Sunday 19 June 2022

An English Library Journey: With Detours to Wales and Northern Ireland by John Bevis

Chez Maximka, non-fiction books about libraries

"Libraries are the workshops where futures are assembled, and it's not going to happen unless the conditions, the machinery and the technology are up to speed".

"It has amazed me to discover how many people, of what great diversity, use libraries for such a wide range of purposes to the good". 

Some of the best days of my life were spent doing research in the libraries, from the Library for Foreign Literature in Moscow to the Bodleian Library in Oxford and Sterling Memorial Library at Yale. I would spend days, studying and taking notes. 

Sterling Memorial Library is probably my most favourite place ever. It contains over four million volumes in the humanities, social sciences, manuscripts and archives. We lived in New Haven, CT, for two years, when my husband was a visiting professor at Yale, and this time has given me a great opportunity to enlist at the library of Yale University. The building itself is amazing. I spent days there, reading as well as doing research and just browsing. The beauty of it all was going somewhere up to the designated area, where the books on your subject matter would be, then browsing freely, discovering books and authors that you have never heard of before. 

The list of the public libraries which I have been a member of, is pretty long, but nothing to compare with the astonishing achievement of John Bevis.

An English Library Journey: With Detours to Wales and Northern Ireland by John Bevis is an amazing account of travelling through the UK and acquiring the membership of the local libraries. It started in 2010, when Bevis was driving his wife, whose job was researching and writing reports on prisons around the country. The writer would drop off his wife for work, and then look out for the nearest library to work on his own latest book.

You might call this collection an unconventional one, even eccentric. As the author himself contemplates, he started collecting libarary cards "for no very good reason".

It has taken him ten years of travelling around the country to put together an impressive collection of library cards. An admirable mission.

"What I'm going to need, so that I can join libraries wherever I happen to be, where I am not living, where I am not local, is some way of sidestepping the system. A way of making the extraordinary fortune that is the public library a nationwide, rather than municipal, resource. As I believe it should be".

Bevis is very passionate about his subject. 

The record of acquiring cards is interspersed with little stories, anecdotes and observations of people visiting/using the library. There are overheard conversations, boisterous toddlers at the play time, fighting teens, helpful, over-enthusiastic or indifferent librarians... 

Some stories resonate with you more than the others. You cannot but smile together with the author, when he narrates the episode of a learning-disabled group of seven or eight students with their teachers, who are shown the pictures of birds and animals. They work hard, delighted when they get it right. "Tiger!" And with a big "Yay!" the whole group are laughing and so pleased with themselves and proud to have got it right. And around the library people look up a little from what they are doing, and nod, or smile". 

It makes me think of my son who has special needs, and about his trips to the library with the school (and now college). 

Personal stories alternate with descriptions of the library cards, which vary in design and messages they convey. For example, a Southwark library has a distinct design, "On a green-blue background, in a loose handwriting typeface, is this bang-on quote from one of the world's most fanous librarians, novelist Jorge Luis Borges: "I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library". Amen".

Drawing on the local history research sources, the author has a vast knowledge of the architectural features of numerous libraries, as well as the historical background. The sizes and styles vary from Art Deco to Brutalism, from the converted corset factory to the Pork Pie library.

Laced with quotes from famous authors, among the chapters of the English library journey, it makes a fascinating reading. "I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunk treasure" (Virginia Woolf).

I kept reading, hoping to see if the author has visited Witney, but alas, since we're under the umbrella of Oxfordshire libraries which includes forty four separate libraries, he didn't mention it. 

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Personal experience and joy of collecting cards is charted against the background of political and social changes of the last decade.

This is not just a charming and witty narrative. In the final chapters there are some somber facts about the effects of the austerity on the libraries around the UK. Since the start of the project, "773 UK libraries have closed. About one in every seven of remaining 3,583 is now community-managed. There are fewer books - less than 60 million, where there were 90 million - and half the number of book loans per person. A shocking 10,000 jobs have been lost".

I have noticed the reduction in the number of books in our local library. There used to be several decent shelves of art and art history books. Now they are shifted to a much shorter and smaller sized section. Where there used to be a respectable selection of books on art techniques, creative inspiration and how-to manuals, there is a very limited choice. 

What is the future of libraries? 

How miserable the society would be without them. They provide vital community services.

Reading is one of the greatest pleasures of life. 

How many times did libraries and books saved my sanity?! When we arrived to New Haven, CT, and my husband had to work long hours, it was the libraries that kept me steady. I couldn't work, being on the spouse's visa, and spent days in the libraries, mainly the Yale University one, but the town library was not too bad either. Then we moved to Williamstown, MA, with our five-months' old baby, where we were snowed down for almost half a year, and again, the library was my beacon of light. I would wrap up my baby in warm blankets, put him in the pushchair and walk through the snow to the library. Memories, memories...

An English Library Journey is an insightful and perceptive guide to the library world. It is  charming, endearing and very satisfying. The author captures the essence of the English library in the present age of austerity.

Many thanks to John Bewis, Eye/Lightning and Simon Edge for my e-copy of the book!

Chez Maximka, books about libraries

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