“When you’re alone
And life is making you lonely
You can always go:
To the Library!”
Okay, it doesn’t work, but you get the idea. The Library is your friend. It’s your soulmate. It’s a world of excitement and adventure cocooned within four walls. And it’s currently free (at least at the moment it is in the UK– but David Cameron, I’m watching you!)
I have always felt a strange sense of peace amongst books. Not for me the sudden flash of panic as the realisation dawns that there are never going to be enough hours in one’s life to read everything one wants to. Books en masse produce in me a kind of nirvana, a bliss, a calm. It doesn’t matter how bad things are, a library is one of the two places I can go to know peace. (The other is the beach, in case you were wondering, but that’s another story.) This is no coincidence.
Jeanette Winterson, in her emotionally complex autobiography, credits working her way (alphabetically – how pragmatic) through her local library with saving her life from a traumatic and abusive childhood. Books give us the power to escape, to transcend, to find knowledge and wisdom, happiness and peace.
And more than that – Terry Pratchett notes the strange distortion that occurs when books are gathered together. He calls it L-space, a phenomenon in which the power of knowledge bends the time space continuum so that all places and times are accessible from the magnificent Library of the Unseen University (although travelling in L-space can be dangerous!). This is really just a charming metaphor for what Winterson reports. Libraries open up unexplored and unimagined realms for us without our ever having to leave their environs. Although, if you have ever visited Kim’s Bookshop in Arundel, Sussex, you might agree with Pratchett that L-space does indeed exist!
Libraries have changed greatly since the days when my Dad used to take me down to our village library every Friday night with my fist full of little cardboard pockets to exchange with the kindly librarian for books that enchanted and fascinated me all week long. Now I frequent the UK’s most popular library, the Millennium Library at the Forum, Norwich, which is housed in a breath-taking vision of modern architecture, and has the highest borrowing numbers in the country. No wonder. Its great.
My favourite treat is to go to the library without a time limit, and just browse, as if I were in a sweet shop. I can wander about, dipping into sections, picking out jewels here and there like a magpie. I can have whatever I want to try, and I don’t have to worry about how much its going to cost me. Often I find books I have been hanging my nose over on Amazon or favourite blogs, wondering whether I should buy them – with the library I can try them out, and see if they are worth the investment.
I always make sure I browse the ‘Just Returned’ trolleys too. This is a great way to come across books that you would never have tried otherwise, because they are shelved in sections you would not normally think to visit. These eclectic shelves are a great way to expand your reading by picking up whatever appeals to you.
Appeal is crucial. Sometimes I go in with the challenge to choose books on the basis of their covers alone! This is a fun thing to do with fiction particularly, because you end up not only with a bunch of stuff you would never have found otherwise, but also you get to sample the publishers’ strategies on book design, which is a useful thing to know about if you are a writer or illustrator.
If I find a book that proves especially useful for research purposes, I always make sure I record its Class Number as well as the author and title details in my writers notebook, so that I can find them easily again.
One of my most profound library revelations of recent years is the idea that if I choose a book that it turns out I don’t like, I don’t have to keep it the full three weeks. Yes, I can take it back the very next day, if I like. Nobody will judge me. Its like test driving a car. If it doesn’t prove useful, its not the end of the world. I used to have such an investment in choosing the right books to borrow. But there are so many books to delight in. Why worry? Just try a few on for size. Its not as if you have to pay for them.
Libraries are an enormous resource. As are librarians. Many of them are highly trained, and they really love it when a borrower asks them a question which is something more interesting than ‘why won’t my card work in the machine?’ They love to ferret out unusual and rare tomes, and rifle through the vagaries of the inter-library loan system. They are usually only too happy to help you with your research questions. There is so much knowledge and expertise on offer, and most of time we don’t even know it is there.
This week, give yourself the best treat ever. Go and gorge yourself at the library!