The Library

16 Jul

Let it be known, I love libraries and always have done. I’m sitting in a library even now as I write this post. The area in which I grew up was culturally impoverished, to say the least. And so its libraries were like lighthouses, illuminating my voyages of discovery and imagination across the grey waters of dumbed down popular culture in 1970s Britain. The central library was an undistinguished modern building, from the outside, at least. Inside lay three storeys of well stocked bookshelves, a music-lending library, a lecture room (often given over to music appreciation) and a café. It was all very civilised and proved to be the saving of me. I loved that library. And now the institutions themselves need saving.

The library reading room in the town where I live now - ain't that something?

The library reading room in the town where I live now – ain’t that something?

Some years back, the neo-con local  authority in the county where I live tried to close all bar the biggest of its libraries. It spurned the borough council’s offer to run the ones in the county town and it was only community action that kept them open. Make no mistake, our libraries are under attack as never before. The phenomenal expansion of the internet and the arrival of e-books have caused some to question the continuing need for their existence. Politicians waging their austerity crusades are keen to commercialise or close them. After all, why would they wish to subsidise institutions brimming with ideas that might cause ordinary people to question their omniscience? Public spaces providing citizens with invaluable services for free must strike them as an archaic anomaly in a world where their corporate backers seek to monetise every aspect of our lives. Once the libraries have gone they’ll prove incredibly hard to bring back. And yet I believe that they remain the best marker of the worth a civilisation.

The writer at work, or not, as the case may be, since he's taking photos with his laptop instead of writing novels...

The writer at work, or not, as the case may be, since he’s taking photos with his laptop instead of writing novels…

One of my favourite of Borges’s tales is The Library of Babel, describing a library seemingly infinite in its dimensions. Borges knew all about libraries, of course, having worked as a librarian himself in Buenos Aires for many years. It’s tempting to read this tale as a prophetic metaphor for the internet, the means by which I’m communicating with you right now. Anyway, here’s a library-related extract from my unpublished novella (aren’t they all?) Norwegian Rock. Please close your eyes now if you’re a fan of genre fiction…

Until he’d worked in one, he’d imagined libraries to be the last havens of our literary heritage.  He’d envisaged himself presiding over a series of erudite and esoteric collections, assisting earnest scholars with their researches.  He hadn’t realised that he’d be helping out at a hostel for the homeless and insane.  And he’d been looking forward to discussing the great writers over morning coffee.  Again he’d been disappointed.  When his colleagues did consent to speak, it was to hold forth on television adaptations or bestsellers.  If ever libraries had served as citadels of culture then those days were long behind them.  So far as he could see, they were merely pandering to the tastes of simpletons and philistines.  His branch held racks packed with sleazy paperbacks, shelves stacked with horoscopes, even graphic novels, for heaven’s sake…  There appeared to be an entire section given over to footballers’ memoirs – the lives of men barely into their twenties, ghosted for them by shameless hacks.  Now had they been the work of Albert Camus, say, or Eric Cantona, it would’ve been a different matter…  Many of the books had been bowdlerised onto audio or video cassette, so that you might be spared the pain of having to read them at all.  It was as though the entire library had been re-stocked and categorised for the sake of semi-literate adolescents.  And yet in spite of all this, there wasn’t a solitary volume by Tove Jansson to be found there…

He was actively redressing the balance, though.  He’d become a one-man terrorist cell, a protozoan army fighting a rearguard action against the dumbing down of our cultural institutions.  And he took great delight in disposing of the trash in any way that he could.  Occasionally, he employed the direct method, taking an historical romance with him on his break then slipping it into the wheelie bin at the back of the library.  At other times, he would withdraw a detective novel on the pretext of its not having been borrowed or tear out a few pages from a spy thriller and declare it damaged stock.  With infinite subtlety, he’d been altering the balance between the good and bad in his local branch, and by extension, on a still smaller scale, across the national stock. 

All text and images © PSR 2015

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