On visiting the Library

by nike, April 1, 2011

Trinity College Library, University of Dublin

Lots of people love and adore the new SLQ site, with its wide open architecture and friendly flow-through, open-air spaces full of light and air, but I have to admit that I am a luddite, a retrophile, and it has taken me a while to learn to appreciate its clean, modern lines. All that concrete, and glass. Its big, boxy style that is – according to those architecturally-inclined souls – reminiscent of a classic Queenslander, which shares the same open axes – to encourage cooling air flow – overhanging roof elements, verandahs and is raised on stilts. It is the very model of a modern information centre, with nods to the past that perhaps only an expert could easily identify, but for a long time I have struggled to love it, or even to think of it as a library.

To me, a library is a home for books, and a place of fiercely defended quietude. A resting place for the body while the mind seethes.
There is nothing I love more than that sense – in a good library – of vivid attention being paid to ideas. I love the feel – almost tangible – of walking into a library in which a thousand or more quiet minds are humming with activity. Thoughts are being formed, shaped, hearts and minds stutter and reel and reform. All silently. Softly. I love that sense of a library as a place into which one sinks, as one sinks into a reservoir or a catacomb, rising up into the bustling light of day blinking and alarmed that the world you left behind seems so familiar and unchanged. But libraries are changing. My notalgia for the libraries of my childhood – and the libraries of my fantasy life – is just that.

As Witold Rybczynski says, in far more positive terms:

Ross Dawson, a business consultant who tracks different customs, devices, and institutions on what he calls an Extinction Timeline, predicts that libraries will disappear in 2019. He’s probably right as far as the function of the library as a civic monument, or as a public repository for books, is concerned. On the other hand, in its mutating role as urban hangout, meeting place, and arbiter of information, the public library seems far from spent. This has less to do with the digital world—or the digital word—than with the age-old need for human contact.

When I go to the SLQ, the first thing I see – the visible activity of the library to those just passing through its wide open spaces – is the large, ground floor area – the Infozone – in which people use the free computers, including free internet access, for 20 or 60 minutes at a time, or hook up to the power with their own laptop and access the wifi internet that’s available throughout the building. There is rarely a book in sight. A few newspapers, newsletters, flyers lie around on the funky, uncomfortable, artfully arranged furniture. (There are more ergonomic seats for those booking the 60-minute computers, but the seating for those waiting is largely low, backless, cute, and uncomfortable: unsuitable for anyone with the slightest problems with their back or knees). Occasionally, someone is carrying a book of their own, to read while they wait for their turn to use a library computer.

Infozone at the State Library of Queensland

Whenever I visit the library, I see a lot of international visitors – most of them young – as well as univeristy students, school groups, homeless people, and tourists. My presumptions are that they are there to view the building (and its neighbouring ‘tourist attractions’, including GOMA), access the free internet service for personal/social use (rather than educational and/or research use), perhaps just to kill time in a relatively quiet, shaded, air-conditioned, and free space where they are unlikely to be ‘moved on’ unless they cause a disturbance. My observations of those who visit the SLQ, in other words, align almost perfectly with Rybczynski’s impression of those at the similarly architecturally-renowned Seattle Public Library [from an online ‘slide show’ essay in Slate]:

When I visited, the users were a mix of students, tourists, and street people—many reading newspapers, even more using the computer consoles, very few in the stacks. Seattle’s public library … was designed to be a downtown hangout, with something for everyone, as if you crossed Starbucks with a mega bookstore. [Emphasis added: ‘the stacks’ are where the books are]

Of course, I understand that libraries are changing. That the ways we use them, and the services they provide, must change to keep up with the times. I recognise that I am a dinosaur, still dreaming of long, high shelves of books. The murmur of thinking, reading, dreaming. The soft stink of paper. The rustle of pages being turned. People walking unhurriedly across on polished timber or marble floors, thick glass, high ceilings. Wooden tables and carrels. A reading room in which the clear but soft light illuminates bent heads, and open books. The occasional, startled sound of someone rushing – like a bird caught in a closed room – until someone opens a window and the clatter is gone.

