Libraries feature throughout our lives, in all their shapes and sizes. These range from the public libraries on town and city street corners, to academic libraries in schools and universities, and the national British library. Standing on the literary front line, they provide a meeting place for readers and books. Today, however, the public library could be nearing the end of its shelf life. Abandoned books are doing time on their bookcases, whilst the government waggles its magic budget stick over them. So just what is it that lured people into libraries, and can they still mean something to us today?
Loosely defined, the library can describe any collection of books, or simply a great mass of knowledge. Its etymology lies in the Latin word Liber, for book. Evidence for libraries reaches as far back as four thousand years ago, when the first librarian – a Tabl Keeper – was employed at the royal library of Ur. Little wonder, then, that they have become stuck in stereotypes: that of dust-clouds, bookworms, and owlish librarians hissing ssshhhhh! Like misers hoarding gold, everyone has squirreled away their own stash of books over the years. We even become librarians when we recommend and swap reads.
Libraries have constantly evolved. There are now over four and a half thousand public libraries in the United Kingdom. Before they threw open their doors to the public, rooms in the home exclusively for housing books would be signs of prestige and wealth. Novels would meanwhile be chained to the desks of parochial centres.
The Victorian circulating libraries charged an annual subscription fee to borrow books. And because their stock was vigilantly handpicked, they restricted what their users could read. It was the Public Libraries Act of 1850 that, finally, allowed local authorities to prop up the library service with public money – a penny in every pound. Reading became a ritual of everyday life. Even popular novelist Charles Dickens visited the first public lending library, situated in Manchester. This was the first library to be established under the act, and was stocked with books donated by the public, and even Prince Albert. For Dickens, the library “cherished the earnest hope that books thus made available will prove a source of pleasure and improvement in the cottages, the garrets, and the cellars of the poorest of out people.” The library was even used as a meeting place by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Literature was no longer hidden behind closed doors.
Libraries remain important, quite simply, as physical places. They provide the setting for some of our first encounters with fiction, and there is just nowhere else quite like them. A chapter of my own childhood was spent within local libraries. They grew into forests of books to get lost among: big, booky lairs to tiptoe through and hide away in. Being smaller, the shelves were much bigger. You could brush between the bookcases, stroking the spines of the books both new and very, very old. One armful would be returned, only to stagger out with another tucked underneath my chin, their new due dates ink-stamped on their backs. Libraries mean many different things to different people. They now provide an all-round experience, which includes access to the internet, computer courses, reading challenges, children’s activities and reading groups, as well as being a source of information. Libraries offer the tactile luxury of flicking through new page-turners; a luxury you can’t quite get from gawping at the smart new liveries of hardbacks through bookshop windows. Every well-thumbed page of a library book tells the story of its previous reads. Who read it before you, and what did they make of the character you find so intriguing?
Libraries even make appearances in the literature they house. Fictional libraries are the sites of crime, murder and passion, as well as a little bit of mild-mannered reading from time to time. In Kingsley Amis’s That Uncertain Feeling, a librarian is tempted by adulterous desires. Miss Marple trains her magnifying glass on an unexpected find in Agatha Christie’s murder mystery The Body in the Library. Elsewhere, Cecilia Tallis and Robbie Turner have a moment du passion in Ian McEwan’s library in Atonement. Many writers have themselves either been librarians, or have written in libraries, inspired by the words of others surrounding them. As Philip Pullman said, “I love it because its presence in a town or city reminds us that there are things above profit; things that stand for civic decency and public respect for the imagination and knowledge and the value of simple delight.”
Councils are currently legally obliged to provide public libraries, which have become the lifeblood of reading communities. York itself is home to the redeveloped York Explore Library, as well as others clustered around its outskirts. Many of these will shortly be temporarily closed to allow for the installment of self-service machines, in order to reduce staff numbers. Since April of this year, 415 public libraries have either already been closed, or faced imminent threat. The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professors predicts that 600 libraries, twenty percent of the total, could close. This is being justified by dwindling borrower statistics, which appear to be pointing to the ageing irrelevance of this 161-year-old institution. However, they’re not going quietly; campaigners for the libraries have been rolling up their sleeves. There are the voices of Save Our Libraries, The Library Campaign, and Voices for the Library, among others. Their plans include volunteer-staffed libraries, book-lending machines, home delivery services, mobile libraries, self-service machines, and even phone-box libraries. Yet propping up the system in these ways could prove precarious.
The spirit of public libraries lies in their access to free fiction, the promotion of higher literacy rates, a love for reading, and literature for all. They provide a kind of modern-day equivalent to the medieval practice of claiming sanctuary. Back then, fugitives would cower in churches from the beardy barbarians that roamed the countryside, pitchforks clamped between their teeth. At present, you can still leave the bustling streets and slip into the shade of a public library. They are more necessary than ever.