Sunday, 6 February 2011

My Love Affair with the Library

The Radcliffe Camera in Oxford, England ~ October 2010 by Robin Dalton
Libraries have been a major topic of conversation in the news (and my kitchen) lately.  Frankly, I will be the first one to admit that I have completely taken them for granted.  I was absolutely convinced they were the safest institutions around. I mean, think about it. They have always been there. They are considered the central hub of most communities. I go to mine at least once a week. When my son was unemployed, floundering and living thousands of miles away on another continent, he went to his local library to email me. It was how I knew he was still alive, literally.

Yet now I am faced with the news that public libraries are being closed. I can hardly believe it is even possible. To be honest, I still grieve over the loss of the library at Alexandria burned down in 48 BC! I would never have expected that any one would consider a library a luxury but Council Leader David Pugh from the Isle of Wight not only believes they are, but described our public libraries in those exact terms on public radio.

Surely access to accurate information leads to good decision making and exposure to the intellectual riches of civilization leads to a better world. Librarians don't try to sell us anything. Nor do they turn around and broadcast our problems, send us spam or keep a record of our interests and needs, because no matter how clever this profession is at navigating the online world, it clings to that old-fashioned value, privacy.

I could bore you with a long history of how libraries have impacted my life. Of how my Grandmother used to reward my good behaviour with books that arrived from my Grandfather's sister who was a librarian in Austin, Texas. Of the trip we made when I was finally able to read 'bigger' books, like Black Beauty (and something called The Golden Palomino - I was seriously into horses at the time), to the library on the Air Force Base, where my Grandfather worked and that dominated the Oklahoma town where we lived, to get my first ever library card. Oh sure, I had checked out books from my school library but this was different. This meant I was a 'grown-up', responsible for those books.  It was at that moment I think that I discovered that no matter how stormy the seas, libraries would always be a safe harbour for me; and they have been.

Now I live in West Sussex, in a small, not very glamourous, not very wealthy, seaside town. Lancing is sandwiched between Worthing and Shoreham-by-Sea, which is just west of Brighton.

I go to my local library at least once a week. It's a very small libary. However, West Sussex has a fabulous online service, and I reserve a lot of books, CDs and DVDs online from other branches, sometimes from other counties. I'm notorious for discovering something new (to me) and needing to read everything I can about it. So notorious, in fact, that my librarians don't even have to ask my name when I come in the door.

We're very lucky so far, as none of our libraries in West Sussex are being closed. But on Thursday when I went to check out my books there was a stack of fliers reminding all of us of the need to protect our libraries.  Seeing them, I was deeply concerned that my branch was at risk. Fortunately I was told we were safe, but in solidarity for those many libraries across the country that are not as lucky as we are, we should all do the following:
Show your support for your public library and add your voice to the nationwide campaign to show national and local politicians how deeply we care about our public library service.
Saturday February 5th 2011 is Save Our Libraries Day and CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) is urging everyone to get involved and encourage everyone you know to join and use their local library.
  • Borrow as many books as you can and ask everyone you know to do the same.
  • Visit your local library, have a browse and find out what's happening in your community.
  • Come and read stories to your children in the library, borrow books to take home.
  • Go to your library website and use online reference resources.
  • Tweet why you love libraries using the hashtag #savelibraries
Today on International Save the Libraries Day, Gary (the husband) and I made a special trip to our local library. We loitered, we perused, we read, we talked to the librarians (who are hugely fascinating people, I might add) and checked out as many books as we were allowed.

Frankly, I don't know if any of this will make a difference. However, what I believe, what I feel, is that with each library that is closed a piece of our soul is lost, a piece of our future and our children's future is compromised.

Today I started a new novel. One I had checked out from my library, in fact. On page 31 I found this very timely passage:
I've been grateful to Mrs Perry [her childhood librarian], for when she handed that novel over the counter and urged my harried mother to pass it on to me, she'd either confused me with a much older child or else she'd glimpsed deep inside my soul and perceived a hole that needed filling. I've always chosen to believe the latter. After all, it's the librarian's sworn purpose to bring books together with their one true reader. ~ from The Distant Hours by Kate Morton
I truly believe that librarians do have that very special ability to connect each of us with the book we are meant to have in that moment of our lives. It has always been so for me.

The image at the top of this post is of the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford, originally meant to house the Radcliffe Science Library but now is home to additional reading rooms of the Bodleian Library. You cannot look at it without thinking 'library'! My local library is extraordinarily humble in contrast, as you can see:
Lancing Public Library, West Sussex, England

Lancing Public Library, West Sussex, England

One last point, being an American ex-pat (a stranger in a strange land), that library and its staff never cease to remind me, by their large hearts and infinite knowledge that we are all part of the same community, that books and libraries are the closest thing we have to a global handshake. So, you politicians out there, that apparently are 'too busy' to read, please leave my library alone.

I will leave you with some quotes I found when I Googled Libraries that... well, I thought were pretty incredible:
What is more important in a library than anything else - than everything else - is the fact that it exists.  ~Archibald MacLeish, "The Premise of Meaning," American Scholar, 5 June 1972

Libraries:  The medicine chest of the soul.  ~Library at Thebes, inscription over the door

The best of my education has come from the public library... my tuition fee is a bus fare and once in a while, five cents a day for an overdue book.  You don't need to know very much to start with, if you know the way to the public library.  ~Lesley Conger

The richest person in the world - in fact all the riches in the world - couldn't provide you with anything like the endless, incredible loot available at your local library.  ~Malcolm Forbes

There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.  ~Andrew Carnegie

Librarians are almost always very helpful and often almost absurdly knowledgeable.  Their skills are probably very underestimated and largely underemployed.  ~Charles Medawar

Libraries are reservoirs of strength, grace and wit, reminders of order, calm and continuity, lakes of mental energy, neither warm nor cold, light nor dark.... In any library in the world, I am at home, unselfconscious, still and absorbed.  ~Germaine Greer
...and finally, and probably most importantly, or at least extremely well said:
The library connects us with the insight and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species.  I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.  ~Carl Sagan, Cosmos
...with much gratitude to the The Quote Garden .

1 comment:

  1. Robin - a picture of the Radcliffe Camera is perfect to head up your piece about libraries. I too thought about the burning of the library at Alexandria during the debates this week (and when I saw news footage of the demonstrations in Egypt) Have you read Remembering Hypatia by Brian Trent? A beautiful book about one of the last Alexandrian librarians.