Thursday, 12 February 2009
907 - The Art of a Library
There's an autobiographical book by Francis Spufford called The Child That Books Built. Books built me, too. And now I am building a library.
In fact, books built my family - both sides. My mother's family was, and still is, involved in publishing. Long ago they opened one of the first public lending libraries, in Glasgow. My father's double great grandfather was a poet (not a great one) in Blackburn, and, for a while, was Librarian at Blackburn Mechanics Institution. A contemporary described his home as being 'literally wainscotted with books'.
So it's in the blood, I reckon; in the genes, though I wonder what exactly that might mean. My earliest play memories are not of books, but Stickle Bricks. But from mid-childhood onwards I surrounded myself with books; camped behind the sofa with them; carried them with me on holiday, and to university (where someone perceptively suggested I was addicted to them); fashioned them into my professional life as a librarian.
A book, for me, is a shared space, where the tracks of my mind cross the tracks of another. Though the words themselves, and the surface meanings (and the texture, and white spaces, and weight) are objects, they are objects in relationship, and it is that relationship that gives the experience of reading its intimacy and wider meaning. The longer you read, the closer you and the author of your book get, till you share the same experience, and in some sense are of one mind.
A library, gathered over time, and partially or wholly read, is therefore the node of a community, speaking in analogue, the way that the Web can be a digital community. On my shelves I place Steven Pinker, William James and Karen Armstrong, alongside Clive James and Naomi Klein. Perhaps they talk in other forums too, face to face (though this is hard across generations and social divides), but when I read them alongside one another, at least in my mind, they speak together for me. And when I add my words to theirs, and place them in some accessible form, like this blog, or a conversation I have with friends, the community is perpetuated, and opened up to feedback and new voices.
A library is steam-punk cyberspace.
Whitley has a public library, forty years in temporary accommodation. Its coastline extends north to the home of the Lindisfarne Gospels. Its cycle-tracks and waggonways cut inland to Newcastle, where the Lit and Phil was set up as a private library, to serve the same mechanics and worthies as the Blackburn library my triple-great grandfather served in. Newcastle has webcammed a bold new library, due to open Summer 2009. Back in Whitley, the local library is set to move, away from its site in Whitley Park, the park where Thomas Bewick drew his Great Ox, the Ox set to be commemorated in poetry by school kids and adults at the end of March.... You can walk from Whitley to Newcastle, Whitley to Lindisfarne, sure of company much of the way. And the great readers, if neurologists and anthropologists are to be believed, have always been great trackers: they use the same mental capacities.
Not sure where this is leading. Save to suggest that Libraries, like walking and the growth of civilisation, are an art and an organic thing, and seamless with our past and digital future together.