Monday, 28 February 2011

What happened to libraries?

Time was when you’d go into a public library of the older sort -- Bradford Central Library as was on Darley Street, Bradford Carlisle Road Library, Surbiton Library -- and you’d find people sitting down and reading for extended periods of time, surrounded by ceiling-high shelves of books, many very old (e.g. 1840). This group would include business people on their lunch hours, housewives in the middle of a morning’s shopping, retired persons, unemployed men and school and college students.

It would be pretty well unthinkable to use a public library like that today. There are far fewer books and most of them appear to be newish, colourful and plastic-covered -- ‘attractive’ seems to be the watchword, whereas for me one category of the attractive has always been the unattractive. Older volumes have been disposed of and can be had for bargain prices on Amazon and other sites. The shelves are easy-reaching height and there are computers and kids everywhere. People do sit and flick through books but no one stays for a serious read. The atmosphere is ‘fun’ rather than contemplation.

So has the possibility of picking out and reading a book you don’t own for an hour or more at a stretch in some public space disappeared? no, the readers have moved to Waterstones. Waterstones in Leeds (a great shop ever since it opened -- even though we’re supposed to hate Waterstones, for some good reasons) -- is a fine example. I went in the other afternoon with a couple of hours to kill before catching a train and the place was full of readers in comfortable chairs or in less comfortable ones but with tables in the Costa Coffee area, and many of them were deeply engrossed. True, the books are all new -- and we understand new titles have a very short shelf life in which to prove they sell before they’re whipped away and remaindered or pulped -- but there are masses of them and the shelves go up to ceiling height so that you need stools to reach the top ones. Not a computer in sight except customers’ lap tops and the ones the staff use; and the staff know their stuff.

I was able to read a big chunk of the Bradford section in the new Pevsner Buildings of the West Riding -- a huge improvement on the original, which I got second-hand years ago, and I wanted it but the price was prohibitive (even on Amazon, I found later). But I'll get it one day.

Why I picked that book out to read will become clear in another posting, soon.

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