Yesterday, the BBC News website ran a story on the continuing fall in regular library attendance among adults:
In 2005, 16.4% of adults people attended their local library once a month. New research indicates that the figure had dropped to 12.8% last year.
However, children’s visits remained steady during the five-year period.
It’s encouraging news about children’s library use, of course, but a real shame about adult visits to libraries. I love the idea mentioned elsewhere in the article about using pubs as libraries – and although I get the impression they’re referring to “retired” pubs, it seems fairly logical that a library could fit in a pub, particularly in rural areas where so many services are disappearing. Libraries should be hubs for communities, but I wonder how many of them are?
My own experience of libraries is varied: I grew up in a small town, which – in all fairness – did have a reasonable library (it was there, after all, that I discovered Michael Marshall Smith). I moved to London, and my first “local” library was just off Bayswater. It wasn’t bad: I remember checking “An Instance of the Fingerpost” out of that particular library, and reading it while I was laid up with some unspecified student lurgy or another. Don’t actually remember much of the book, come to think of it, although this isn’t necessarily the book’s fault.
Anyway, moving on. I then moved to the Barbican, which in many ways is the worst possible library you can have on your doorstep: it becomes the yardstick against which all other libraries are judged, and none of them do very well by comparison. It’s a wonderful, wonderful library – and I only wish more were like it.
My current public library is… putting it politely, focused. I do, in fact, have two within reasonable walking distance, both with exactly the same stock, thanks to the Royal Borough of Kingston’s interesting method of managing public resources. If you want to read Catherine Cookson, or books about the Second World War, this is the place to be. Anything else and… well, you’re stuffed. This pattern is repeated across all of our Borough’s libraries – rather than have one larger, central library with the funding to expand its stock, there are four or five separate ones with their own catalogues. All of which heavily feature romance: historical or non. And if that’s your bag, then great – but it does mean that if you’re after something different (SFF is notoriously poorly-represented) then you’re a bit stuck – and are infinitely more likely to throw yourself into the ever-welcoming arms of Amazon.
That’s the real shame of it. Because libraries, like bookshops, encourage us to browse; they want us to wander up and down the aisles, picking up books at random. They like nothing more than helping us discover something new (see Michael Marshall Smith). Unlike bookshops, however, they’re free. We’re only the temporary owners of the books, and it costs us nothing. If we don’t like it, we can bring it back, take out another. We can afford to take as many risks as we want.
The internet, too, has chipped away at the status of the library as a focus-point. Need to look something up? Google it. Not all that many years ago, if you didn’t have a book with the information you wanted at home, you’d have to go to the library to look it up. How many of you spent time there after school, or went on a Saturday morning armed with your homework and a crushing need to be free by lunchtime? I did, I know I did. My teenage cousins, on the other hand, only need to switch on the Magic Box in the corner of their living room.
Of course, even the Barbican’s library pales into insignificance in comparison with my two favourite, favourite libraries: that of the Unseen University, and the even more wonderful, slightly less homicidal library of the Dreaming. Could there be any finer guardian for those stories than Lucien? And what of the UU’s Librarian: the (mostly) nameless orangutan becomes the uber-librarian, whose very identity is bound up with the tomes he protects. The fact he could rip your head off if you spilled tea over a borrowed book kind of helps, too.
Perhaps these two imagined libraries are so real to us as readers is because we understand what they mean, what they represent. What a library stands for. We don’t need someone to tell us: after all, we’re reading about them – doesn’t that tell you everything you need to know?
And can any other library – real or imagined – ever measure up to that?