Silence in the Library

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?

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4 comments

  1. Seen on a badge at a Discworld meeting- “Librarians Rule Ook!”

    I am fortunate in that Croydon has a huge and well used library which, admittedly, I only joined recently after 5 years living here. Love libraries, my favourite building is the old Swansea Central Reference Library, wonderful little replica of the old British Library reading room (it’s now sadly no longer a library, but makes an appearance in Dr. Who and Sherlock Holmes).

    I approve of books in pubs, Wetherspoons pubs (while not the greatest pubs in the world) do generally have an intriguing supply of old books to browse through on the shelves. Its part of their corporate appearance, so they just buy in second-hand books by the yard. The Blue Anchor Pub off Chancery Lane is good for that too, last time I went there I spent most of my time reading the books rather than socialising.

    I have a lot of books myself. So does my wife. When we married the Pratchett adage of “There is never enough shelf space” was very true. We have about ten bookcases in our flat. Fiction, social sciences and oversize is on the lower landing, classics, folklore, humanities (atheism and sexual studies) and manga are in the bedroom, science, london, law, london and general reference are in the lounge and humor is in the bathroom/toilet. Most of my sci-fi and fantasy is still at my mother’s home. We were able to combine our Pratchett collection and give spares to the pub where our Pratchett group meet, the Money Puzzle in Paddington.

    1. In a way, pubs feel like they ought to have books, don’t they? And I mean proper pubs (sticky floor optional) as opposed to drink factories. I remember one of my friends from college, an American who’d come over as a postgrad student, used to like going to the college local – which was a bizarre institution in its own right, and another story altogether – and sitting with a book and a drink. He could be there an entire afternoon if he didn’t have any classes. Apparently, it appealed so much because the “bar” mentality in the States is much more about the actual drinking rather than the socialising. I don’t know if that’s true, but he certainly seemed happy while he was over here.

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