I have always thought that a library is a place of refuge. The quiet reflection afforded there has a special role both in creating a space of learning but also in living differently. For the poor who lack the room to think, a public library often sits between their cramped domestic arrangements and the noisy free flow of the street. Richard Hoggart wrote that the public library, as a consequence, becomes a ‘home from home’, somewhere not just to compose your thoughts but also to remake yourself.
In the thirties Hoggart, a working-class grammar school boy from Yorkshire, frequented Hunslet Public Library where he read books in a warm room and borrowed them without charge. He wrote in his memoir that ‘a great many people from poor backgrounds have paid tribute to the place of the public libraries in their unofficial education’. A library is precious to them because they lived in homes without books.
In 2010 The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards told an audience at the New York Public Library that libraries were the only places where he ‘willingly obeyed the rules’. For the guitarist, who had a fraught relationship with school, post-war Dartford was a bleak and inhospitable place to come of age but the Victorian splendour of the public library was the exception. Many libraries were built after the passing of the Public Libraries Act in 1850, when, in response to political pressure begun by the Chartists, public libraries aimed to give workers gainful recreation. The reforms also aimed to dissipate revolutionary dissent by providing public education in every town. Keith Richards told the New Yorkers: ‘It was a sort of different space . . . it was there for everybody. I could find out things I wasn’t being taught in school. It was like the centre of things and so it should be.’
A library is a place of refuge. It shouldn’t be surprising that asylum seekers and refugees use libraries to cope with the limitations placed on them like the prohibition against them working. Forced to live in a state of mortifying idleness and endless waiting they often visit the library. Katherine Robinson documents encounters with asylum seekers in her research on Brigstock Road Library, Croydon. Here migrants animate their days browsing the stacks of books, surfing the internet and reading newspapers. Toni Morrison says that public libraries stand alone not only in offering free access to knowledge but also as an open space for life in public. In libraries, she writes, ‘No tuition is charged, no oath sworn, no visa demanded.’ This openness conveys to all in society a message that, in her words, says: ‘touch me, use me, my hush is not indifference, my space is not a barrier’.
A grand citadel made of books like the New York Public Library is a symbol of power too. In Go Tell It On the Mountain James Baldwin’s central character John Grimes does not dare to enter it because he sees it as a bastion of whiteness. Grimes holds a library card but fears to go inside because ‘all the white people would look at him with pity’. He turns away from the entrance and decides instead to return to his neighbourhood library. He consoles himself with the thought that once he has read ‘all the books uptown’ he will have the ‘poise’ to go into the library in downtown Manhattan. Baldwin’s book, published in 1953, speaks brilliantly to the internalized doubts produced by growing up in a racially segregated and class divided world. Today the New York Public Library houses a collection of Baldwin’s letters, personal papers and manuscripts. John Grimes made it inside finally.
A local public library then is a stepping stone, a place to reckon with educational vertigo and gain confidence. As a boy in the 1970s I spent so many hours in the New Addington Public Library that the librarian – a kindly but stern women – would bring me a cup of tea when she made one for herself. She took pity on the boy in the corner and bent the rules – food and drink was strictly prohibited in those days. There was zero tolerance of noise too above the rustle of newspaper pages being turned.
The architecture of that library had none of the great Victorian grandeur described by Hoggart and Richards but projected lower aspirations. It was opened on 22 June 1964 as part of a new community complex that also included a swimming baths. The public library was a municipal token of educational opportunity linked to the new comprehensive schools where the children from the estate were educated. The roof was jagged like the teeth of a saw and its large glass panels gave the library a light and airy feel. Architecturally it was the civic equivalent of the post-war council houses in which the estates’ residents lived – functional, clean but modest.
During the day old aged pensioners would negotiate the difficult task of steering their shopping trolleys through the library’s revolving door. Many came in search of large print books. The way to cope with a reader’s failing eyesight was simply to enlarge the print. The upgrading of Catherine Cookson’s The Cinder Path or Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn to multi-volume literary epics seemed somehow faintly comic.
