Quiet please: a love letter to libraries

I love libraries, I recently wrote to a friend, they’re my faith, my church, full of facts and fiction.  Libraries and, if you wish, my relationship to them, are at the heart of many of my more significant memories, formative layers in my identity.


When I recall childhood visits to my local library, joyful sensory details bubble up through the years.  Dusty motes of sunlight cascade from windows far above my head; there is the smell of paper, paper both loved and dirtied with use; the smooth warm wood of the desk.  I’d lean, fingers gliding along its long curved edges, waiting for the librarian to neatly re-stack my pile of books into an order he wanted, before beginning – and never sharing – the task of stamping each book with a pleasing inky bang.

With hindsight, I see how I was destined to love a library.  They soothed my senses – the environment was my friend:  Shush, please, no talking.   Actively encouraged to be quiet I could allow myself to slip away down any path I chose.  I remember certain books that I inhaled with an intensity that surprised and delighted my parents.  There was the Dorling Kindersley toy reference book, packed with all sorts of details about Steiff bears, porcelain dolls, Kewpies, provenance and manufacturing details, auction value...  Then there was the illustrated costume book which contained a male and a female reference costume for every decade from 1600 -1970s.  I pored over that book adoringly and have returned many times since, trying to track it down.  I spent hours copying and internalising the details – reproducing them in my own drawings.

Of course, libraries function according to strict rules.  Delighted by the Dewey system, I took great joy in checking a book was available before carefully tracking it down, according to the numbers and letters provided.  There was great satisfaction in leaning sideways, shuffling along, finger tips following the bumpety bump of spines until they alighted upon the correct combination!  So long as the book wasn’t missing it was a brilliantly predictable treasure hunt.

My university library was to be my intellectual oyster: the font of all knowledge and future dreams.  It was all I’d really thought about before I packed up and left home for that first term.  I didn’t really think about all the ‘other’ stuff, the strangers, the making of friends, nights out.  I’d developed this highly romanticised notion that university was my opportunity to leave behind the misery of sixth form college and would be where I could immerse myself in literature, floating through prose, plays and poetry, floating away from my troubles, becoming an academic wraith.  As I finally approached it, my mood was elation mingled with reverence: this is what I have come here for, this building the repository of all my hopes … and yet, rapidly those amorphous hopes were quickly spun into nightmarish ghouls.

It is neither lie nor exaggeration when I admit that I never properly learnt to find a library text in my three year degree and yet I graduated with a 2:1.  I could not understand the system, I didn’t know who to ask and I was too terrified to admit I didn’t know.  Possibly I missed an induction and I think my poor housemate did once try to explain the process but I couldn’t grasp the steps, the chemical interaction of embarrassment and anxiety cancelling out any chance of recall.  Thus, finding texts was potluck.


However, this was only the half the story.  I had assumed that being in the library I could at least wander haplessly and stumble upon things whilst feeling safe, disconnected from the outside world, protected by flanks of books.  Again, I was wrong. All these people, these confusing anonymous hordes of people, were definitely doing some form of studying but they were also doing a lot else which was both disagreeable and distracting.  Unable to concentrate, I closely observed glances and games, whispers and tears, relationships starting and possibly ending… As I watched I resented them, for bringing this behaviour into my hallowed place, for intruding upon my one chance for uncomplicated quiet.

What I discovered in my university library was a treasure trove of sensory issues that would to take me another decade or more to fully uncover.  As my childhood memories are so rich in sensory memory and evoke emotional warmth, my university years trigger traumatic sensory memories.  As I sat at my carrel; my hopes, expectations and ambitions bobbing like many multi-coloured balloons over my desk, over the course of days, weeks, months, they deflated – and some popped. Not only was I unable to navigate the library system I was deeply uncomfortable at the intrusion of social life, nor could I sit still long enough to block it all out.

My body was corrupted by its anxiety and I simply couldn’t concentrate for the confusing crossfire of sensory messages: I was too hot then too cold; the light was too bright or too dim; I constantly adjusted the volume of my Walkman (probably the same song or album on endless repeat); my stomach rumbled as I starved it; I was thirsty as I didn’t understand the importance of hydration.  I wasn’t hung over because I barely touched alcohol for fear of being out of control besideswithin 6 weeks of starting first year I was prescribed an anti-depressant and had been advised I shouldn’t drink.  


Unfortunately, my sensory issues intruded upon the weekly taught sessions too.  I remember being mortified after a particular tutorial: not only had I failed to include a reference list (too embarrassed to admit I’d read none of the texts because I couldn’t find them I was therefore unable to explain that the ideas were all my own – thus how could I have referenced them?!) I was clearly out too much because I was falling asleep during class.  Yet, I was barely out.  What could I say?  Nowadays, I am aware that my body needs a fairly constant stream of movement in order to stay alert.  I move, I fidget, I re-position, I avidly note take and I doodle in detail.  However, no matter how intrinsically motivated I am, if the room is too hot and I am not moving… I will fall asleep. 

I have a different local library these days.  I regard its existence as a minor miracle: it is compact and squashed between shops on a busy high road.  But it is needed, it is used, it is loved.  The culture has changed vastly since I was a child… my frequent fines don’t prevent me from getting out more books! Child rumpuses are common and getting to stamp books is de rigeur.  I most commonly go with my children in tow… and watch them making beelines towards their favourite stacks and shelves, ready to repeat my old fashioned mantra: books not DVDs!  Mostly, I watch, waiting for that window of opportunity where I can vanish out of their sight for moment, just long enough to scan a row of books – select on a whim a name, or colour, or key word, hold it in my hand and flick through.  Those moments are the making of an entire day.

Zoe Vail Smith blogs for Mainspring Arts.