In this institution, special provision has been made for the working classes, by means of a free lending library ... this meeting cherishes the earnest hope that the books thus made available will prove a source of pleasure and improvement in the cottages, the garrets, and the cellars of the poorest of our people.
Τετάρτη, Αυγούστου 07, 2013
Taking a close look at some of the most glorious of the world's public libraries, from Australia to England, is a reminder of just how vital they are the world over
As far as libraries are concerned, the UK government would do well to take a leaf out of the book of its Commonwealth cousins.
I was given a tour of Melbourne’s Victoria state Library, just next to the Wheeler Centre of Books Writing and Ideas, when I first arrived in Melbourne as an international writer in residence. I was awed by the beauty of the building, the splendid "dome readingroom" (which this year celebrates its centenary), the vast collections of archival material.
But best of all, it was free to use the reading rooms without registration, and free to join the library. All were welcome (abiding by the rules and regulations, of course). The tour took us to a room rumoured to be haunted, where we would be performing an event (fittingly called Fright Night) at the Emerging Writers’ Festival. Whilst I saw no ghosts during my stay, the experience at the library was nevertheless haunting; the spirit of the writers captured in the pages lingered on even as I flew back to Britain.
When I returned to Melbourne, friends would ask if it was love that was drawing me back, and I had to admit that it was: I’d fallen in love so deeply that I’d yearn for the object of my devotion when parted, assiduously plan our next encounter, feel a flutter of expectational butterflies when I glanced at the date in my diary written in gold pen. I'd fallen in love, yes – with the library.
Sitting there was a sanctuary in the swirl of the city and a perfect place to write; as a foreigner in the city it provided a vital sense of home, a still point in the flux of my travels, and a connection to a wider pool of knowledge that it was granted anyone in the city had a right to plug into.
I gained wisdom about that elation I was feeling at the first free exhibition I attended there, which just happened to be called “Love and Devotion: from Persia and beyond”, (celebrating stories of human and divine love captured in ancient manuscripts), an enlightening experience accompanied by an enthusiastic tour guide. There’s a strong local as well as international focus: after visiting year-long exhibitions from Mirror of the World to The Changing Face of Victoria, I left armed with an extensive educative history not only of literature but of location – and a glimpse of the notorious Ned Kelly’s armour (there are indeed plenty of reasons to feel haunted here). Libraries provide a knowledge of that richly layered history of a city shaping the present-day. Offering all the services you’d expect – an extensive events and talks programme; a quota of free internet access; the Readings bookshop on the ground floor alongside the cafe, Mr Tulk – all in all there’s a real community feeling.
As the UK closes even more of its libraries, it would be salutary for the government to glance across the shores to see how libraries can ideally be run. Indeed, it was reported that the closure of six libraries has recently happened in my hometown of Manchester despite opposition from members of the public. Many of these libraries are in the most deprived areas of the city.
In 1852, Charles Dickens opened one of the first free public lending libraries in Manchester (now Manchester central library), built upon the philosophy of providing wisdom for all, regardless of background, "knowing no sect, no party, no distinction; nothing but the public want and the general good". At the opening ceremony, he gave a stirring speech:
Growing up in Manchester, the local libraries in Old Trafford and Stretford were a lifeline not only to books but a sense of community – but both of my old childhood haunts have now closed. Those that support the closure of libraries argue that the internet provides online information and e-books – but a significant percentage of the country still don’t have internet access; for them, the local public library provided not only books but a crucial connection to the world. There are, of course, still some excellent libraries in Britain – such as the superlative British Library, and Manchester Central Library is currently being refurbished (which sadly involved the culling of collections). Cuts and culls still hover ominously.
Not that the state of Victoria is immune to library closures; in 2011 it was reported that cuts were being made to the state’s libraries. Taking a close look at some of the most glorious of the world's public libraries, from Melbourne to Manchester, is a reminder of just how vital they are the world over and the campaign must go on to stave off the dreaded closures. Providing “a source of pleasure and improvement” to all, regardless of background, is not an outdated principle, but a democratic ideal that needs to be protected - wherever in the world you might be.
“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing”, wrote Harper Lee – one of the many thought-provoking quotes engraved into the Dome Reading Room walls in Melbourne. I was lucky as a child to have a free local library where I could live and breathe books - not so for the next generation. The threat of losing our libraries and the appetite for reading fostered by them should make us stop and contemplate what it is about them that we so love, and declare that love, before their oxygen supply is cut off.
We definitely don’t want to be haunted by libraries as a thing of the past.