One of the great joys of a good library is the things it makes available to you other than books. In the Durham University library there are over 1.5m books, plenty to keep you going throughout three or four years of undergraduate study, yet it is not the books that made it a great place to spend time. Libraries connect us to things. They are among the most communicative places on earth, filled with a whispering silence; fifteen hundred years or so of other people’s voices locked up for safe keeping in their little paper parcels. The library in Durham was one of my favourite places to meet friends during exam time, a place whose apparent chastity could foster the most innocent, shoulder shaking amusement. Later, at law school, I spent many drab, soulless hours in the law libraries of two London law schools whose shelves were lined with ancient law reports, long digitised so as to be irrelevant and to leave the room with a chintzy, charmless border, like a lot of acrylic lilies. I spent many hours in those libraries, usually dreaming of other libraries, or other places, or adventures – like a puppy in Hyde Park, dreaming of fields and hedgerows and the scent of wild rabbits.
Sometimes, during those hours of study, I would escape to other libraries near law school or home or anywhere. Holborn library has a strangely gymnastic air about it from the outside. The library on the Chiswick High Road was quaint and light and had a good selection of music. The library near Parsons Green was darker, Victorian, well polished. Upstairs in the galleried reference room I discovered Peter Singer, read the Sun over the shoulder of a homeless man who came in to eat his sandwiches and fall asleep, caught a glimpse of someone else’s accounting homework, a couple of students studying for their exams and topped up on recycling bags (the council having designated the library as the appropriate collection point) – all without leaving one room. And round the corner one of my favourite cafes in London – Local Hero. The Parsons Green library was a favourite of mine for a while. Not much to speak of on the ground floor and yet a lovely building, built by Andrew Carnegie in 1909 when people still built buildings as if they might last forever. It survived a bomb in the reference room in 1944. Peter Singer and I might never have met otherwise. Good that we did in the end.
Now there is a new library in my life. It is one of my favourite places in London, a little harbour of knowledge in a city awash with noise, traffic, people – the London Library. It is a place I have dreamt of all my adult life. It has over 1m books (though the value is in the choice and not the number). But it is not just for the books that I go to the library. It has the Oxford Online Dictionary which is excellent. It has access to the JSTOR search engine of articles and books which I could read for days on end. It has almost every learned English language academic journal available. It has snoozing writers in its armchairs. It is stuffed with prize winning writers, professional historians and passing Ladies who wile away the late morning in the reading room. A place for watching as much for reading. But more than that it is stuffed and stuffed with voices, stuffed with dreams. Mark Twain: “In a good bookroom you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them.” The feeling is true of all these libraries (except the legal ones). Sadly the reality is not. There is so much reading to be done, and we should start, all of us, in libraries.