Every once in a while, a book you read kindles a fire of curiosity. In my last post I explored the idea of the public library versus the private library while reading Ali Smith’s Public Library and Other Stories. Her book is a selection of short stories, but also interspersed with criticism on the changing political landscape in England. The disappearance of public libraries. The importance of libraries for those most vulnerable in our society. Reading articles about immigration, integration, and aging, I suddenly realized the importance of a special kind of library: the local library. How important is it to have a library close by?
The Local Library
When I was younger, I remember learning about the public library at school. We even had a song about it:
Did you know where I went yesterday? The library, the library
I borrowed a very nice book, it was only a short visit
There are books in the reading room, I choose a comic or a story
I go there almost every week – to the library!*
This song prepared us for a visit to our local library. Entering that silent and soft building, we were introduced to the world of alphabetical systems, the idea of borrowing and returning, the concept of free knowledge – children’s library cards were free. One of my earliest memories is of my dad bringing home a children’s book about a pig diving into water from a magical place called a library. Later on, we went to the library every Friday with my mom (or my mom going by herself when we were moody), finding new books, perusing the shelves.
I remember going to the library by myself for the first time, and how nervous it made me. I remember reading. Reading a lot. I remember that the library had to close down.
The School of Books
I always associated the library closely with school. I was a quick learner, so books gave me the opportunity to read more. While the children at my school tried to grow up as fast as possible, the library gave me the opportunity to believe in fairy tales for a while longer. But there was another line with the library that I fabricated in my young mind. Some history came to me through songs – so that I always believed the local library marked the spot where the predecessor of my primary school used to be. A little research proves me wrong.
Historical and Fictional Places
At the 75th anniversary of my school, I was about 8 years old, we sang about the history of my school: the school no longer exists in its original place, the Doggersbank. I had just learned to read, and ‘Doggersbank’ looked and sounded powerful, ancient, and special to me. That winter we walked to the park with school, and passing the library, I saw the name on a sign: “Doggersbank”. Suddenly I realized the library must have been placed in our old school, and I felt very excited to have unearthed this piece of history. I remember trying to tell my parents about the songs, the park, the library, but they didn’t seem to understand. I didn’t mind – I had found my truth.
This day, Google brings me real answers. More precisely, the effort of history-lovers, archive-enthusiasts, and photo-collectors brought together a website about old Apeldoorn. Before my eyes, my old school appears. The caption clarifies my childish conception: a picture of 1985 caught a street which name changed from Doggersbank to Pinksterbloem. The sign I saw merely indicated the name of the park. The library is currently for sale. For less than 500 ton.
Libraries were closing in Ali Smith’s stories. In Smith’s UK. A library closed when I was a little younger. A little more research astonishes me – a newspaper reports that between 2004 and 2014 more than 300 libraries have closed in The Netherlands. The newspaper article indicates the vulnerability of libraries in an age of digital reform. While the number of library branches dropped from 1073 in 2012 to 802 in 2015, an increase in mobile, digital and self-service libraries have come into existence.
The Public Library of Utrecht
Smith argued that the digital space of libraries is indispensable in our society. The library offers a free space with computers, an Internet connection, assistance, especially for those without jobs, those having just arrived in our tiny country full of strict rules, those lagging behind on modern technology.
The central library of Utrecht offers a cheap subscription – only €2,50 – with which you can use the computers, the internet, and receive reduction on printing and scanning. A librarian is available, walking around among the computers, offering assistance. Right next to him a special book case headed ‘applying for jobs’. There is a relatively cheap café housed in the library and you are allowed to drink and eat at your table, in your comfortable chair. You can sit in this silent space. The open windows offer a view over the centre of this beautiful town, and live music from street musicians drifts inside, alternated by the Dom tower’s chiming.
I thought libraries were not from this day and age, but I was wrong.
The Necessity of Libraries
Today, a library is a silent space. A secret place. The University Library caters to parts and particles of the educational factory, but the public library offers you coffee with your work, assistance with your application process, comfortable chairs to spend your day on. In becoming a writer, this is the perfect place where no one brunches with screaming toddlers, where you can sit without hurting your back, when you need to be out of your house without spending money you don’t have for ever quarter of an hour.
I thought the library would the place we need to subsidize in order to help those most vulnerable in our society. But today I realized I need a library not too far away from my home. I no longer need the library just for its books: so many friends lend me their books, I work in a bookshop, I have a filled book case in my room. But I need this friendly place that doesn’t tempt me to grab for my wallet, this silent place that doesn’t urge me to think about children and citizenship, this place filled with books and knowledge and possibilities for the future… This place offers me the space to work on my dreams.
*For those willing to go for a trip down memory lane, here are the original words:
Weet je waar ik gister liep? In de bieb, ja in de bieb
Ik leende er een heel mooi boek; ‘t was maar een heel kort bezoek
Er staan boeken in de zaal, ik kies een strip of een verhaal
Ik kom er bijna elke week, in de bibli-otheek!
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