Libraries: at university, they suggest study spaces and endless repositories of knowledge. They are “gates to the future“, in Neil Gaiman’s words, though lately, they have also been warm havens for visitors seeking shelter.
What with dissertation season, I have retreated to these familiar rooms more often than ever. My favourites in Oxford are complete opposites. There is Duke Humpfrey’s in the Bodleian, which preserves its atmosphere of studied mystery even though it famously doubled as the Hogwarts library in the Harry Potter films. The other is the Oxfordshire County Library near Westgate – modern, glass-fronted, recklessly reaching outwards.
A term and a little more left, then perhaps I shall never see them again. It’s funny how in this city of libraries, it does not feel like enough. This is not about the libraries of Oxford, but the trail that leads to them.
The first library I lived in and loved looked huge and never-ending then, and so it remains, for I have not gone back. Torridon Library in Lewisham with its red brick, high ceilings, and stained-glass windows gave one the confused sense of a church. When I was small, I assumed all libraries were like that – cosy yet imposing, treasured but free. There were fancy columns by its smart wooden door and a dome giving way to the sky. Gaston Bachelard, that old philosophising romantic, writes of the ‘compact centre of daydreams’ in the childhood home, which informs one’s later experiences of space; I think there is something similar to be said for the first library, in its harbouring of dreams.
Libraries provoke you to reach further. Bachelard was right about the details that “have engraved in our memories a slight difference of level” in the childhood home, where a room “was not only a door, but a door plus three steps”. In the first library too, memories of spaces and paths are heightened – though there was but a single step into my childhood library, though a vivid one. It was the library, you raced to get there first, you leapt up and waited, knowing you were there. Inside, the proud triumph of having read all the Rainbow Fairy books on that second shelf in all their sparkling colours, the dull dismay when a friend passes airily by and says, ‘Oh yes, I read those ages ago’. For words are tricky, slippery things, and I took longer then – having reading sessions while others were at Assembly, and language support classes where one learnt perplexing words like ‘tadpole’.
You learn greed at the library. They aid and abet you, those librarians: Take what you want, they say, with genial smiles that know very well what they are doing.
To make you love books – they take up the goal with relish. “This, a brilliant book, and have you read…?” Summer reading challenges where, for whatever reason, you end up with a pack of monsters: Top Trumps cards with round teeth and too many eyes. Racing through Tintin comics and Jacqueline Wilson paperbacks, while Dad disappears into one of those clunky computers at the side. Freedom of obsession is allowed and to be cherished.
School libraries were in on the plot, and I remember the library in junior school, which you were allowed to enter with a laminated orange pass – like a Golden Ticket but mostly for skiving off class under the guise of virtuous literary quests. You can’t help discovering things even so, and near the door is the exciting ‘New Books’ shelf where once, rashly taking up the first book I saw, its cover deep red with a green jewel, I found Eva Ibbotson.
Birds sometimes flew into my secondary school library – a pair of doves, beady-eyed and perpetually confused, hopping along the books. They were not meant to be there, of course. “Should shoot them”, a teacher grumbled once, but the librarian always managed to coax them out. A storybook librarian, cosy and kindly with an endless supply of chocolate biscuits which she called, with a touch of delicious eeriness, ‘brain food’. The shelves were placed so the light fell unevenly between them. I like libraries where one’s allowed to hide.
Mrs Dalloway was there, concealed in a worn blue book without its cover. Woolf pointed slyly to Dostoevsky on a high shelf, a line of Jane Austen, those heavy red volumes of War and Peace peering challengingly down at you from all the way up there. Read. Memorising page numbers so you could finish the book next time, before the bell.
The local library at home, after we moved, is incredibly tiny but still manages to have an endless supply of Agatha Christie novels. The Central Library in town feels labyrinthine, a huge box of mystery sweets, daring you to try them all.
You learn greed and stay hungry.
Here we are in a city of libraries, and it is never enough. But I owe so much to those old libraries; I would not have made it to Oxford without them.