The Secret Life of Libraries

| May 2, 2011

I came across this article at The Guardian recently and found it thoroughly delightful. It offers some thoughts and anecdotes about libraries, as their funding comes under attack in Britain as it has in the United States.

For instance, did you know that some books were once stored off of the shelves not due to space limitations but because they were considered indecent?

“In the 60s, before the Lady Chatterley trial,” says Ian Stringer, “you used to get block books – literally, wooden blocks in place of any books the librarians thought were a bit risqué, like Last Exit to Brooklyn. You had to bring the block to the counter and then they’d give you the book from under the desk. So of course you got a certain type of person just going round looking for the wooden blocks.”

These veteran librarians offer wise comments regarding the subject of a previous post, measuring the value of a library:

“”Libraries are always trying to prove themselves because what they provide is so intangible. How do you quantify what someone gets from a book or a magazine?” Attempts to do so often end up in trouble. “The council once asked us for an assessment of outcomes, not output,” says Ian Stringer. “Output was how many books we’d stamped out, and outcome was something that had actually resulted from someone borrowing a book. So say someone took out a book on mending cars and then drove the car back, that’s an outcome; or made a batch of scones from a recipe book they had borrowed. It lasted until one of the librarians told the council they’d had someone in borrowing a book on suicide, but that they’d never brought it back. The council stopped asking after that.””

Despite its humorous components, the article draws a serious conclusion:

“The libraries’ most powerful asset is the conversation they provide – between books and readers, between children and parents, between individuals and the collective world. Take them away and those voices turn inwards or vanish. Turns out that libraries have nothing at all to do with silence.”

Do you find opportunities for conversation and social contact at the library? Do you agree that this is the purpose of a library in the first place? And have you had any other humorous library experiences? :-)