Last week, libraries were in the news in Britain: firstly, because Essex County Council reversed its decision to close 25 of its 74 libraries after extensive pressure from the public (and, helpfully, some celebrities); and secondly, because The Bookseller reported that book loans at libraries in the UK have ‘plummeted year-on-year since 2009–10’.
Libraries are in trouble for the simple fact that they are not used enough – which means their funding is cut and they risk dwindling collections or even closure. Both are saddening; both are poor legacies to leave the next generation.
‘I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.’ This quotation, from Jorge Luis Borges, is beloved by bibliophiles the world over. Reverse it, and you have a world without libraries being a hell of sorts.
The simple solution to the decline in libraries, of course, is that we all must use them, and often. Not only the really beautiful ones – the historic libraries – but also the local ones, which may be less well funded but nevertheless have so much to offer.
There, we can browse so many books. We can push outside our comfort zone and try a different book to our usual taste, safe in the knowledge that if we don’t enjoy the book, we can close it after page one and return it (not having wasted a penny, unlike in a book store). We can try out new authors; we can tiptoe into new genres. There are so many options, so many gems to discover. As Virginia Woolf wrote, ‘I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunk treasure.’
But it isn’t just about the books we can take home. Perhaps we don’t take them home at all. Perhaps we sit in a corner of the library itself and read and enjoy the atmosphere. The calm. The scent of the books. The strength and power of these words all around.
Libraries are sanctuaries. There, we can step away from the clamour and madness of the modern world and find sanity and tranquillity for the mind and the soul. Libraries are safe spaces, inspirational spaces. They help us to connect, and to belong. As Maya Angelou wrote:
Information helps you to see that you’re not alone. That there’s somebody in Mississippi and somebody in Tokyo who all have wept, who’ve all longed and lost, who’ve all been happy. So the library helps you to see, not only that you are not alone, but that you’re not really any different from everyone else.
The library really isn’t just a place of books; it’s a haven.