What’s your early library memory? An intriguing question which opened a Jewish Book Week discussion on libraries in the digital age, as well as a highly topical one. We’ll return to it shortly, but first: Jewish Book Week — what is it, and what does it mean for me? In a nutshell, JBW brings together writers, artists, scholars and commentators in an annual celebration of culture, arts, literature and ideas. It’s thanks to BBC Radio 4 that I came across it at all. Thomas Harding, a guest on the Midweek programme, was explaining the background to the most incredible — and true — story, told in his book Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Commandant of Auschwitz. Glued to the radio as the story unfolded (and quite possibly late for something as a result), I searched online to find out more. And ended up with two tickets to see Harding at JBW 2014.
At the time I was in the final year of my PhD and had convinced myself there was no ‘justification’ for reading any book that wasn’t vaguely research relevant. Thankfully, the speakers at JBW and the stories they told broke down this self-imposed barrier; and anyway, it was impossible to resist the books stacked high in the foyer, waiting to be picked up and read. So over the past few years my reading has embraced history, film, faith, psychology, journalism and, yes, — even more ‘guiltily’ — lots of novels (and yet I managed to finish the PhD). I’ve gained a greater appreciation and understanding of authors whose work was already familiar (AB Yehoshua, Howard Jacobson, for example) and discovered others who might otherwise have eluded me. On a browse through Waterstones, would I have given Ruth Gilligan’s Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan a second glance? Probably not. But having heard the author talk about her inspiration and writing, I can’t wait to read this novel about three generations of Dublin Jews.
I’ve just come back from this year’s event, where the speakers inspired and moved me, frequently made me laugh and dared me to question my own thinking. In fact it’s no exaggeration to say that JBW has transformed and enriched my reading and rekindled a love of books that began in childhood. Which brings us back to that opening question: what’s an early library memory?
One of my early library memories (there are many) is spending Saturday mornings doing school homework upstairs in the local library. Running my fingers along the rows of book spines. Making notes from the stash of books on the desk. Renewing the same books again and again, hoping no-one else would reserve them. Rummaging through the racks of music cassettes (Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs was a particularly excellent find). Convincing the librarian to transfer in books to feed my early, growing interest in Green politics. The people who gathered in the library to browse, read and study came from all walks of life. It was, after all, a community library, a public space.
But such spaces are under threat in my north London borough of Barnet. In an effort to save money, Barnet Council is ‘changing’ the borough’s libraries. The Council plans involve slashing the number of qualified librarians, reducing libraries’ size and stock and, most controversially, operating unstaffed, ‘self-service’ opening hours. My local library, High Barnet, will be unstaffed for two whole days a week and for various periods on other days. For safety and safeguarding reasons, children and young people under the age of fifteen will be barred from using the library during self-service hours. Meanwhile, those permitted to use the unstaffed library will find the washrooms locked, and will entrust their personal safety and security to remotely monitored CCTV (promised response time: thirty minutes). And, irony of ironies, preparations for these ‘changes’ kept two-thirds of Barnet libraries shut on World Book Day.
Speaking at JBW, Roly Keating, Director of the British Library, described libraries as ‘precious sanctuary spaces where people can come with others to think and concentrate (…); these spaces are very, very precious and vital in a crowded, noisy digital media environment’. Libraries are there for our ‘research, inspiration and enjoyment’ and for culture, education and advancing knowledge. He’s describing perfectly the library I recall so clearly (albeit from an analog era), and indeed the countless libraries that have nurtured my love of books. But I’m not falling prey to nostalgia. Even in our digital age, on afternoon visits to High Barnet library I’ve often had to hunt for a free desk because the upstairs reference area was full of school students studying and doing homework — just as I used to. Given that not everyone can afford (or wants) to do their reading in a crowded and usually overpriced coffee shop, I genuinely wonder where these younger users will go when they are effectively barred from their library.
What will their library memory be?
glasses: Wokandapix/pixabay; books: Alan Last