Friday, 2 May 2014

Reveries of libraries, the second : GENTLEMEN’S CLUBS

Philip Harvey

Yesterday a friend asked so how’s library-land, with all the nonchalance of the professional small-talker. How is the library going, I thought to myself, trying to think how it was going without resorting to the scintillating rejoinders of small-talkers like “Good!” or “Could be better” or “Could be worse”. Instead of describing how the library was though, I suddenly burst forth into visions of how libraries could be. Libraries should become gentlemen’s clubs, I claimed, where people sit about in large armchairs all day talking about the contents of the books, following some haphazard timetable of their own design. Libraries are where readers visit to spend their hours in worthwhile pursuits like reading and talking. Libraries should be for the enjoyment of knowledge.

Taken aback by this view of the future of libraries, my friend blurted something kneejerk about technology. What about computers? Say what. This is the cliché of the age. The computers can take care of themselves, said I. Let the computers read to their heart’s content! They can stretch out and make themselves at home, as well. The library will only be ‘gentlemanly’ to illustrate a meaning. Ladies and others can also join in, all taking advantage of the spacious interiors to talk and read and talk about what they read, at their own pace. We do not live in the 19th century.

The practical requirements of information delivery have formed the libraries of today. Long shelves, book turnover to meet some imaginary predicted demand, screens at every opportunity, and a super efficient human, or machine, to loan out objects are the common features. This is why no one stays in libraries anymore, because the science has increasingly pushed for practical service, forgetting in the process what it is that made these places attractive in the first place. Electronics threaten to make the library little more than a download site. Or just possibly, offer the promise of accidentally turning the library into a social oasis, and I am not just talking about more training for librarian-baristas.

The gentleperson’s club has chairs and couches, plush ones and sensible firm ones, positioned for views and conversations. Reading is acceptable on the floor. It is a place you secretly want to visit, whenever the opportunity arises. The collection itself is not just a backdrop to the reading habits of a lifetime but the source of inspiration for words and thoughts expressed at ease in the hospitable spaces of the club. Inhabitants of the library, we never call them customers thank you, gravitate towards their favourite areas of the collection, where closeness to the physical reality of the literature increases their sense of belonging to traditions of written thought and inspires them to be involved in the traditions. Gadgetry that beeps is left to chat to itself as persons of interest notice faces again, the smile of recognition at an agreed statement, the frown of displeasure at something strange or different, the scratch of the head as pennies drop or questions arise. The club reminds them of a world that is more than a rectangular screen. It reminds them of the world they really live in. The club is well-lit with natural as well as artificial light. Pictures are placed strategically on walls where there are not books, pictures to live with for a lifetime, pictures that don’t change shape every five seconds, or at the flick of a finger. The club invites in, it wishes you to stay if you wish, if you wish for some hours, while outside it could be sunny, or have started to rain, or become night without you noticing. More books are taken down for reading. We are not living in the 19th century anymore.

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