Libraries keep us human

Libraries keep us human
Posted 25 January 2013 by Matt Haig

As many of you may know National Libraries Day is approaching. The date is Saturday 9th February, and I'm very excited to be involved with it via a Guinness World Record attempt to hold the largest story writing workshop ever.


Getting involved has made me think about just how valuable libraries are. It has also made me wonder if many people - on both sides of the argument - might be slightly missing the point as to why libraries are so essential.


So why is a library important? Well, historically libraries were places of knowledge and enlightenment, where the sum of human understanding was stored for others to build upon. They were a key component of civilization itself. Think of the ancient library of Alexandria. When that burnt down, a light went out across the civilised world and the dark ages began.


Libraries are still as important. They remain a key component of civilization, though for slightly different reasons. You see, nowadays we have the Internet as a useful place to store information - though we must remember, information and knowledge are not the same thing, and there is no search engine in the world with the warmth of a good librarian. We also have something called the e-book, which means a book is not just a physical object any more. These two facts have sometimes been used together, to imply libraries are going to be less relevant to this century than they were to the last.


But I would say the opposite.


I would say that there is more need to have a physical home for books than ever before. A library, you see, is much more than the sum of its parts. A library is an increasingly unique space in our modern world. Whether it is in a school, a university, or a town centre it offers an important retreat, an oasis of sorts. And an access to literature and knowledge for people who can't afford to buy every book they want to read. But a library is not just important because there are books there (though what could be a better reason to visit a place than because it is full of books?)




A library is important for what it represents to a community.


It is one of the very few places left - online or offline - where we can go and feel that no-one is trying to sell us something. They are places we can go to retreat, sanctuaries of calm, of contemplation, of thought and study and mental escape. To say, well, we can get these books elsewhere is a bit like saying to the religious person, well, if God is everywhere then why go to church.


When I was a teenager I'd go to the school library not to read a specific book but often just to escape the Darwinian cut-and-thrust of the football field. And when I was eleven, and finding the transition from a tiny village school to vast comp a bit tricky the school library literally saved me from bullies.


When I was a bit older I'd visit the library in the market town I lived in (Newark, Nottinghamshire) and spend hours there after school. Being a latch-key kid it was either that, wander the shops or be at home listening to my sister play New Kids on the Block.


I'd sit in a comfy chair and read all kinds of stuff. Fantasy books, Adrian Mole, historical sagas aimed at older women. I'd read Stephen King books and this vast complicated novel that I assumed as a fifteen year old had been written as some kind of an elaborate joke (James Joyce's Ulysses). Sometimes I'd read the local paper or a magazine. Sometimes I'd chat to the librarians. Sometimes I'd sit and write stories in an exercise book.


What I am saying is that to equate a library solely with the books it houses is like equating a football stadium with the quality of the grass and the number of seats. A library is not a shop. It is one of those special places that exist solely to enrich our lives and make us more human.


And to this day I see a library as a place of quiet wonder, in a world designed to frazzle us. For me, a library is a book in building form. Like a book, we can escape inside it, and get enriched by it, we can feel it is ours and that it wants to give something without taking anything away.


Such spaces are only going to become more valuable to us, not less, as this century progresses.


And so I can't help feeling that to be against the idea of a library is to be against the idea of civilization.


We need these places just as much as they need us.


Would we choose a world without them?



Very well said Matt from a life long library user and librarian. I buy books, I have an e-reader but I still love my local library and go there at least once a week.

Lynn Pearce
29 January 2013

Inspiring summary of the "Life in the Library" - organic - breathing - welcoming - neutral ground - inexhaustable wealth of information and knowledge

Spent a few hours in my home town library to - Newark !

I wonder if Libraries could be pick up points for Amazon book delieveries ?????????

26 January 2013

Here in Australia our public libraries are very much a hub in the community, sometimes the hub. I liked your piece and the sentiments expressed (but then I am a librarian!)

Simon Eade
25 January 2013

So beautifully put. Thankyou as a library lover and a librarian.

Bev Turner
25 January 2013

This is a great article Matt and I agree with everything that you say. When I moved to England last year (after being in Italy for six years) one of the first things I did was join the library. I have borrowed countless books. Libraries are great spaces.

25 January 2013

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