I like a good read. Acquiring books, whether borrowing or buying them, is a pleasure and an activity to be undertaken carefully. So it was that I set off manfully for Finsbury Library this morning with my knapsack on my back and a song in my heart.
Finsbury Library, in St John’s Street, is what I suppose I would call a medium sized public library. It has a reasonable stock of books though, as in most public libraries these days, if your tastes are a little off the beaten track you may have trouble satisfying them. That’s not the fault of the librarians, who are usually quite aware of their responsibilities and continually frustrated by the penny-pinching funding policies of the politicians.
I do also buy books and one of my favourites presents is book tokens. A book token is a magical thing, full of promise and wonder. There is no pleasure quite like that of picking out a book to read and own. But I still patronize the libraries a great deal.
For one thing, you can be freer in your choice with library books. If a volume doesn’t please you, it’s not a problem: simply return it and take another one. It is very disappointing to buy a book and find that it does not live up to the promise of the first few pages that you read in the shop. Or again, you can take out a library book just to see if the subject interests you. If not, you have lost nothing but the small amount of energy required in carrying it home.
Carrying books home from the library may not be a trivial task, either. When I buy books, I usually buy them one at a time and stick mostly to paperbacks. The weight is of little consequence. When I go to the library, imagination and enthusiasm may cause me to borrow a whole pile of books. As no pecuniary transaction is involved, I do not limit myself to paperbacks, either. This morning I returned home, leaning forward under the weight of my backpack like a rambler hiking along the coastal path! Even so, nifty footwork was required when a gusty breeze picked up a double page of newsprint which came flying towards me, arms outstretched, with every intention of embracing my legs…
Electronics and communications technology have revolutionized the library system, of course. A pessimist might point out that this fact is especially noticeable when the system fails and all work grinds to a halt. These days I can renew my books online, reserve them or check the library catalogue, all from the comfort of my home. Long gone are the days when libraries worked with individual tickets and the system could be thrown into disarray by overturning the big tray of tickets behind the counter…
Not that mistakes no longer occur. The “wands” that read the bar code in your book are not infallible. I know this from personal experience of using them. No matter how careful you are, you will eventually miss a book. This is why, when I return my books, I always ask the assistant to check my card. It should be empty. Just the other day, the assistant told me I still had a book at home, only to realize that said book was sitting on the counter, supposedly discharged. Always get them to check your card.
Exploring libraries and bookshops convinces me of one thing: I am deeply ignorant. I used to joke that you could write a book on the things I didn’t know. Then I realized that such a book already exists. It is called The Encyclopaedia Britannica. As a typical product of the British educational system, I am well informed in those fields which I have decided to study for myself and hazy about everything else. Then again, I have always said that the purpose of education is to show people what there is to know and to inspire them to learn it for themselves, not to put secondhand knowledge into their reluctant heads.
This is why libraries are so important. In bookshops, they know about books but in libraries they also know about knowledge and information. The reference section of a public library, staffed by trained information librarians, is a marvellous resource and quite unsung. The vandals who direct library funding today are busily destroying this great treasure and it may soon disappear altogether. One more light of civilization is being extinguished.
Let’s hope the public libraries survive, and that in happier times they return to their erstwhile greatness, providing knowledge, entertainment and pleasure, both on paper and in electronic form. I think my happiest job was working in a library and would like to think that many others will enjoy the same in the years to come.