I’ve been visiting libraries all my life. I still have tickets to about 10 libraries (or, these days, county library groups) around the UK. Wherever I move to live or to work, one of the first things I do is to find the nearest libraries. The purpose of this post wasn’t really to encourage the continued support of library services by local authorities, nor to bemoan the pitifully small uptake among the youngsters I deal with from week to week at the club I run, nor to enter the ever-controversial debate as to whether libraries should be filling themselves with DVDs, computers, computer games and so on. So I won’t do that.
Instead I wanted to muse briefly on the effect of a small library. Where I grew up, in Merton in Southwest London, our nearest library was known (by us) as “Lower Morden Lane Library” although I discovered years later that its official title was “Morden Park”. It was one of those small places, maybe originally a family house with the ground floor knocked through to create one big space, including a slightly offset space at the back where the children’s books were kept. It was cosy and manageable for a child. We were allowed to cycle there along the back roads and the librarians — mostly women, as it happened — were friendly and familiar.
Later, we “graduated” to the bigger borough libraries at Wimbledon and Morden, although neither of those was huge compared to, say, Croydon Central library. I grew up, moved away and got used to bigger libraries. Not so long ago, in a cost-cutting exercise, Merton closed a number of branch libraries including Merton Park Library. So it goes.
Living now in Ealing, in West London, I’ve frequented the Central Library in the shopping centre for some years. It’s relatively big, built on two levels and the staff are friendly and helpful when asked. For the next few months, they’re refurbishing and the library is temporarily housed in a small space at the base of one of the Ealing Council buildings. They’ve managed to fit in a few computer terminals, a rack of DVDs, a small reference section including periodicals, and a restricted selection of books. And the funny thing is, it feels more friendly, more approachable. The staff are the same, the books are the same (although fewer). Even the book shelves are the same. The place is mildly grotty and (today, at least) too hot.
I think what makes the difference is that, with fewer books, you feel you own the place. By which I mean that you get to know quite quickly what’s on the shelves where, and what’s new. It’s not as though the selection was infinite previously, but in this setup I can (almost) stand in one place and see it all. It’s as though I were a child again, feeling happy and relaxed inside my local branch library, the librarians chatting away about their kids and keeping an eye on things. I only hope more people find it as appealing.