The beautiful reading room at my library has long gone but no one knows why.
Ten years ago I used to visit the dignified and impressive Mitchell Library in Glasgow, to research and read. Long, solid tables, all facing the same way, graced the large reading room. I say room; it was more a hall. And an air of, if not dead silence, then respectful quiet pervaded. The ambiance was one of pleasant metaphorical stuffiness, but all the better for it. After all, this was a library, not a leisure centre. It was, and I imagine still is, one of a number of buildings and services which helped make Glaswegians proud.
Cut to today, and shift to my home town, on the edge of the Irish Sea, hanging-on in there despite the decline of its industries. Perhaps you can see already where I’m going with this… I am in my town’s main library, serving sixty thousand people. It is a sort of smaller version of the Mitchell Library: an impressive old building, with a good amount of floor space. Compared to many town libraries I’ve visited, even in sizeable places, it has a good and varied stock of books, along with the more recent acquisitions of DVDs, CDs, audio books, and of course a number of computers for internet access and office programs. It beats Kingston-upon-Thames library by miles, as that place seemed to have about two classics, ten computers and very little else. It even beats Basingstoke Library which, although having more than two classics, is dominated by computers used by idiots to play games or search for flats or jobs, which they phone and have lengthy conversations about in loud voices. Not so my local library: it has good, amiable but busy staff, computers tastefully tucked away in a corner, and it has a good local history office-cum-reading room, and you can get up to forty books out at a time. Forty! You can only read one book at a time, so I’ve only ever had… er… I think, twenty-four books out at any one time. I like books, and having them around. And I might put one down and pick up another. You need at least twenty-four on your ticket, believe me… but forty? That’s for the birds.
Actually, one man who worked there wanted more. Many more. So he took a few home. Then a few more. But not on his library ticket. He amassed a few thousand over twelve years. He doesn’t work there anymore. I have no idea where the books are. Maybe I have a good number of them just here as I write.
Sitting cold and despondent above the bustling ground floor of our library, on the first floor, is a strange yet wonderful thing: a very large, beautiful and completely empty room. The former reading room. It used to have books on its shelves. And people on its seats. Now, I am told by my mole, it holds a few boxes and the occasional staff meeting. Why? (And it’s not because of cuts.)
I’m particularly fond of this reading room and its memory because I often like to spend an hour or two reading in the library. I used to do it upstairs, ten years ago. Now I can’t. I have to take pot luck and hope there’s a seat at one of the three small round tables surrounded by shelves where people are browsing for books to take home. Or if not browsing, then farting. It could be a local pass-time, although I haven’t yet read up on it. The tables are unusable for more than one person, unless you are never distracted by someone facing you from two feet away. Or by the electronic book-issuing machine, which emits bells and beeps and buzzes all day. Or by the lengthy procedure nearby to issue pensioners with a photographic free bus pass, a service recently foisted on the library by the town hall. Yes, I want to know why it has to be this way at all. I want to know why the ability to read in a library full of books was clearly thought unimportant.
By-passing my mole, I question the manager and am told it was for accessibility reasons. Being heavily English, I nod, agree and retreat. Then I fester and ultimately turn to my blog for release. Because I realise such logic for shutting a stunning and major feature of the library doesn’t wash with anyone who thinks about it for more than a second. Perhaps they didn’t think about it.
I am not against accessibility. Who would be? Ramps and rails are no trouble, so let’s have ease-of-access. As much as we can get. No one’s complaining. But it is absolutely clear to anyone that the new reading facilities are a token gesture, or instigated by someone who doesn’t read, doesn’t like reading, or hasn’t the imagination to picture what a reader requires. He doesn’t need silence; a loud whisper here, a child’s laugh there, who cares? We are adults. But when the best place to read is arbitrarily closed off, then something is wrong. After all, why not have two facilities, the reading room and the newer reading area for those who cannot make it up the steps? I should add that the local history reading room is not for non-local history reading. This is rigorously enforced, probably understandably.
Brave new world
Perhaps I should consider myself lucky to have any reading area at all. Norwich Millennium Library, which I visited earlier this year… well, I can hardly bring myself to think about it, and it is best left for another blog post, except to say here that it is not a library. It is an immense computer room with (because of the building’s acoustic features and the cafe located in the same space as the library) the noise and ambiance of a very busy swimming pool. I could not see anywhere to read at all. There were very few books, especially considering the city’s size and the number of computers, all of which were being used by people talking and laughing, is awe-inspiring.
Those on high, who design, build, commission and operate libraries have clearly decided that books in libraries are of very little importance. More, they have designed the whole environment along some indefinable, but arguably dogmatic, abstract philosophy of modernity and inclusiveness, where everything should be integrated, rounded, inoffensive, accessible, bright, blinding, and one is a modern-day Victorian if one questions any of it, if one wants books because that is what libraries do. The children’s section of my local library is now massive. It never used to be. Now it has sing-a-longs, activities, readings. All good things. But when they’re not happening, which is 90% of the time, it’s like a wasteland. Perhaps they’ll pop a sofa in there just for me, to lie on and read when it’s all quiet.
I want a library to be more than old (or new) books, with complete silence. They are often social hubs for many lonely people. Why shouldn’t they have a chat for a few minutes with an assistant? But, call me old-fashioned, I do want some books. And more books than computers. And somewhere to read them. Because libraries are for learning and reading and most users of computers in libraries are not learning or reading. I’ve seen it.
So while I have no idea who took the decision to close our beautiful reading room, or the rationale they used, if any, or if they have ever sat in the library and read, I do know that what we are offered now is poor, and what was formerly available was sensible. Perfect in fact.
Naturally, like so many things today, important decisions are dreamt up by some seemingly distant and elusive figure or department of local government. Of course there are public consultations: a hastily produced feedback form issued by the county’s library service, with, on the dotted lines where you can add your comments and suggestions, about enough space for ten words. And the suggestions asked of the users are not any old suggestions; one can only comment in response to the planned shake-up of library services. Because they’re at it again. They want to change the libraries in our county. Some library services could be offered in local post offices, for example. That’s right, in post offices. I am unable to fathom quite why a library isn’t deemed the best place to offer library services. This is not, I should add, related to local government financial cuts. They intended having a ‘shake-up’ anyway. Again, I am unsure why. Perhaps no one is sure. I asked the chatty and pleasant library assistants. I asked the manager. I asked the extremely tall transvestite who has a poor taste in cardigans. No one knows, apart from perhaps the Director of Library services for the county, eighty miles away.
This post has grown long. I will try harder next time. But, as Mark Twain said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
Copyright © 2012 David Hansard / davidhansard.wordpress.com
All articles on davidhansard.wordpress.com are written by David Hansard unless otherwise stated.