On one fine spring afternoon in my second year of freshman, I vowed never to enter a library again. Standing in my place some hundred years ago, Virginia Woolf was ousted from the doors of an ‘Oxbridge’ library. She was done so on account of her gender, while I stood suspended because Spotify thought it would be an excellent time to auto play Arctic Monkeys’ 5O5. It was a messy gallop all across the slippery tiled aisle to my deck while reaching for my phone in the bottom of my sling bag, whereby I stumbled upon some readers, dropped books from the stacks, turned silence into chaos, warranted a frown from the librarian, and not to mention a month-long suspension against my library card. In that one instance that day, I had broken all the eternal rules of librarianship and encountered all the stereotypes associated with it.
Reading. A book. In a library. Each sentence here progresses with an increasing amount of strictness and plight, with a strange foreboding about reaching that last stage – ‘in a library.’ Visiting a library was something last done by my grandfather when he was in his late seventies, which led me to consider this to be a gravely senior space that is better avoided. Clearly, there is something out of balance in our system of teaching and scholarship at the college and graduate level when eminent librarians, faculty, and university administrators, having paid lip service to the library as the heart of the institution, increasingly insist that the heartbeat must be kept down. Our devotion to the hard-cover book, justifiable as it may be, gets mixed up with cross-currents that we do not understand and do nothing about. Somehow we have made the book an object of veneration to the point that it is not used by “everyman” if there is any way of getting around it. It is difficult to decide whether assigned reading, penurious protection, preservation, or the cult of veneration of the book as a physical object are most to blame for this state of affairs. Whatever the cause, there can be little doubt that we have developed into a society in which we, the generality of us, simultaneously hold recorded information in high regard and avoid it to the greatest extent possible.
Libraries have been imagined violently. Its status as a social institution is ironic as it has successfully kept a significant portion of the population out of its enormous structures, making the place characteristic of the un-socials. A trip to the stacks can stir up ghosts, or a man can be seen painlessly perishing in the corner. Immersed in a contemplative composure and emaciated in the extremes, he looks as if he is fanatically possessed by an idea unknown to the world. The librarian, just like the monastic, is often pictured toiling away over stacks of books, all the while doing it on behalf of the community. They have a certain viewpoint in their eyes and painful slowness in their movements. Communing with the world of words and ideas, they are imagined to know more than most people. The high moral standards for librarians are apparent through the requirements originally proposed for the profession: “a college degree (preferably with a background in Latin and French), a high moral character, an intrinsic sense for order and [what else?] a love for books.” The image of the librarian as an egghead falls short of the idea of other classic professions. His benevolence in an altruistic profession aiming at making a difference in people’s lives remains somewhat less fulfilled. As in my case, this image has led many others to flee out of the gothic library doors.
Libraries have fallen outside the purview of the 21st-century attention span. The feeling of losing oneself in the stream of civilization’s written record—the past, present, and future while simultaneously becoming part of it evokes a distorting sense of disorientation. For many, it’s an oddly comforting loss of self. Energy, vibrations, spirit, and lifeforce culminate in this indescribable essence that seems palpable, especially when standing in one of the great reading rooms of a historic library building. Simply standing quietly amid the grandeur can be an act of devotion for many, and hence libraries continue to be described as heaven and sanctum sanctorum. Library’s definition as a physical configuration has been critically eyed. The flow of information in digital-age research is without regard for structure, whereas libraries have been entirely about structures. Evolution has devised ways to try and render this physical space obsolete, trapping it in a box and refusing to be intimidated by its demands.
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Books and libraries have 5000 years of history. Martin Luther actively encouraged the development of public libraries to spread the doctrines of the Reformation. Lenin gave a crucial role to libraries in spreading literacy (and Communist orthodoxy) in postrevolutionary Russia. What have libraries served their customers all through the years? They have traded in terms of spatiality with a physical design that directs and nurtures discovery or enlightenment. The laboratory, field, college, or the office – the institutional environment – are conducive to creative and collaborative engagements through their physical layout. Libraries are no exceptions. They, too, have addressed environmental factors designed to stimulate creativity and productivity. Libraries have been defined in respect of their physical configuration, classification, and hierarchies of knowledge.
Ancient libraries have become a showpiece in the passage of time, nostalgia, and feelings of recollection. But that doesn’t draw up a hopeless picture of the utility of libraries in the modern age. In the 20th century, they moved away from their role as silent institutions to becoming more about people, community, and services. Libraries have become more about access, inclusiveness, and community place. Libraries in Britain are being called ‘Idea Stores,’ aiming to encompass and adopt rapid changes in library technologies. Buildings are being revamped and reconstructed. They are no longer synonymous with being intimidating. Future libraries will be less about books and more about community and value-added services. They are dispelling old stereotypes, busting myths, and facilitating the creative economy. Apart from training programs, childcare support, and other community services, Libraries are working up their cool quotient. Recording studios are featured in many urban libraries. With the shift in society’s access to recorded knowledge, we need to restructure the needs facilitated by a physical library setting. For the library space to be distinct from wireless environments, it needs to guarantee its clientele a replica of the library ethos to uphold social interactions. Future Libraries should not drive away a passerby, a wanderer lost in their way. It could be welcoming and beckoning people to experience, create or just shop an idea!
Author: Sebonti Sinha
[Theatre, St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, English Literature]
Illustration/Image/Graphics: TDLM Design Team