I spent most of the day on Friday in my local library. I do this perhaps once a fortnight because I like that fact that there are fewer opportunities for distraction there.
As I sat there, inviting my muse to enter my thoughts, I was reminded of the libraries of my youth. There, bespectacled librarians, with stern faces and a hiss to match any disturbed alley cat, would keep the silence in all areas. The shelves were the same back then as they are now, thanks to the Dewey Decimal system, books all in order with spines facing us, begging us to take them down and browse the covers before maybe taking them home to dive into their pages. Gone though, are the sounds of the date stamp as it clunked its way to making a mark in each book, telling us when to return it. Gone are the little card slips in the front of each book which were placed into our library tickets and thence into the long slender trays for safe keeping till we returned the books. How engrossed was I as a child, watching the nimble fingers of the librarians as they flicked their way through the tickets to find ours. The look of disdain that was shot over the top of their specs if we were late was a withering experience for all. Interaction with human beings in the library now, is minimal. The books are checked in and out at a computer terminal. The catalogue is stored on another. We receive letters or phone calls from a recorded voice if we fail to return our books on time. In fact, the only time that I need to speak to a real person these days is to pay a fine or to pay for the hire of a DVD or audio book.
The addition of items such as films on DVD, music CDs, audio books on CD and even eBooks are signs of the times I suppose, but of course the biggest intruders into the library are the computers all around. Our library has around three dozen computers scattered around it! Some are dedicated to the check in/out system or to the catalogue. Some are reserved for the use of the staff, but the majority are there for the use of the public to access the internet or to use for word-processing or email purposes. The library runs IT courses in one area, where most incongruously, in amongst the PCs, sits an ancient microfiche viewer, gathering dust and falling into obsolescence. Around the rooms, tables and electrical power points are provided for users such as me, bringing laptops with us to sit and study.
Another innovation is the ‘Book Rest cafe’, serving hot and cold drinks and healthy organic snacks and sandwiches to the library’s clientele. Here folk meet and chat over a latte and a cookie whilst being regaled with the latest BBC news on the wide screen TV on the wall. Next to the cafe is a small exhibition space for local artists, which is more reminiscent of the old library. Somehow though, the smell of oil paint and canvas is not as strong here in among the setting of cafe, computers and chatting.
Although I find it a good place to work and write, I think I also mourn the passing of the totally silent space of yesteryear. I enjoyed sitting on the stools and benches, and even their later replacements of more comfy seats, leafing through a book. I enjoyed meandering among the shelves to discover the delights that they held and then asking for help when I couldn’t lay hands on the book that I wanted. I liked the fact that the building was full of nothing but books and the occasional work of art. Most of all, I liked that I could sit there, unnoticed; and while away my days in a world that I could only live out, in the pages of the books.
Next week I’ll be back again, I’ll sit and I’ll read and write a little too. I’ll think wistfully of the ladies who ruled the roost and kept us all in order, but I’ll sit and eavesdrop on the conversations in the cafe and among the shelves as I mooch. I’ll mourn the passing of the old way, but not for too long. The library today is alive and vibrant in all of its little corners and wider spaces. The children playing in their corner would agree I’m sure, as would the ladies, lunching in the cafe and the OAPs as they plug away at their ‘Intro to Computing’ courses.
As a closing comment I commend to you all this mantra – USE IT OR LOSE IT! So many of our libraries are being earmarked for closure in the cost-cutting rounds of our Councils. Make sure that yours is well used enough for them to reconsider such an action – for the sake of all those for whom these places are important.