.

In the 21st century libraries also have to be about providing information in the modern way. Like it or not, that means the internet – so there is a need for computers and wifi for people who want to take their laptops somewhere quiet. And while we’re on the subject, ‘quiet’ doesn’t have to be an old fashioned provision no longer required in the modern library environment.

Libraries should feature quietness as much as they feature books. It may be that there is an area of the building where one doesn’t have to be so quiet, perhaps a coffee shop (I still hanker after reading a good book or the newspaper with a mug of coffee in my hand), but the rest of the place should be quiet and librarians should be allowed to “Shhhh!” transgressors.

Although, given that times have moved on, perhaps we’d also need security staff (read ‘bouncers’) to police this, or someone might assault the librarian for infringing their human rights to talk and laugh noisily wherever they are and whoever they might be disturbing. Or perhaps book lovers aren’t quite so aggressive as that?

They are currently building a new library/community hub where I live and although I am looking forward to it opening I am apprehensive about what I’ll find there. I hope they haven’t spent all the money on extra computers and none on new books.


One comment

  1. Excellent article, I too have fond memories of the weekly trip to the library with my Mum (quite often we were some of the first in the queue as it didn’t open until 09.30, how cosmopolitan for surburban Hampshire…!) I also remember that often by Saturday afternoon we had read all our books and were bored and hungry for the next trip!

    I was fortunate enough to spend 10 years working either for bookshops or for publishers and my access to new and free books meant that my I abruptly turned my back on the library. Imagine my surprise when my spell of unemployment meant I had to return to my old flame (free internet and they stocked the Bookseller!) and found it not the tranquil environment I remembered. People were… TALKING! EATING! GUZZLING FIZZY POP! and USING MOBILE PHONES! and NO-ONE told them off!

    Neighbouring Winchester’s library has gone all up market so much so that when I first saw it I didn’t immediately realise it was the library, it has a fancy coffee shop with organic and free trade fayre and desiger crockery…alas our town’s library is next for a similar make over.

    Let’s hope they remember to buy some books for it…

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