Remembrance of libraries past (and present)

In my last post I talked about visiting a library to get ‘real’ books for my course. I was lucky enough to be able to take advantage of the SCONUL access scheme which enables distance learning students at participating universities to use library services at their local university. It’s an excellent service and very easy to register for, and all the better if the university teaches a similar course to yours and has a plentiful supply of books or resources. So, having received my authorising email and double-checked with the library, off I went to my local university, armed only with a bus ticket and a list of books.

I was actually quite excited to be going back to a university library. I’d been to my local public library many times but it’s a different animal in many ways, being more like a community hub and with stock which is not as specialised or as wide-ranging as an academic library.* The last time I had set foot in a university library, I was studying for my undergraduate degree and at that time I had never been into a library that big or specialised.** I was amazed, and immediately wanted to explore every hidden corner and dusty shelf of the entire building, which covered many floors. I associate my ‘discovery’ of that library with many memories and emotions of that unique time. I was a somewhat diffident young woman, away from home for the first time, excited about being there but at the same time unsure about whether it was right for me and whether I would be able to fit in for the next three years. The ‘feel’ of the library became intertwined with those memories, and it was that same feeling and the associated emotions which I had when I walked through the door of a totally different university library 17 years later.

The most evocative thing is probably the smell. People who love libraries, particularly certain types of libraries, know all about ‘library smell’. It’s the classic aroma of books. Usually it signifies old books, with their gently-yellowing pages, slowly-hardening glue and rough fabric covers. Thousands of them packed together in one place, with the newer books gradually taking on the pervading smell of their elders. It’s difficult to describe but you know it instantly, and it follows you as you wind your way through the towering stacks.

Not necessarily good for the claustrophobic though...
Not necessarily good for the claustrophobic though…

Most libraries are arranged in the same way, with subject sections consisting of rows of stacks with main ‘roads’ to walk through, and smaller ‘avenues’ to access the individual shelves. Sometimes the layout is very regimented and open; other times, due to limited space or just a large volume of materials, it can seem like a twisting maze of bookshelves within which you could easily get lost. Occasionally, these two forms co-exist in the same library across floors. There’s just something about standing amongst the books, cocooned by shelving, ambient sounds muffled by layers of paper. It’s usually very quiet, with only the occasional shuffling or page turning or tapping of keyboard to be heard, which makes it a very relaxing experience and focuses the mind wonderfully. Somehow it’s even better in the winter months, when there aren’t many people around, it’s dark outside and you’re there amongst the quiet wood (wooden shelves are always better than metal, at least from a nostalgic point of view, but I suspect they are heavier and cause many library planners an architectural headache).

It feels safe but also exciting, as if at any moment you could happen upon a forgotten tome filled with strange secrets. Well, maybe. Yet, there is a pleasure in just spending some time to quietly browse an interesting area (a recognised information search technique, in fact) and you can often stumble upon something you otherwise would not have found. Then there are the books themselves. In the days when a date stamp was placed in the front every time a book was borrowed, it was interesting to see when and how often it had been read. That’s now largely a thing of the past but sometimes the last stamp sheets are left in the book, giving you a glimpse of its final moments before the changeover. The stamps seem to stop appearing around about 2002 in the case of this particular university, which seems quite early to me. There’s nearly always something to be found inside a book, though; some relic of its past nestling between the pages. An old cinema ticket here; a shopping list there; maybe even an old photograph, if you’re lucky, though this is more common in second-hand bookshops. Then there’s the marginalia and underlining; evidence of past readers’ thoughts, some of which may inform your own reading.

So, as you might have guessed, returning to the library was a real nostalgic treat for me – like Proust’s madeleine (except it would be difficult to dip a library in your tea). It also gave me a renewed sense of purpose with regard to my studies. After seeking out the books I had earmarked for my Masters course, I took a final detour to a completely different section and browsed some of the books I had known in my undergraduate days. Some familiar covers and even more familiar names (some of whom I had been taught by) stared out at me from the shelves and, for a moment, it was like being back there again. I even looked through a couple of them for some date stamps to see if someone had taken them out around the same time as I had done back then. Just for old times’ sake.


*This isn’t meant as a criticism. Libraries of all kinds, whether public or institutional, must be geared towards the needs of their users, and public libraries generally do a brilliant balancing act in offering services which can be used by a broad range of people from the community as a whole.

** To be brutally honest, throughout my studies I completely failed to take full advantage of the library services. Having now completed the Information Studies module in my current course, I am so much more aware of how information retrieval should work, as well as ways in which the search process can be made more efficient and can be targeted to your topic of research. This in turn has been invaluable for my own information searches in order to study information searching (yes, it’s all very meta). These were all things which, in my youthful indifference, I only vaguely appreciated all those years ago.


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