I’ve always loved libraries. Almost 70 years have passed since I went to Cambridge and first visited the Seeley Historical Library near Senate House. In this library I spent some of the happiest hours of my life: I can still remember the special scent that wafted through these book corridors – a mixture of book stains, old ink, old shelves and the apples that scholars brought for lunch. On those still autumn afternoons I first seriously embarked on the never-ending adventure that is the quest for knowledge and the discovery of new opinions.
Language is honored most in libraries. And of all the arts invented by man, language is the most valuable. WH Auden’s epitaph to fellow poet WB Yeats tells the truth:
“Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and the innocent
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful figure
Revere the language and forgive
All it lives on.”
The half-educated West Saxon kings of the 10th century considered books so valuable that they kept them with the holiest of their religious relics. So libraries will always be sacred places and librarians their sacred custodians.
My only fear is that over time, libraries will no longer be repositories of books but, as computers inherit the world, of databases. The thought that scholars and bibliophiles might even be able to pocket whole libraries and consult them on their computer screens at home fills me not only with admiration but also with dismay.
And yet I know that libraries have to keep up with technology and the times. There must have been people who hated the paperback revolution and longed for a time when books were wrapped in parchment and bound with gilded leather. And no doubt there were medieval Luddites, monks of the quill and the illuminated scroll, who tried to smash the first presses Gutenberg made. But anything that encourages learning is immensely valuable and must be actively encouraged. I’ll never understand what a gigabyte is, but if the technology used helps fill a child’s mind with knowledge, then let the gigabytes multiply in all libraries large and small.
Still, I really can’t believe the age of the book will ever be over. Engineers should never assume that books are just primitive databases and ignore their aesthetic and emotional richness. A screen can be a source of erudition, but it neglects the love of a book for the book’s sake. The turning of a book, the turning of the pages and their look and feel, the slight but satisfying crack of the spine are just as important as the text. There is no intimacy on a magnetic record. A book still remains the most convenient package of pleasure, power, and enlightenment ever invented by man. And the cheapest way out of subsistence poverty – and out of subsistence poverty – are still good books worldwide.
But whether you’re a computer buff and see the future in the form of electronic databases, hard drives, DVDs and flash drives, or an avid lover of old-fashioned books that line their shelves, row upon glorious row, that’s the goal the same thing: knowledge and peaceful entertainment for as many people as possible. And libraries will serve this purpose, as they have always done in every country. In our country, in our time, reading must be freely accessible to all. Open access to education, information and literature, as offered by public libraries, is one of the keys to a civilized and democratic society. In the 14th century the Lollards died for the right to read their own books in their own language.
Andrew Carnegie, founder of libraries in countries around the world, including Guyana, wrote: “Libraries claim first place as institutions for the uplifting of the masses of the people.” Empowerment of the People” urges. I hope that somehow the education system can be linked to bringing home a great hunger for the written word in our children and gradually culminating in a greater love of reading books on the Kindle or the iPod or, my own old-fashioned fondness, off to develop on the shelves in a greatly expanded national library system.