Albert Wenger’s excellent blog always raises thought-provoking topics and one of his entries this week really resonated with me: What Should Public Libraries Offer?
Ironically, I had planned my blog update this week to be about the joy of rediscovering the public library. So, with the endorsement of serendipity, here we go…
My oldest - and most treasured - possession from my childhood is a modest little book, on a very big subject. Presented to me upon my leaving junior-school (we could choose the book subject - from the then seemingly vast, lovely series of Observer books - that we wanted as our gift), it long ago became more than just a book to me. It is a talisman. The subject matter reflects the era I grew up in. When I moved into my first home of my own the first thing I did was erect some bookshelves; immediately filling them with my books was more important to me than getting the curtains hung, or filling the fridge. They transformed the house into a home. And have done so, ever since.
What I notice nowadays is just how few places - homes or offices - have books on display. This is very sad. We have consolidated our own collection of books over the years, donating hundreds of ephemeral novels/etc to local charity shops. It’s nice to know they will be used to help raise some money and give pleasure to someone else. We wanted all our books of longevity, and of true value to us emotionally (none are of any value as objects) to be on permanent display in our little home; we had realised we had too many general (transient) books on our bookshelves that whilst having been a good read once upon a time they were unlikely to be revisited. So, why not pass them on?
Financial pressures have meant we currently don’t have the means to now indulge ourselves with books, so we decided to re-join (after years of absence - mea culpa) our public library service. What a revelation this has been and hence my joy at reading Albert’s blog entry this week. But, as Albert asks, should we expect the library to offer services other than its primary function? A very good question, and one which I shall attempt to explore…
"I must say I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go to the library and read a good book.” ~ Groucho Marx.
Like many others I suspect, my earliest memory of a ‘library’ was a sorry and ramshackle ensemble of (no doubt) earnest but rather dull books in the school library. I’m sure if one went to a grand school, or came from an urbane home, one would be familiar with the library being the portal to a potential voyage of discovery. As it was, myself and many of my peers only spent time in the school library when we were banished there for skipping rugby or long-distance running by feigning some illness or another. As punishment, we had to sit in silence, to reflect our shame, and write some lament on our sloth-like behaviour. At home, as I recall, we had a few greasy books on car and motorcycle maintenance (reflecting whatever 2-wheeled and 4-wheeled old-bangers my father was running at the time). Later on there was a humble collection of aviation-related books, to reflect my father’s increased interest in flying and the studies required to achieve his PPL, etc.
So, books never really meant much to me until I moved into my first home. A home of my own.
"I could never have dreamt that there were such goings-on
in the world between the covers of books,
such sandstorms and ice blasts of words„,
such staggering peace, such enormous laughter,
such and so many blinding bright lights„ ,
splashing all over the pages
in a million bits and pieces
all of which were words, words, words,
and each of which were alive forever
in its own delight and glory and oddity and light.” ~ Dylan Thomas.
I’d spend most weekends (well, Saturday - there was no Sunday-trading back then) at the local bookshop, or sometimes even take trips into London to the temple of books, Foyles. As the years passed, the love of books grew and grew. There seemed to be so much to learn, which was much more interesting - and much more relevant - than what I had been taught at school/college. Poetry was - and still is - a particular passion, along with space and biographical works. I have my own bookcase with my books (mostly filled with those genres), whilst my wife has a vast collection of science books, reflecting her teaching profession and passions, in ‘her’ bookcase. It’s not that we are anal/pedantic about it, it just makes life easier when trying to find a book - and (truth be known), we find ourselves (often) gazing longingly at our respective bookcases and their contents. Memories; past, present, and future.
"I spent three days a week for 10 years educating myself in the public library, and it’s better than college. People should educate themselves - you can get a complete education for no money. At the end of 10 years, I had read every book in the library and I’d written a thousand stories." ~ Ray Bradbury.
So, to answer Albert’s question: how could we improve the public library? Thinking about it, I am not sure we can, or need to. When I go to either our village library or the lovely central library in Huddersfield, the simple pleasure in walking down aisles of books, (A-Z, naturally), with no fixed-expectations, just browsing and wondering what book you may discover, is a wonderful way to detach from the digital, on-demand world. When in digital mode one tends to have a fixed-purpose. It can be pretty joyless. Libraries are a totally different experience.
"My Alma mater was books, a good library… I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity." ~ Malcolm X.
One of the biggest pleasures we get from going to the library is the tranquility. The calm. When, as a child, this characteristic seemed oppressive - a punishment - it now seems a luxury. We should treasure them alone for the sanctuary they offer. Oh, and use them. More. If we do extend the services they offer why not use them as a conduit to Zen practices?
"In writing the short novel Fahrenheit 451 I thought I was describing a world that might evolve in four or five decades. But only a few weeks ago, in Beverly Hills one night, a husband and wife passed me, walking their dog. I stood staring after them, absolutely stunned. The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package-sized radio, its antenna quivering. From this sprang tiny copper wires which ended in a dainty cone plugged into her right ear. There she was, oblivious to man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap-opera cries, sleep-walking, helped up and down curbs by a husband who might just as well not have been there. This was not fiction.” ~ Ray Bradbury (speaking in the late 1950s).
One major improvement would be if more people joined - and used - their local public library. Such facilities are prime targets in public-service cutbacks as they lack the scare-tactics of threatened hospital, police, or school closures. It would be a tragedy if we were to let this happen.
"My education was the liberty I had to read indiscriminately and all the time, with my eyes hanging out." ~ Dylan Thomas.