I have to acknowledge that, once you dive into the State Library, there are wonders to be found. Run the gauntlet of the security check, where you will be asked to surrender all worldy possessions by the grim-faced, long-suffering but severe gatekeepers, and you can travel up to where the books and other collections live. The long steel shelves of books in the open collection, up further to the John Oxley Library and the Heritage Collections. You can come down to the 2nd and 3rd floors and find a place on one of the long benches overlooking the Brisbane River, or in the ‘Red Box’, where you can sit and work for as long as you like, as long as you don’t mind the chatter.

Several times I’ve tried to work in the SLQ; more or less successfully. Once, a group of librarians were holding a loud and rather distracting conversation in the middle of the floor. Another time there was a workshop on at the QWC: the noise spilling out and up through the 2nd and 3rd floors. Writers laughing, shouting, stamping, reading aloud. Beautiful sounds: joyous, necessary, collegial, but not what I was seeking. A third time a small group of young people – students, I presumed – were working together. Chatting about ideas, answering phones, googling and giggling. I approached a librarian – asked if he could have a word with them. He raised his eyebrows at me as though I were the problem. ‘They’re just working together,’ he said.

‘Perhaps you could encourage them to book a meeting room?’

More raised eybrows. A sigh. A reluctant intervention with the students, whose volume was not lowered a notch but escalated.

I packed up, and went home.

I will try again: I have found other places in the library – pockets of serenity – but it seems to me that things have changed and I am not altogether content to have seen the changes wrought, wholesale, on the notion of a library by urban planners, architects, librarians, and politicians. The internet and ebooks are only the most visible, most talked-about evidence of a radical shift in how we understand reading, research, thinking and writing that affects, also, how we conceptualise, develop, support and design bookshops, classrooms, studies, writer’s centres and a host of other, related, spaces that used to have a common object at their heart: the book.

On the ground floor of the SLQ, you can stand and work at a computer for free for 20 minutes. You can check your email, google the latin name of the Barking Owl, download and print out Watson & Crick’s famous 1953 essay Molecular structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid’, update your facebook status and bid on a new tie on eBay. Only some of this connects, for me, with what I nostalgically think of as the functions of a library and yet I would be reluctant to suggest that libraries not offer computer services, or that they impose further restrictrions on the sites users can access via their service. Some of what people do in that 20 minutes (60, if you opt to sit) does align with the notion of a library as a place of connection, research, community and thinking. If libraries and their visitors both agree on extending their functions to allow for online shopping, dating, chatting and so on, then so be it. My concern is not so much for the expansion of the facilities provided – surely more diverse services is a good thing – but for what is lost.

I do not mind if they add things, but I regret, most deeply, what is being taken away.

I am a grump. I hear, in this complaint, echoes of complaints I have suffered from others about the loss of radio serials, school milk, and respect for one’s elders – but, for me, some of the things that are being lost in the move towards modernising and expanding our ideas about what libraries can and should do are being thrown out accidentally, rather than intentionally. In encouraging new users into the library, we are overlooking the ongoing appeal they held for those who always loved them. In inviting in the exuberant chatter of friendship, we are losing the opportunity to provide a contemplative, meditative space.

Some of the most valuable things at risk of being lost include, I think, the sense of ideas, books and writing as central to the business of libraries, and the provision of a quiet (public) place in which one can think and read. Something that, increasingly, seems hard to find.

In other words, for me, one of the saddest casualties may be that libraries are no longer, as Richard Armour described them in 1954:

Here is where people,
One frequently finds,
Lower their voices
And raise their minds.

Instead, like so much of the contemporary world where everyone wants to write and speak, rather than read or listen, libraries seem to be in danger of becoming just one more of the many places, both physical and virtual:

…where people,
One frequently finds,
Raise their voices
And lower their minds.

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Subscribe now!

Enter your email address to subscribe to perilous adventures and receive notifications of new posts by email.