Thursday, 20 January 2011


I've been reading Nick Campbell's book blog, A Pile of Leaves, for ages, in part with fascination and in part with jealousy at the beautiful way he writes. And when yesterday he wrote about libraries and the need to defend them from closure without recourse to nostalgia, I nodded fiercely (and figuratively - I don't want to look a nutter at work). There's no need for nostalgia to bolster an argument when the premise (that libraries are essential to the well being of our nation) is so obviously and self-evidently true.

But then I got to thinking about the various libraries I have frequented over my lifetime, and recognised that I find it impossible to separate the concept of Libraries from the reality of my Libraries.

From the one in MacDonald Road where my mum says I was the youngest ever member aged two, through the mobile library which pulled into our square once a week when I was growing up, with its little raised bit at the back for books which weren't easily included in General Fiction, and its treasure trove of Tintin hardbacks and Target paperbacks.

Not forgetting the Central Library in town, a massive, ornate Victorian edifice on multiple levels, where the fiction section was a disappointing room with white-washed walls and a series of cheap plastic stands.

Or the National Library, only open to serious scholars like me in the final year of my degree, ostensibly there to read Edmund Morgan on slavery and critical studies of Dickens, but instead filling in slips to have Laura Ingalls and Stanley Elkin books delivered to my desk.

And finally (in terms of regular use at least) the Edinburgh University library, which we used primarily for its cafe, a cheap coffee shop with a pool table and ten pence Shinobi machine, and where I first heard that Thatcher was gone, as a student burst in the doors, arms aloft, like someone declaring the end of the war. Everybody cheered and one girl had tears in her eyes and it really did feel like a wonderful, unexpected victory. Wild hyperbole on all our parts, but there you go - that's what universities are for, university libraries even more so.

I don't go to the library so much now, though I do occasionally take the kids to the one round the corner from the house. But now the internet makes it so simple to buy books - and so cheap - there seems less need for me to wander around the library with my head at an odd angle, looking for that random gem on the shelves. And the introduction of computers and children's sections full of toys has scunnered me a bit on the local library in any case. Give me hard floors, and polished wooden chairs, too high stacks of forgotten novels and strangely selective reference sections over the internet and borrowing cds and small boys playing plastic drums in one corner.

But better toys and pcs than nothing at all - and the mobile library only ever had room for books in any case...


  1. I think I ultimately became a Librarian due to the library play schemes I attended, where I learnt about the Dewey Decimal system in a fun way, and started taking out my limit in fiction books every week.

    I very rarely use public libraries these days, as I work in a big Uni library and buy way too many books, but I did use them when all our books were in storage and I had nowhere to get my fix from.

    The free internet it also incredibly important to some people. Those of us with constant access easily forget what it would be like to have no computer/net access.

  2. Oh, even I'm not really so stuck in the Seventies that I don't recognise that libraries encouraging kids and providing internet access is the way forward if they are to (as they should) survive.

    But I do miss the ttoal silence and the smell of polished oak that you used to get at the big posh libraries, and the air of something special and slightly dignified and refined that even local libraries used to have.

  3. I always loved a trip to the Central Library. Remember the microfiche? It was like a very slow Internet search that gave you a headache.

    The reference library was cool too. But not quite as lovely as these...

  4. That Abbey Library St. Gallen in the top image appears to be full of ghosts!

  5. I wasn’t aware this blog existed – clicked a link from Paul’s blog and saw my name! Thank you for the nice words – and I think you articulated something I was coy about: that libraries must evolve and keep providing a service relevant to their local populace – but what wouldn’t I give to visit a library with the atmosphere I first fell in love with? And with weirdly old-fashioned stock?

    This Wednesday I’m finally joining Lambeth Libraries (wherever you live in London, you can join any borough’s libraries – I think this was extended nationwide last year) and hope soon to discover the delights of these gorgeous places: and