Sunday, January 30, 2011

In praise of libraries

Libraries are some of my favourite places, and now all the more precious to me for being under such dire threat from government cuts. I have always been a stalwart member of my local library, careful to order as many books as I could through it as my contribution towards helping persuade the local council to keep it open. This year, though, I indulged myself and gave myself the luxury of a Christmas present by joining the London Library, a private library in the heart of London with a 150-year old tradition on its shelves.

The two libraries, my local library and the London Library, are two very different places, and offer two very different but complementary experiences. In my local library I can be sure to find all the recent bestsellers, the detective stories which I love, and all the standard repertoire of books to be found in any Waterstones. They will also order a surprisingly wide variety of books which they do not have in stock, either summoning them from other libraries, or, quite often, buying them for me, something that I still find amazing in these cash-strapped days, all for some tiny contribution in pence from me.

The selection of books in the London Library, on the other hand. reflects its long history. Its dimly lit shelves are laden with weighty volume after weighty volume, conveying an aura of great scholarship for research-minded people, amongst which, unfortunately, I cannot count myself, but I love the smell of old books, whether I open them or not, cherishing the feeling that within them lies hidden so much that creates what we call our culture. Yesterday I found my way to a book of Mozart’s letters, then moved on to browse amongst French novels, before settling down to look at their French dictionaries to help me with my translation of Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée’s work.

Long may all libraries flourish, from the smallest in some village hall to their most exalted representative in the British Library. And we should all fight to keep our local libraries open, for when they close a little bit of civilization dies with each book that disappears with them.


  1. when i was homeless . i spent most days in them . they were a place that was not only warm but safe

  2. holborn library had a large history section . i would spend days reading about the jews and what horrors they lived through.