Monday, 22 October 2012

How the Modern World Killed Libraries

I want to tell you a story, a story that holds a very important message for me. Sometimes, things bother you, but you don’t feel the need to write about it, even when it relates to the most important thing in your life. That is, you don’t feel the need until something inspires you to write about it. As an optimist (or someone who attempts to be one) I suppose it makes sense that this inspiration comes from more positive sources. In this case, it began today when I went to the LRC – Learning Resources Centre, it’s a fancy term for library in colleges and universities throughout England, and maybe internationally, I don’t know – to borrow some books for an assignment I have to write.

Now, let’s turn the clock back several years. To many people, nineteen doesn’t sound like an age to be considered old, but two decades is enough to gain understanding of the way in which the world changes. There’s a word I have come to dislike – renovation. I dislike it because it took away my childhood. When I heard it, it should have been a hint. I grew up in London and still live there when I’m not at university. Around the corner from where I live is a park, Tabard Park to be precise. As a child it was a wonderful place, but they turned it into something horrible. I don’t know what half the stuff they put in there is, only that I’d rather have it back the way it was. And who removes two thirds of the swings when everyone knows that’s the most popular part? Do they want to start fights? But this isn’t about that. This is about a bigger part of my childhood.

Perhaps it was innate to my being or perhaps it was escapism from the real world that was so necessary in a place filled with bullies. You can call me a loser, loner, nerd, whatever they term people like me as now, but ever since I was an infant, it was always books. Reading and writing have been at the top of my hobbies list since before I was able to do either. I would memorise the words in stories my parents read me so I could recall them to myself before the letters were given meaning in my mind. Before my pen could produce more than scribbles I was giving life to characters in my head. This is essentially my entire life, although now new hobbies have come in as well, these two will always hold special significance.

It’s natural for one such as myself that the centre of this obsession would be the local library, after all the books in my collection were read and before I could afford more, what better option was there? John Harvard Library was my local one, and I remember well the way it was. I know in my head and heart the way libraries are supposed to be. My local was of course one of the main influences of this image (though I’m sure the one from Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ got in there too, what book lover wouldn’t want to be Belle in that situation?). Brown isn’t the colour I would usually use for decoration (it would be both horrible and hilarious as the primary colour in a bathroom) but in libraries it is perfect, perhaps because it is the colour we most associate with tree trunks, the source of our books. White and red make good secondary colours in this scheme. The library air is unique, thicker than the outside air, one may get the impression they’d suffocate if they spent too long in there, of course with a good selection they should never want to leave. It is warm. The smell of paper should be prominent. I am one of those people who must sniff every book I obtain before I begin to read. It is strongest in the middle and paperbacks smell better.

These were all features of my local library. They had a massive section of children’s books, though I only spent a few years in there, beginning to read ‘grown up’ books while I was still in primary school. They had a big section for everything, even my favourites: graphic novels, sci-fi, fantasy and horror. They had a bigger horror section than most book shops I’ve been in and that is my number one genre. I would be bringing home piles of books every other week.

Then it happened: renovation. I forgot the previous time it seems because I was convinced the library would become better, and even have a bigger selection of books. Silly child, libraries don’t work like that anymore.

I was so excited the day it reopened. It looked great from the outside. I disliked it as soon as I stepped in. Everything was white. Nothing man-made should ever be all white. It is cold and sterile and inhuman. The air was just like that outside and the smell was not of paper. The counter was replaced by a small help desk, self-service machines its place. I hated self-service machines when they first came out. I love them now but it is still the only part I can accept, and I missed the old ways. I miss watching the stamp and the other item they used, I don’t know what it was called, but I missed the sound.

You know what took up half of the library, don’t you? It was a coffee shop. As if there wasn’t a Starbucks and a Costa and whatever else outside. Do you know what it means for half the library to be taken up by a coffee shop? That’s right, half the books. Every section reduced, some brilliant books removed, many of my favourites gone. I love coffee. Coffee smells good. Coffee tastes good. Coffee is the perfect partner for reading and writing. Coffee does not belong in a library. It isn’t so bad in book shops, but only because they are still so big that it doesn’t impair the function of the shop by reducing half its stock. Even then, it is usually only in big chain book stores like Waterstones. I love Waterstones, but there’s something about those little book stores you find on street corners that is a completely different kind of special. Of course, everything’s Amazon now isn’t it? It’s cheaper and you don’t even have to leave the house. What an age we live in. Everything can be done without having to communicate with people.

Back to the topic, no, I don’t believe that is what makes a library. I haven’t been back in a few years. There was no point; there was almost nothing I wanted to read. Maybe they’ve had some new stock since then. Maybe I’ll take a look at some point.

So we come back to the present, and I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I went to the library at my university today. They don’t have a coffee shop. They have the colours, and smells, and air I remembered. I walked in and it was so hot I felt instantly dehydrated, my legs were weak. That shouldn’t sound like a good thing but as I looked through the shelves upon shelves of books, which they have three floors of by the way, I was reminded of the way my old library used to be, of the way libraries should be. Of course, being an educational place, it wasn’t separated in genres such as ‘horror’ or ‘fantasy’ though I did manage to find a bit of both, but that’s really beside the point. This is the way libraries should be, this is what gave me hope again. I fear that soon too many will be like the one I used to go to. There’s a lot of modern architecture and interior design I hate to be honest, more things need to look the way they did in the previous centuries. I know there’s the whole thing about how mankind and society needs to evolve and move on but seriously? They redid my old school recently too and the result was pretty much the same. If everything’s going to end up that way can someone hurry up and build me a time machine please?

I may be called a hypocrite because I love my technology. I love my laptop, my video games, my music, but there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed. Like technology wise, I’m not a fan of everything being downloadable. I hate it. I want my music in CDs (yes I have an iPod but still, everything on it is from discs), my films on DVDs (though I do have fond memories of VHS) and my books in books, not on a screen. Yes, there are some great stories online that aren’t available in paper copies, but those that are should be kept there. I know that’s not quite keeping with the library topic of this post but I thought it was a relevant note to add.

So I want to know what other people think of this. I know I see some things differently from ‘normal people’ by I can’t be the only one who sees these modern libraries as atrocities. It completely changes the experience of reading and I don’t think it does so for the better, and of course experience is key to inspiration.

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