Sunday, 30 January 2011

Libraries

I've spent a good deal of my life in libraries - including 15 years working as a reference librarian - and yet these days I seldom set foot in one. The internet provides me with virtually all I need - and that, I imagine, is true for ever increasing numbers of people. But it saddens me that public libraries are closing - or being threatened with closure - all over the country, and I hope very much that Cameron's 'Big Society' (if it means anything) might come into its own here, that people will take them over and manage to keep them open by their own co-operative efforts.
It was through public libraries that I found my way into reading - real reading - and as often as not it was a book picked off the shelf on little more than a whim that changed everything, opening up a new path that would enlarge my mind and soul and become part of my life. When I was still at school, I was mooching around in my small local public library, idly scanning the shelves, when I spotted a title I thought might be worth a look. I knew the author only as a playwright who had caused a bit of a stir in the Fifties, but this appeared to be a novel. It might be interesting, I thought, picking it up. It was bound, I remember, in a muddy blue 'library binding', unpleasing to the eye and the hand alike, and on its spine was stamped in ugly black letters 'Molloy. S. Beckett'. I opened it and read: 'I am in my mother's room. It's I who live there now. I don't know how I got there...'
I was hooked. I read Molloy with amazed delight and moved on to devour every Beckett I could get my hands on. And now, more than 40 years on, when most of my youthful literary enthusiasms have long since died the death, I am still reading (or rather rereading) Beckett. I have just finished rereading Malone Dies, and it seems to me every bit as wonderful - no doubt in different ways - as it was to me then, more than 40 years ago. And this lifelong, ever-deepening love affair I owe to a chance find on the Fiction shelves of a suburban branch library. Could such things happen in the librariless or library-lite future that seems to be on its way?

10 comments:

  1. I can't recall where or by whom, but I once read a wonderfully inspiring account of how the teeming mass of poor, uneducated immigrants in Lower East Side Manhatten developed into the formidable New York intelligentsia thanks largely to the New York Public Library. I hope their descendants aren't making do with Twitter.

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  2. Absolutely Peter - and similar things happened in the East End of London with its large immigrant population and superb public libraries. I used to work in the reading room of the grand Victorian library in Bermondsey, where, in his 'down and out' days, George Orwell was a regular.

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  3. The Friends of XX Library has already been formed here, after the Council announced that funding for it would cease. What's particularly annoying is that the library has a garden which is much used in the summer by the elderly and disabled since there are many flats in the area with no access to greenery. I know that libraries are about books but I don't really buy that line today. They've become social centres too, for better or worse. It's hard to feel all that optimistic, since it might be hard for councils to resist offers of cash from developers for more bankers' flats and Tesco stores. As for the 'Big Society', well any alternative vision had better be based on more than "life is all about shopping" or it will deserve to fail, imho. Have you met anyone who believes the "Big Society" is the next hot ticket? I haven't met a single person yet.

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  4. Me neither Mark, tho I suspect there just might be something in it somewhere - so far it's v badly expressed and not thought through...

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  5. Blogs and the better newspaper sites can be much more effective even than the library for broadening horizons and chance literary encounters. Nigeness, Anecdotal Evidence, the Dabbler's 1p Reviews etc, so I see no grounds at all for pessimism on that front. And recommendations are not limited by what happens to be on the shelves - the whole of literature is available.

    As to the Big Society - yes, a good idea which didn't really need to be 'marketed' as an idea - just something the Govt should quietly get on with, ie. dismantling itself.

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  6. I would be only too happy to join a few like-minded souls and try and revive interest in our local S. London library before they mothball it - if I didn't have to work like a delirious priest chasing an alter boy, trying to make an honest (what a fool I am)living in Dave's expanding society. I just feel we need something smaller, not bigger - and it doesn't need to be 'called' anything!

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  7. I guess what they really meant - but didn't dare to say - was Smaller State. But if that actually happens I'll be mighty surprised. When did a government machine last dismantle itself?

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  8. Replacing the library with the Internet is like replacing Thanksgiving Dinner with Burger King Drive-Thru.

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    1. Absolutely! There is a place for both in the world, but not every book we might want to read is available for free online, and even if we can find what we want for sale online, not all of us have the money to buy it.

      When I learn of some book I'd like to read, first I check the local libraries (online!), and then if it isn't there, PaperBackSwap.com, or BookMooch.com. Once in a while they surprise me with offerings other than popular reads. I am grateful to be able to check all this online, but I would hate to see brick and stone libraries disappear.

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  9. Really worthwhile data, much thanks for the post.

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