Saturday, November 14, 2009

In a more moderate key: libraries as public spaces

I've been thinking about something that Rufus said in response to the earlier library post:
I can't listen to librarians talk about how we need to stop thinking of libraries as places with books without imagining a priest saying, "We need to really stop thinking of the church as a place where people come to hear about the scriptures and pray. Because, gosh, the new generation (digital natives- i.e. internet addicts) really just wants another place to hang around and dick around on their laptops."
Why are we so invested in the idea of libraries as a sacred, or at least special, place? Why are those who like libraries so outraged at the thought that they'll be dismantled for yet another Starbucks-like space?

Here are a few possibilities, but please--add your own.
  1. They're one of the last public spaces around that don't require you to (1) do something or (2) buy something, and yet they offer you riches in return: books.
  2. Yes, this is latent romanticism showing its face, but if you love books, you like being around them--leafing through them, admiring the covers, paying attention to the slick or rough feeling of old paper, the impress of the type, and everything else. You get ideas. The connection of past with present work and future possibilities is stimulating.
  3. Browsing the shelves, you'll see things that you might not see with even the most assiduous and well-informed search.
  4. You're around people, but you don't have to talk to them. Because it's a public space, it's energizing in a way that being at home isn't.
  5. You can sit and read, and read, and read, without anyone asking you if you want anything (a refill, a different book). There's an assumption of privacy within public spaces that's hard to come by anywhere else.
  6. A library is quiet, or at least mostly quiet. You aren't hearing people nattering away but saying absolutely nothing on cell phones.
If you grew up with books as an important part of your life as a child, I'll bet that you can conjure up a mental picture of your childhood library right now. Mine was a converted house, quite small, with scuffed, creaky wooden boards on the floor and most of the light coming in through some large uncurtained windows. If you sat on a bench by the window, you could read Alcott and decide to check it out, or P. L. Travers and decide that it wasn't for you (because when you come right down to it, Mary Poppins in the books is really Scary Mary).

I'm not saying that time, or libraries, have to stand still because of what they may mean to a few of us, but the idea that the library has functions other than just another place to chat and drink coffee needs to be considered.


Anonymous said...

I believe your first point is the key one: Asking for nothing/offering riches in return.

Growing up in what was then a poor, depressed and repressed island country in the Atlantic, it is no exagerration to say that books were essential to the survival of myself and my siblings.

And as we had no money to buy books the public libraries were our feasting ground ... our santuary.

I remember the warmth of our local library - physical warmth and that other kind of warmth that's hard to define. It was a fine building but and this has only struck me just now, I never found it imposing or intimidating. I belonged and I knew it.

There were so many places to which I did not belong and felt (wrongly as it transpired) that I would never belong.

Even as a very small child, I loved, nay revered, that silence that had to be observed. It was all part of the magic of this world to which I not only belonged but had a role to play.

I was a member. I had a ticket. I had an identity, separate from home or from school.

I make no apologies for wanting libraries to remain as they were first envisioned - a home for books and for lovers of books.

Books were my awakening to new worlds, new peoples, new thoughts.
My library ticket was my first stepping stone towards a certain kind of freedom.

Ink said...

Am so applauding everything you say on this topic.

I'm firmly convinced that the library sent me on my career path. Can remember staggering home with huge piles of books (in fact, the library had to give me a special card because the limit for kids my age was 2 per week but I read so voraciously that they gave me a special unlimited card)! :)

This made me think of you:

undine said...

Thank you for that comment, Anonymous. The feeling of warmth and safety you mention is absolutely the important one--and, as you say, from that feeling comes freedom.

Ink, that link made me laugh! I know I don't have any books that old, but the rest of it sounds just about right. Do you ever want to go back to the library and say, "see--I had a special unlimited card,and look where I am today"?

michele said...

Libraries transcend generations. Doesn't matter you're age, you're welcome.

My youngest daughter and I have very fond memories of a mother-daughter book club hosted by our library (until we moved away at least)

When I was really young, we didn't have a permanent library in our neighborhood - we had a book trailer. When it pulled in to the parking lot, I knew that I'd soon get to go in and pick out books. But the best part was knowing that there was going to be a bunch of different books there when it came back next week. It was a little space, for little me, and always brought something new. Heaven!