A new chapter for libraries

Image of Harry Eyres

The debate about libraries, in the UK at least, tends to get stuck in fixed or outmoded ideas about what constitutes a library. Or rather, the physical stock of a library – books and shelves, to put it bluntly – is considered without reference to how people use libraries, and how that use may be changing.

Some people love books with a fierce attachment (I am one of them), cannot bear to part with them, and look with extreme suspicion on any attempt to downgrade their importance. Others – including, I fear, some local authority chiefs in charge of libraries – think books are old-fashioned, unhygienic breeding-grounds of dust-mites, rightly regarded with disdain by any self-respecting teenager wielding shinier technology (a Kindle, an iPad or whatever).

Perhaps both sides are slightly missing the point. I am someone who loves books but was not, until recently, someone who particularly loved libraries. I have been a member of the London Library, a private institution founded by Thomas Carlyle in 1841, for much longer than I care to remember (since 1981, to be precise). During most of that time I have been an enthusiastic taker-out of books, but not so much of a read-in person. The labyrinthine stacks of the Victorian institution have yielded countless mind-opening discoveries, as well as enough static electricity to power a small domestic appliance.

All the same, as an aspiring writer, I used to find the endless shelves full of dusty tomes written by people who long ago bit the dust themselves rather disheartening. Was that what the world needed, in the end – still more books? I liked the reading room with its view over St James’s Square, and its brown leather armchairs with sunken seats often occupied by snoring elderly gentlemen, but I did not want to spend too long there. For writing, thinking and observing, I preferred that more informal and sensuous cultural institution – the café. I hadn’t escaped from the constraints of office life, I told myself, only to incarcerate myself in a library.

But I have come to like and enjoy the London Library more and more. I have found that I can even write there. These days I spend as much time in the library with my laptop as with books, though I still think of the books as the guardian spirits, the Lares and Penates, of the place.

At the same time the immutable-seeming London Library itself, with its prints of Victorian sages and poets, has changed – not just by extending the building and acquiring more books but in its social make-up and the way it is used. It is now full of smart young things and I have become concerned about the fate of the snoring old gentlemen, rather as David Attenborough might sound the alarm over a threatened species. I especially fear for the company of impecunious scholars, who may no longer be able to afford the library’s subscription, which unexpectedly doubled a few years ago.

The London Library has, I think, become more social, more of a hub, less purely a resource for solitary writers and scholars. Perhaps it has become more “connected”, to use a buzzword of our times; certainly that is so as regards the wireless connectivity of computers, threatening to overpower the feeble efforts of mere brains.

I am not sure – though I am quite surprised to hear myself say this – that this is such a bad thing. Certainly the London Library has not gone so far as the planned new reading room at the Wellcome Library. The Wellcome is a recent and rather extraordinary success story among London’s cultural offerings: the collection and library founded by the pharmaceuticals entrepreneur Henry Wellcome, with its excellent programme of exhibitions and events crossing boundaries between medicine, science and art, now attracts 500,000 visitors a year, five times the number anticipated when the collection opened to the public in 2007.

Now there are plans to open up and reorganise the library, a remarkable resource of 1.5m objects (not just books). The idea is to create, alongside the research library, a “hybrid between an exhibition space and a library”, as the Wellcome’s librarian Simon Chaplin puts it, designed to “start conversations” and to encourage the public to become producers, not simply consumers, of science.

A noisy library? Whatever next? Some reclusive scholarly types might retreat to libraries precisely because they don’t want to start conversations. But Chaplin’s idea is just one of many in what – contrary to the view of doom-mongers sounding their death-knell – might just be a new golden age of libraries.

Outside London, Britain’s second-biggest city is spending £188m on its new Library of Birmingham, set to open in September 2013. With its motto “Rewriting the Book”, and multiple performance and exhibition spaces, this will obviously consist of more than books and shelves; the library is a further step in ambitious plans to inject new life into Birmingham, whose city centre was horribly blighted by modernist development in the 1960s.


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