An unquiet realization about libraries

A recent visit changes my perception of library behavior and purpose.


The irony didn’t dawn immediately. Only on the way home. The book I had just returned to our local library was called “Unquiet Landscape: Places and Ideas in 20th Century English Painting,” by Christopher Neve. He ranged across his subject and widened my view.

But the ironic word for me in his book’s title, I realized, was “unquiet.” It applied not to the landscape but to our local urban library. I have visited again since then, and my conclusion is much the same: This is no longer a quiet place.

On both of my visits the library was packed with small children, and they were doing rather a lot of small-children things, such as dancing in circles, chattering, singing, chanting nursery rhymes, jumping up and down, and so forth. Various adults dotted around were clearly not discouraging them – rather the opposite.

I wasn’t exactly shocked. But I have to say that my perception of library behavior and purpose shifted somewhat.

All my upbringing vis-à-vis libraries was that they were sanctums, monastic in their reverence, silent escape places in a noisy and riotous world. If one so much as cleared one’s throat in a library, one was likely to be subjected to an inundation of purse-lipped librarians dramatically shushing – not to mention the disapproval of fellow library users profoundly enjoying their post-lunch nap (sometimes known as “research”) and now rudely and indignantly awake.

I have accrued a considerable amount of library experience over the decades. All through school and college I was obliged to come and go from these impressive institutions. I was even, for a brief spell, a school librarian. That’s when I became tentatively acquainted with the Dewey Decimal System, which has ever afterward filled me with shame if I fail to slot a book on a shelf alphabetically. Now I find that I have never actually understood Dewey, whose system is not (the internet informs me) primarily alphabetical, but subject-driven. 

Nevertheless I continue, to this day, to have what can only be described as awe when it comes to libraries and librarians.

The first (boarding) school in which I was an inmate had a library that was entirely conventional in function. In it, we boys did (or were expected to do) one thing only: read. By definition, that is an inaudible activity.

The second school I attended allowed one to write as well as read in the library. Again it was not a place where interruption was permitted. In fact, I remember it being employed by at least one teacher as a deterrent. This was Mr. Dodds, an Irish gentleman who tried to teach us French. I fear he found me hard work, and on more than one occasion he felt it necessary to banish me from his room because I was so interruptive. “Andreae!” he would exclaim sharply in an accent that I believe came from Dublin rather than the Dordogne). “Andreae! Enough! Go immediately to the library and stay there until you are sent for. Go!” And then he would add a clincher as I headed for the impending silence that was meant to at least dent my clamorous tomfoolery: “Alors! Empty barrels make the most noise.” I am ashamed to admit that I found this, if anything, rather funny.

Since those days, my attitude – I hope – has changed a little. I’ve come across some very pleasant librarians eager to help with my projects. Some of them are surprisingly unprecious about providing access to their books, which are as dear to them as their own children. And the silence brigade has, over the years, become much less rigid and demanding. Even quite loud and spontaneous laughter, I find, is not always frowned upon. 

This general loosening of the rules may have its origins in the fact that, in our Scottish region at least, library closures are threatened. The reasons given for this are mainly the potential redundancy of books. A lady who some years ago gave me computer lessons, remarked after she reckoned I was computer-literate (!), “Well you won’t be needing all these books now!” The ubiquitous clicking of computers in libraries in our cyber age, rather than the subtle rustle of pages, might suggest she was right. If books are no longer needed, the libraries that house them may not be, either. 

Yet ahead of me in the line to borrow books from our raucous kid-friendly library was a child with a pile of books. 

It seemed to me that perhaps this girl had discovered the thrill of reading. Unwittingly she, like the poet Archibald MacLeish, might spend a year or two as a librarian when she grows up. And it was MacLeish who once said: “What is more important in a library than anything else – than everything else – is the fact that it exists.” And I have no doubt that he said it loudly.

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