This morning I read a recent opinion piece in the New York Times by novelist Mahesh Rao (@). Online it has the title “An Elegy for the Library”— but in print it seems to have had the title “Lost in the Stacks”, pointed out by Sarah Werner (@) on twitter. “Elegy” — in the sense of lament— might be the right word for a piece that celebrates the virtues of libraries while maintaining an anxiety about their potential demise. But the idea of being “lost” (and found) in the library is also fitting — as Werner pointed out. In the NY Times piece, Rao does a good job of demonstrating the social power of a library as a public place. In Mysore, India, the library ‘lists “uninterrupted lighting” as one of its services — a real draw in a city that suffers from frequent power cutoffs. This is a place of refuge.’ In a world awash with information, librarians are the guides — Rao points to a poster of a Neil Gaiman quotation: ‘Google can bring you 100,000 answers but a librarian can bring you the right one.’ The agency of people and how they shape knowledge is stressed. Rao cites journalist and academic, Sophie Mayer, and her sense that in a library “each person is pursuing their own aim (education, entertainment, affect, rest) with respect to others, through the best possible medium of the transmission of ideas, feelings and knowledge – the book.”
This piece made me think of the libraries that I’ve used. In Glasgow, my hometown, there was a public library by my house that was attached to a Victorian-era swimming pool. I vividly remember reading Euripides’ Hippolytus in that library. The swimming pool has since been knocked down, but the library, I’m glad to say, is still there.
One of the powers of the library is the fact that it is a public, and physical, structure that persists. Its physicality is striking in a world where our information is increasingly created and stored on the internet. And its public nature is important. At my current university (University of Southern California), its research libraries are open to the public — which makes me proud. One of the characteristics of world class universities is the fact that their libraries are closed off from the public, and carefully guarded. When I was an undergrad at Oxford, my late night reading sessions at the Bodleian felt rarified. Rao’s piece stresses the democratic principles of a library, without using the word itself — the idea that public access to knowledge is important, valued, and supported. Rao is talking about the experiences of a library that anyone can have, but, as an academic, my experience of the library is privileged. With the institutional blessing, I have a kind of access that many don’t.