Libraries are big news right now. Across the board, amongst stories of global unrest, local tragedy and even salacious gossip feature ongoing reports about the uncertain plight of hundreds of libraries across the land. Numerous crusades and campaigns in individual city councils came together and culminated in a national demonstration; the Save Our Libraries Day at the beginning of this month signifying an overwhelming show of support, pride and love for these public powerhouses of literature collections, these pillars of the community. The protests to protect our local libraries may not be on quite the same scale of significance as those going on elsewhere in the world at the present moment but they do represent the very real concerns of thousands, if not millions and the democratic right to fight for choice, access, knowledge and enrichment. The standing up – and sitting-in – of the little known as well as the well-known in society is incredible to see and the passion being so clearly displayed raises spirits sky-high. Yet at the same time the cause of all the banner and book waving – the looming threat of library closure and the thought that many will succumb regardless of the campaign’s runaway success – makes the heart sink to the floor.
As an institution, the library has always played an undeniably important role in my life. Whether it’s been for entertainment, education or otherwise, it’s hard to imagine what things would have been like if I had not been able to take a ten minute walk down the road and through those doors into a world of wonder, serenity and shelve upon shelve of books that would offer so much for so little – unending realms of imagination that would have taken years to conjure up or most likely would have gone sadly uninhabited if I was unable to temporarily take ownership of so many amazing tales. I still have strong memories of being taken every week to the library to pick out a dozen books, the staple of my childhood amusement. It was often a highlight to my young self to spend an hour or longer in there sitting and reading happily, strolling just a very short distance when I’d finished with one to let my fingertips sprawl across the many spines and dizzy themselves with the sheer volume of selection. Now they provide even higher levels of astonishment to me – again I could occupy an afternoon simply browsing, tracking down that certain novel that has been on my reading list for far too long but also with great frequency coming across books I’d never have considered looking for or even knew existed. So you can have a peek online or on the high street but it’s just not the same somehow; the surprising stumbling upon a hidden story seems perfectly set within the walls of a library.
Perhaps the underlying reason for such impassioned protests for the sake of libraries lies with the fact that they’re not just storage spaces; they’re living, breathing buildings with a presence of their own. All the books that each library houses contribute the stories within them to the life of the place, and the combination of thousands of different tales from endless dates and ages make them such special places to be. A library card is much more than a pocket-sized piece of plastic – it’s a gateway into another dimension, a portal into the biggest time machine there could be; when you think about it a library is probably the closest you’ll get to a real-life Tardis. It’s this journey across eras and centuries, amongst many other things, that is nicely summed up by Emily Dickinson in her personal ode to libraries. She also shores up the presence, the life within which is so imperative to every single one, utilising to full effect the tool of personification; each and every one of us who visits a library knows it, relies and depends on it like they would a friend. Indeed, Dickinson presents the library as quite an incredible person with many facets: an embracing comforter, a confident orator, a fascinating and eccentric but reliably knowledgeable wise old sage. Given the current situation, the closing stanza is exceptionally poignant in its accuracy and sums up why we should feel so strongly about protecting our libraries.
In a Library
A precious, mouldering pleasure ‘t is
To meet an antique book,
In just the dress his century wore;
A privilege, I think,
His venerable hand to take,
And warming in our own,
A passage back, or two, to make
To times when he was young.
His quaint opinions to inspect,
His knowledge to unfold
On what concerns our mutual mind,
The literature of old;
What interested scholars most,
What competitions ran
When Plato was a certainty.
And Sophocles a man;
When Sappho was a living girl,
And Beatrice wore
The gown that Dante deified.
Facts, centuries before,
He traverses familiar,
As one should come to town
And tell you all your dreams were true;
He lived where dreams were sown.
His presence is enchantment,
You beg him not to go;
Old volumes shake their vellum heads
And tantalize, just so.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)