The fate of the rundown relics of suburbia is less clear; not matter how much we celebrate the power of the little library it appears that its extinction is as likely as the video-hire shop, or even the local bookshop, with its greeting cards, its quaint plantpots, and its local authors.
Yet some of us still delight in tea-leaves, coffee-beans, and the safe solidity of printed books, long after the the victory of the instant download has streamlined the past, the present, and the future, in a dizzying sea of sameness. Sometimes there is something radical in remembering the past; it need not collapese into a conservative tear-torn nostalgia.
Gazing over these old photos of my local library, Crossgates, in Leeds, I remember the smell of polished floors; it was also the odour of Barclays Bank, the Leek and Westbourne Building Society, and civic buildings such as the Town Hall. The smell of leather seats and books bound in leather. Built to last.
I soon outgrew the Children's Library. I had enjoyed a book on The Life of Birds (especially the chapter on the sociability of rooks); for I had moved on now to insects and, having learned the Latin names Diptera, Hymenoptera, Lepidopetera ... what I was seeking was a very big book containing all the English and Latin names for all the animals.
The bewildered librarian and my apologetic mother led me round to the section of the adult library dealing with principles of classification. This ought to have taught me a lesson, and in a way it did; for now there was the awesome realization that libraries did not classify their books by size or colour, or rank them according to popularity, but instead used the Dewey system of numbers on their spines. Books, like animals and plants, were subject to a taxonomy.
|Main Adult Library|
That section of the library also had books on religion and spirituality; so it seemed reasonable to respect this temple of wisdom by sampling some of those books. The History of Monasticism was not a book that I read in its entirety. In fact, as I now recall, the only part of the book that shocked me at the time was the outline of the problems with monastic discipline; and certain highly sinful, and to me deeply mysterious, irregularities of conduct, which persistently threatened to undermine the holy orders.
Ouspensky's The Fourth Way was a book that I laboured with for years. I'm still not sure whether Gurdjieff was a charlatan, but I know that I had accidently taught myself the foundations of meditation, self-realization, awakening, and awareness. But the real conversion was to the library experience, to history, and mythologies.
As I had just read all the Tolkien books, and I was now busy writing my young adult novel, Lord Ethelred, an Anglo-Saxon adventure, it was invaluable to have access to Beowulf and Its Analogues. Whenever my novel ran out of steam someone would recite the next episode of Beowulf using the voice of an 11-year old Yorkshire lad. Sadly this great work, like many others, remains unfinished.
The Crossgates Library still appears to be functioning. In 2009 it celebrated 70 years of community service. I'm intending to make the pilgrimage and pay my respects the next time I'm visiting Leeds.
|Crossgates Library, 1939|
We all know that books have largely ceased to be sacred objects or things to be reverenced, and that the technology that replaced scrolls and parchment, and now throws out the relics of the printed book, is creating a new reformation and renaissance in the dissemination of wisdom and knowledge. Times change and so do our media for experiencing those changes. The sublime cathedrals of knowledge and their modest little suburban cousins have shrunk to the palm of my hand. Here is all God's plenty at the touch of a finger and the flick of the thumb.
For me, the library was a refuge. It was a place of peace and calm. But it could also make you heart beat with wonder, with delight, with discovery. It was the amazement of scale, of order, and system; it was power, authority, and respect. It was also gentle curves, an invitation to join the circle. Its polish was an invitation to ascend and to participate, to glide along its smooth surfaces.
But I fear that the vision of a great library built in 1939 to serve the vast council housing project (to the left of the image above) was a bold statement for a brave people perched on the precipice of poverty, and the darkest war hitherto witnessed in the historic 'progress' of humanity. What we are perhaps gaining in the march technology we are also losing in the vanishing magnitude of our vision. That vision, whether it belonged to the East or the West was a kind of Enlightenment that still has the capacity to decrease and hold back the forces of cultural vandalism and community fragmentation.
Dr Ian McCormick is the author of
The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences (Quibble Academic, 2013);also available on Kindle,