Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The library and me

I must have been quite young at the time of my first visit to a library; maybe five or six years old. And, as is the case with matters book-related, my father would have been involved.

Dad would disappear every Saturday morning for a couple of hours, only to return laden with books. There seemed to be little pattern to his choices. Fiction, non-fiction, hardback, paperback. Every week, without fail, there would be eight new books for him to devour, settled down in his chair under a cloud of pipe smoke.

Naturally, I was fascinated by this at the time. What was this magical place with the books? What were they doing, letting people just walk in and take them away? Did they actually make the books there?

And so, after a small amount of cajoling, I was on my way to the library with Dad. I remember being a little uncertain, but excited nevertheless. This was a big step for me. I couldn’t wait to enter that portal of print, gaze upon that Lyceum of literature.

I probably didn’t use those words at the time, to be honest, being six.

The Maypole Public Lending Library has probably never been described as a Lyceum, before or since. Resembling at first and subsequent glance a selection of Nissen huts huddling together for safety, it didn’t exactly instil confidence. But once inside, it was a sight to behold. The shelves groaned under the weight of books.

Quietly, of course.

Weighty tomes, slim volumes, books with pictures, large-print sagas for readers in the slightly-myopic autumn of their years. I’d never seen so many. And for the first time I realised the attraction of lots of information being gathered in one place. Everything I will ever need to know, I thought to myself, is all here under this slightly leaky municipal roof.

The beaming lady behind the counter issued me with my very own library membership card. This was a rite of passage. I had arrived. I didn’t look back from that moment and from then on I was a regular visitor. I got to learn the layout, finding my way among the shelves. Like Dad, I realised the freedom that a borrowing library gives you. Not sure if you’ll like a book? Take it out anyway; you can always bring it back next week.

I can point to this as being the time when I swerved away from the football-playing, bike-riding, TV-watching path trodden by many of my peers, and became the nerdy kid with his nose permanently buried in a book. How I managed to avoid needing glasses by the age of 12 I’ll never know.

The time came when even the delights of Maypole Library became a little jaded to me. I was beginning to run out of books to read. I needed to move up a division. And there was only one place I could go.

Birmingham’s Central Library squats brutally over the centre of town, an upended ziggurat of grey concrete, looking for all the world as if an alien spaceship crashed into Victoria Square in the Seventies. Three miles of shelves, spread over eight public floors. As I climbed the escalator to the main entrance, something told me we weren’t in Maypole any more.

Over time I learnt my way around and it became a regular weekend haunt in my early teens. Becoming an expert on the microfiche meant I could find individual volumes with ease. I researched history, read the great writers, found out about science, nature and culture. When they started lending out music tapes I scared myself to death listening to Frank Zappa. It never cost me a penny.

As I hit my mid-teens I became normal, I suppose. There were other attractions, greater even than the Dewey Decimal System. I drifted away. My library card was lost and I never replaced it.

But recently I’ve been wondering. In this post-Google age, it’s tempting to think all information is at our fingertips. But it’s not the same. There’s a lot to be said for taking the analogue approach. I recently applied for a new library card, and I’m like that six-year-old again, full of curiosity and wonder, waiting to go and borrow books again.

Dad would understand, I think.

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