Why libraries matter
If you are reading this on the Laureate website, you’re not going to need convincing that libraries are important – unless you have mistakenly Googled Laureate instead of laundrette and want your white linen well starched, or maybe you really wanted lariat because you’re into fringed suede and line dancing.
But the reason libraries matter is changing. When I want to research a topic I mostly go to primary documents that have been scanned. These days I can usually do this in my own study – but those documents are in a library and the library has done the scanning and arranged the access so I could find them by Googling.
Libraries have books you won’t find in bookshops – but if you have enough money you can track down a copy on eBay or an online specialist bookshop.
Libraries matter these days because of their people, not just their books.
The joy of a library is that it has LOTS. You can hunt for a specific book or subject or author on the internet and even download a copy for less than the bus fare to the library. But libraries have books you didn’t know you needed to read. And there is a certain magic in lots. Lots of books, pages, the smell of them, old and new paper together.
Libraries are for ‘the people of the book’. They are not places to go to meet new friends, unless you count a book as a friend, which I do. But sitting there surrounded by people who have a passion for words and knowledge and the beauty that both bring is a form of peace that comes from deep in our psyche. There are no tigers lurking over your shoulder at a library. You are surrounded by not necessarily good people – I am remembering the mother who refused to claim her toddler son as he tried to take her walker away from a terrified elderly woman but by people with whom you have of life in common.
A library is a refuge. It is quiet and there is often coffee nearby and shelves of new worlds around you and old worlds that you have loved.
Sometimes it isn’t quiet but full of kids or toddlers and story time, which is why in the last years of his life my father timed his daily visit to the library – like me Dad read fast – to coincide with story time, so he could sit and watch the joy on kids’ faces. He’d missed much of that with his own kids, he admitted, focusing on work and football as a man of his era was supposed to do. But libraries gave him a small family of regulars to enjoy.
Libraries are places where the homeless can come for warmth and the coffee and biscuits and newspapers that some libraries I know provide for them, placing the coffee and biscuits and armchairs carefully away from the kids’ section.
Libraries are places where the librarian has already picked out a book that the frail, like Dad, will want to read – or that he loved a year ago and might want to read again.
I know one library where a mentally ill man stands for an hour each morning, even in Canberra’s cold, waiting to get in, because the librarian on the desk is the only person in his life who will endlessly listen to him as she stamps on books.
And for a child a library can be a refuge from fear or a gate to unknown possibilities. To put it simply: a library is a place where good is done, and good is collected.
And if, increasingly, libraries have an online presence as well as a physical one I suspect you need to learn the skills of a physical library to successfully find the path through the overload of information on the web.
Librarians know people, as well as books. They know how people use books, or might use books, if they were given a way to do it.
The library is possibly the oldest human institution, and if you want to argue that churches or temples of worship are, most of those had libraries too. Books change their form, from manuscript to e-book, and libraries change form and function too. But I am betting that in another two a half thousand years there will still be libraries, just as there were two and a half thousand years ago. And those libraries will have books – books you can touch – and people, the people of the book.