On libraries, books and touch screens…

This weekend I visited the John Rylands Library in Manchester; a beautiful building in multiple ways. There’s the soft red brickwork, slim gothic vaults and arches, venetian glass windows and unexpectedly genuine Victorian plumbing and tiling in the basement facilities.  The Burning Bright William Blake exhibition was a bonus, as was the visiting group of Steampunk enthusiasts. Their Victorian costumes blended with the environment so well it was those dressed for the 21st century who looked out of place.

The University of Lincoln Library is getting an extension as part of the University’s Estates Masterplan. This will provide more space for computers, laptops and bookable rooms – but not books. http://thelincolnite.co.uk/2013/03/university-of-lincoln-begins-work-on-library-extension/ The idea of a library build to house books appears to be a dying one, if not already dead. Excepting the British Library, there can’t be many new library builds being planned these days. Amazon says sales of its Kindle e-books overtook those of printed books in 2012, although they’re unlikely to say anything different. http://www.computerweekly.com/news/2240160961/UK-eBooks-outstripping-printed-books-says-Amazon There were a few lucky souls working in the John Rylands building this weekend, but the majority of people were visitors. The atmosphere was much more museum or church than library. For most of us, the faceless internet has become our library and it isn’t a beautiful place. Dominated by advertising, we can’t be far from being offered a premium rate ad-free service. Those who can afford it will get a clean, improved experience while those who can’t will be reduced to searching in an environment looking more like the pages of a shopping catalogue than anything meaningful.

I travel with a kindle but never use it at home. They’re probably easier to read but it’s not the same. A book is a kinaesthetic experience as well as a cognitive one and there’s something symbolic about opening the covers, turning the pages and releasing the memories contained within them.  To reinvent libraries as museums or churches would be to acknowledge their social and cultural importance but it loses the lived experience. In these days of keyboards and touch screens, this is what we need to hold onto, less we wipe out from history the sensory reality of books.

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