A children’s section was to the left of the issue desk catering for the opposite end of the estate’s demographic. This area had lower stacks for the children’s books, nursery chairs and tables and a box of toys. Occasionally the silence of the library would be punctured by the children’s innocent mirth. The calm would be quickly repaired, usually with a parent saying ‘shush, you can’t do that – we’re in the library now’.
The building had a permanent smell of floor wax. Arriving early in the morning a glimpse of the cleaners could be caught as they put large electric floor polishers away. One of them, named Doris, lived on my street and she was invariably dressed in a light pastel overall coat with pockets stuffed with yellow dusters. The floor polishing machines looked like lawn mowers except with the rotary blade replaced by a large disc-shaped brush that seemed to glide over the surface of the library’s shiny wooden floor. I loved that place: its sense of calm, the stacks filled with books and the sweet smell, as if ideas and dreams were also being polished.
Today public libraries are no longer quite the bastions of silent reflection of yesteryear. Yet they retain the quality of public openness that so many commentators have identified. All too frequently local libraries have been sacrificed on austerity’s altar. The New Addington Public Library is one such victim and its revolving door turned for the last time in September 2012. The price of renovating its sixties architecture was deemed too high. Its books have been moved to a smaller space in the newly built New Addington Centre. The shiny new building has retained some of the qualities of the old library. Young people study and contemplate their futures, while elderly women gather to chat and knit. The main difference is that students are not only surrounded by books and notes but installed in front of their laptop computers with mobile phones constantly at their finger tips.
The university library, by contrast, is certainly not open to the world in the same way. A student library card is a necessary visa to gain entry. Having said this, for those who do gain access, many similar pleasures and opportunities are on offer. From the early 1980s the college library at Goldsmiths was a second ‘home from home’, although I would run back to the New Addington Library during vacation and read all the books I imagined, often misleadingly, that every other student had read already. I have probably spent more hours in Goldsmiths library than in any other. It is an eccentric collection full of gaps and gems. Students are rightly exasperated by the fact that there are not enough copies of essential books in their field. But hidden jewels are there too – it just takes time and assistance to discover them. In this sense, the library is a bit like the university it serves.
Besieged by public spending cuts and subject to so many changes why do libraries still matter? In the age of Google Scholar aren’t libraries at risk of becoming a bit of an anachronism. Reading matter comes to our screens faster than a book ever could. Why do we need a library when, with the right log-in, we have almost immediate access to the world library online? All this misses the point of libraries because they provide not only a refuge but also places of serendipity, where we discover routinely things we are not looking for.
Tony Woodiwiss has a name for such miracles. He says it is the work of the Library Angel. It is when you discover a book that you didn’t know existed and is even more exciting than the one you were trying to find in the first place. Without realizing it the Library Angel has led you there. To meet the Library Angel, or feel her influence, you need to wait for hidden treasures to be revealed. In his famous essay ‘Unpacking My Library’, Walter Benjamin observes that it is a mistake to think that it is readers that bring books to life. Rather, he argues, the reverse is the case and it is we readers who come to life as our fingers disappear into the pages of a new book.
I used to like to write at night but now know I am at my best in the mornings. But I often find myself in the library after hours. Scholarship interrupts your sleep. Sometimes – like tonight – there is just no fighting it, nothing left to do other than to get up and get on with the task at hand. With twenty-four-hour and seven-day-a-week library access it is always possible to chase up a new lead or reference. There is a book in the catalogue that I feel sure is the key to the intractable problem preoccupying me on this sleepless night. I am convinced I’ll need it when I sit down at the keyboard come morning.
The atmosphere of a library changes at night. In the thick nocturnal silence the library’s order is blurred and authority muted. As Alberto Manguel writes, our own thoughts grow louder, and this, he says, is ‘halfway between wakefulness and sleep in which the world can comfortably be re-imagined’. The book I am looking for is on the first floor where the Dewey system offers it an orderly home at 302.231. I find it at the stipulated address. Then something else catches my eye as my fingers stumble along the shelf. It seems more interesting and I grab that book too. My new acquisition is evidence that the Library Angel is still awake. I am ready for the morning now. The heavy stillness of the library at night seems to draw out connections and solutions like a poultice.