The Library as a Shrine

The Library as a Shrine

I like this description by Norman Cousins of what a library is (or should be). It resonates with what I experienced when using my local library as a young boy.

“The Library is not a shrine for the worship of books. It is not a temple where literary incense must be burned or where one’s devotion to the bound book is expressed in ritual. A library, to modify the famous metaphor of Socrates, should be the delivery room for the birth of idea. A place where history comes to life”.
Norman Cousins (1915 – 1990) American political journalist, author, professor, and world peace advocate

From the age of five, Saturday morning was special. I was able to attend the library at the top of the hill, beyond the cinema (we called it the Pictures). The Library was a grand building with a set of stone steps leading up to impressive wooden doors that signified it was a place of importance. There were treasures to keep secure inside, valuable and easily available for me to explore. No book was too small or too large – all had their diamonds. I first imagined what it was like for those living in the period of the Restoration sitting at the polished wood tables in light filled reading rooms with wooden floors that made every exclamation of surprise or wonder as loud as the town crier announcing an important event. Exactly as Cousins describes, it was a place where the imagination could apply itself, where the mind was free to invest and create its own ideas.

Even when the library was moved next to the Bus Station, into a bright modern building, open plan without the reading rooms and instead of polished wood, soft seats were provided without the desks, it was still a magical place to go after school.

Years later when visiting a pharmaceutical company library, I recall the librarian being most proud of the fact that the collection had an area for scientists and researchers to visit away from their desks, a place to think and play with ideas.

Are we using libraries in the best way?

The physical library has been replaced in many corporate organisations by a virtual facility. A link on a corporate Intranet page; on a device (PC or mobile) where is appears magically from an electronic Cloud. Is this to be congratulated or bemoaned?

If this is about pure reading and access to books, I really don’t think it matters. I have adopted reading eBooks simply because I can carry them around more easily and use their search and navigation facilities. I am not limited to one device, I can use whichever one is to hand whether travelling or resting so I always have the material to refer to and consult as needed.

As much as I reminisce of my first library and my first book (a Roy Rogers story book from my grandfather) I can open an eBook and enjoy it just as much as a physical book and when working on a subject. Of course I do need electricity and a battery and life without WiFi – better not get into that here!

The Virtual Library

A virtual library may save costs in terms of physical space and certainly there are far more books, articles, materials and experiences available online, but does there still needs to be a place where the physical body can be at rest and for the mind to be free to explore?

Perhaps it’s that time on the underground when everyone agrees collectively not to speak or look at one another but be buried in a mobile device with headphones in ears. Perhaps it’s during online meetings that have to be attended, but without a camera to show what you are doing at your desk.

Whatever the locale, the important thing is that the library service provides a “kitchen for the mind”. Be that on the desktop in a physical library or as a space in the day away from our normal hurried existence.

While visiting Heriot-Watt University last year it was noticeable that the library space was very well used, such was the popularity of students wanting to be in the library it was positively bursting at the seams.

It seems the library at this establishment is still the mecca for finding and exchanging ideas among people thirsty for knowledge.

I now have more choice. I have quiet places to take myself off to if I need to read something and concentrate. I have other places to think and work on ideas. The great thing about the library of today is I can take it with me wherever I might be, at whatever time I want it there.

I will sign off now with the quotation by Thomas Jefferson (1743- 1826)

“I cannot live without books” – Happy reading wherever you are.


Graham Beastall – Senior Consultant and Managing Director. Graham’s background is in Accountancy, Public Administration and Organisational Theory with a deep technical understanding of databases and web technologies. More posts by Graham.
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