Shelf Life – Nikki Gemmell

I found this delightful article on libraries in The Australian magazine over the weekend. I thought it beautifully described libraries and their place in society and just had to share it!

This is by far my favourite quote from the article, captures my feelings almost exactly!

Libraries are embracing the cool factor; they’re becoming sexy sanctuaries of thought that force you to pause in the mad rush of life.

Click the link below to read this fabulous article!

‘Shelf Life’

From The Australian   July 07, 2012

“EXCUSE me, I’m researching a new novel and am wondering if the library has any books on [a spreading blush] … sex.”

“Oh yes, you’ll find them in two sections. Under P for pleasure, and F for flagellation.”

[A pause.] “I’ll take Pleasure.”

This conversation really happened. About a decade ago, in my beloved London Library that most wilfully does not subscribe to the standard Dewey decimal system – and is wonderfully distracting because of it. The labyrinthine building in St James’s Square arrests time, dragging you into its rich, dark depths and holding you captive. There are always diversions stretching into chapters and sometimes entire books in golden days of vivid, reviving lost-ness. I met the chap there once, waited at the entrance for half an hour before he appeared. “Sorry, got lost in philology,” he explained in the tone of someone held up by a kindly, elderly woman who just wouldn’t let him go. He’d accumulated a coating of dust from shelves he’d been trying to extricate himself from. “Getting lost in philology” is now a catchphrase between us, meaning “to lose one’s way, for some time, in an unfamiliar but deeply endearing place”.

The library was founded in 1841 and quickly became a toolhouse for writers. Dickens had two cartloads of books sent to him for A Tale of Two Cities. E.M. Forster took out two life subscriptions. Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, “L[eonard] found D[esmond MacCarthy] at the London Library; together they looked up the word f— in the slang dictionary, and were saddened and surprised to see how the thumbmarks of its members were thick on the page.”

The design is wondrous, the stacks held aloft by five storeys of iron grills (women should avoid skirts.) It’s like acquainting yourself with the bold skeleton of a beautiful building. If you’re soft-shod, the gratings thrum. Strips of fluorescent tubing cast baubles of light here and there, and above and below you readers sit or squat, engrossed, each isolated in their little circle of light. When I left London for good I relinquished my membership. It broke my heart.

I dreaded returning to the imagined beigeness of the Australian library; the panic heightened soon after arrival when Mum delivered several milk-crates of items she’d been minding for, er, decades. In one: a library book on Sylvia Plath, borrowed when I was 17 (too terrified to return it, 17 was a long time ago). But actually, something quite magical is happening to Australia’s libraries. A recognition that these temples of the written word should be cherished, modernised, protected; that they fulfil a necessary function in this increasingly rushing world. They promote stillness. Quiet. Reflection. Thank goodness for enlightened councils that keep these institutions vibrant. Our local library has glass doors flung wide to the water, cool couches and glamorous light fittings. It’s a heart-lifter of a space. Its toddler singalongs are regularly booked out, instilling in future readers a cherishing they’ll hopefully carry through life.

So, libraries are being enchantingly revived, sales of fountain pens are reportedly rising worldwide and the drug du jour in London is, apparently, snuff. Something’s going on – an experimentation with the past, a craving to claim it before it’s gone. There’s a proposal to turn Sydney’s Customs House into Australia’s first 24-hour library. I love this idea. Libraries are embracing the cool factor; they’re becoming sexy sanctuaries of thought that force you to pause in the mad rush of life. A deep, deep peace plumed through me in the London Library and I feared I’d never be able to replicate that feeling in Australia but I do, oh I do, in my little local library.

It’s a cherished hub – just like that deeply eccentric institution in St James’s Square.

London Library, St James’s Square


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Filed under Librarianship, Random

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