It being Libraries Week at the moment and me having just left one job in a public library and started another in a university library, it felt like a good time to write something about libraries. People can be surprised that they are not just silent book-centred spaces any more, but places focused on information in many formats and often connected to various IT and wellbeing services. They are where individuals come to find out things, read books for free, and do a whole lot more besides. I had someone ask me on a boiling hot day whether the temperature recorded by the Met Office was in the shade or not (I didn’t know). For some people, libraries are like Google, except better at interpreting your search terms and more happy to accept tea and biscuits.
I liked libraries as a kid (except for the traumatic time I left my favourite soft toy in one overnight). I could take out a pile of books, put them into a specific order, read them as quickly as possible, and then go back for more. I begged my mum to let me use slots on her card to take out Young Adult books before I was old enough, and then when I was old enough I’d read most of what our village library could offer me in the way of Point Horror and teen fiction (this was before the huge amount of YA books available now, so everything was American teen horror or British groups of teen girl friends).
A bit older, I used the adult fiction section to discover all the things thrilling to 15 and 16 year olds—A Clockwork Orange, Lolita, basically anything from Penguin Modern Classics in fact—and then supplemented my A level English Lit by reading books I’d heard of or that looked exciting. This experimentation was possible thanks to being able to take out the books for free. One of the great joys of borrowing from libraries is it not mattering if you don’t enjoy the book because you didn’t pay for it and can just take it back.
Having frequented public libraries with my friends at sixth form to revise whilst imagining it was like we were proper students, it was exciting to finally get to use university libraries too. At both places I studied I had access to multiple libraries including a legal deposit library in both cases, so I was pretty spoilt in terms of accessing books. Probably my favourite academic library experience was reading bits of The Romance of the Rose (a medieval French dream poem, in translation) and then all of Glenarvon (Caroline Lamb’s ‘Byron is a vampire’ gothic novel) holed up in a corner of the Gladstone Link, which is a space-age underground bit of the Bodleian in Oxford made up of rolling stacks and the awareness that in the instance of a fire, you get locked in.
Working in a library tends to involve a bit less of the books than using one does. There’s a lot of giving IT support and knowing your way around Microsoft Office, answering queries relating to the building/local area/other services and reassuring people that no, just because you found the book where they didn’t doesn’t make them stupid, only not paid to know how to find the books. It’s interesting because days don’t end up the same, humans are infinitely varied and their ability to ask completely left field things is very impressive sometimes.
I didn’t plan to work in libraries. It came out of the thought that I could be around books all the time, which would surely go nicely with my hobbies of reading, writing, and keeping this blog. Other parts of the job—particularly helping with IT stuff—ended up very satisfying and a great way to keep learning and improving skills (not to sound like my CV). Libraries have a real place within the modern world, whether local libraries or university ones, as a place where books, technology, and information can all work together, and they should be inviting and accessible to all. Also, you get to eat a lot of biscuits if you work in one.