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Libraries gave us power… though not necessarily these ones… December 27, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, The Left.

Tom Lamont in the Observer had an interesting review some while back of “The Library: A World History”. The book written by James WP Campbell and Will Pryce and published by Thames and Hudson retails at an eye-watering £48 sterling, and appears to be highly impressive. Campbell and Pryce are an architectural historian and photographer respectively and as Lamont notes it is a study of ‘libraries that are designed to be seen”.

As Lamont also notes, there’s a lot to see. An awful lot. He notes the ‘towering book wall at the Shiba Ryotaro Museum in Osaka”, ‘Yale’s Beinecke library…walled with Vermont marble”… “The library at Phillips Exeter Academy in new Hampshire has one person desks each with a private window”. And they’re not ancient, many of them, by any means. The Phillips Exeter Academy was constructed in the 1970s.

Lamont notes ‘glimpses of folly’… ‘Utrecht Library, its walls rippled balk, looks as if it was built for a climatic showdown between man and alien. I was struck by the statue of Lenin in the Russian State Library: old Vladimir flattered and brainy looking, but back-folding a book in a way that would get him ejected from any reading room in the year. Climbing a staircase inside the National library of Slovenia, visitors are meant to think of themselves (so the architect expressed his hope) rising from ignorance into wisdom. Sure. Or they might think they’re climbing a staircase.’

But Lamont puts his finger on it when he notes that ‘it’s clear within a few pages… that there will be no place in this survey of libraries for the one I grew up visiting. A shame. Palmers Green Library in Enfield and an impeccable selection of plastic-backed Quantum leap novels, plus all the Tintins. But it was never pretty – a teal-carpeted dog, honestly’.

The one I know best, or knew best before jumping ship to the Central Library was one in Raheny. It was built, well, I imagine sometime in the very early 1970s, certainly it was there as long as I can remember. It was… modern at the time. And still. And even now I have the occasional dream of being in it searching for some obscure New Wave novel by Ballard or Priest or whoever. I joined the children’s section and enjoyed it but by twelve I wanted access to the adult section. I got it too. And as libraries do it opened my eyes in so many ways. It wasn’t just fiction, I was a voracious reader of anything pretty much, and still am.

But modern as it was at the time, it was unpretentious, it was quiet but not overly so, and it was easily accessible. In it’s own way it was an embodiment and representation of democracy.

And thinking of that it’s hard not to agree with Lamont when he continues:

For all the seductive beauty [on display in the book] there is a niggling sense that superb buildings get erected not to celebrate books and refine access to them, but rather as a way for architects to flex and test themselves; as a way for flush universities to slough off money: as a way for benefactors to create expanses of wall for their good name to go up on.

And he concludes:

…the buildings in The Library: A WOrld history aren’t really the libraries of the world: they’re the libraries of the few. Teal-carpeted alternatives weren’t ‘designed to be seen’ but they they were absolutely designed for fairness. Malorie Blackman calls them ‘equalisers’. They don’t ask you for a recommendation on headed notepaper, and they aren’t Oxbridge – or Ivy League-exclusive. They have all the Tintins and let anyone in to read them.’

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1. Tomboktu - December 27, 2013

I’d love to see a photograph of Lenin mistreating the book.

WorldbyStorm - December 27, 2013

Just googled it and cannot find it.

2. Jim Monaghan - December 27, 2013

We should encourage people to use libraries. They and their services depend on footfall (number of users) to justify their existence. So new year resolution join your local library, borrow a book, a cd or dvd. And they will get it for you with an interlibrary loan

WorldbyStorm - December 27, 2013


BB - December 28, 2013

This reminds me of the time my Dad told me the problem with women was not giving them the vote: it was giving them the library ticket! This reflected his (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) observation that I became so opinionated after joining the local library and coming home with those “fancy words” and uppity notions.

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