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Are Libraries sexy?

In her blog, Vita recently bemoaned the fact that the Hampshire County Council central library in Winchester has been renamed a "Discovery Centre".  

Other local authorities have renamed their libraries in this way and I have noticed a tenancy among many in local government to see the word "library" almost as an embarrassment - it somehow denotes a place of fusty ancient books, full of  "uncool" old people and smelling of cabbage.  In contrast, I find the concept of a library exciting.  I sometimes google "Beautiful Libraries" and get a thrill that is almost sensual gazing at these wonderful buildings.

I started to think that it was a strange fetish on my part until I found an abandoned copy of "Tatler" on the train last night and read an interview with Tom Stoppard by Sebastian Shakespeare.  It describes how Stoppard is president of the London Library, which was founded  by Thomas Carlyle in 1841.  It states:

"Given his (Stoppard's) reputation as a ladies' man, I ask him why he thinks it is that the male libido flourishes in libraries:  two eminent novelists supposedly got down to it in a remote corner of the London Library stacks."

Stoppard's reply is :  "How interesting - I like to think of Thomas Carlyle starting a tradition."

Although this is rather an extreme example, it does reflect  polar views on libraries.  There are those who find libraries a complete turn-off and believe that people have to be lured into such buildings with coffee and DVDs provided.  Then there are those who love books and find browsing among them an adventure.

Surely turning libraries into discovery centres is the wrong route because if people don't experience the joy of literature and learning, then a new name, a coffee machine and a few other gimmicks isn't going to change them?

I love wandering round libraries, but there are times when I am filling in quite a lot of time in one and am prepared to sit and read, and a coffee would be very welcome to sit with.  I know that one day in our museum/library a young man sat in our library for several hours with his computer and photos and I certainly felt I should offer him a coffee, and I sometimes do with people who are a long time on the internet too.  In fact when we ask about improvements to the complex (which has a library attached to the information centre and museum) a little cafe or coffee machine is what people mention most.  But it would require more staff and be yet another thing to worry about, and the maintenance and staff pay is carried out and raised by volunteers.

People want to attract a new generation in and children are not necessarily book browsers.  Our library runs a lot of programmes specifically for kids, though they seem to be always book-oriented (people reading to them, sometimes in dress-up costume, competitions based on the books around, etc.).  It's not enough for libraries to concentrate on older readers alone - they won't always be there.

We certainly provide DVDs and I would think it odd for a library not to.  DVDs are great fun to browse too.  

Cheers, Caro.
Joe Mac

Caro, our library recently had a gourmet coffee machine set up and maintained by somebody in town who does it as a business. It requires no library staff time, and as far as I know dispenses a decent product for a dollar. Impact on the the library budget is zero. So there's an option for you, or someone.

Yes, we had wondered about that at one stage, but we are a very small town.  However recently the cafe very close to the museum building has reopened and it has a barista-trained owner.  He is quite keen to have reciprocal arrangements with us - 'have a coffee with us and get a dollar off the price of a museum visit sort of thing'.  This cafe is only about 100 metres walk or just round the corner in a car, so that is fine for almost all visitors.  And any that are there for a very long time we can just make a cup of (instant) coffee for and provide a biscuit.

Cheers, Caro.

I love a bookish atmosphere, but the problem is that I don't find such an atmosphere any more in public libraries. As I have said often enough, they appear to have sold off mot of their quality books and have filled their shelves instead with - to my mind - inferior stuff, and as a consequence, I don't really get much pleasure browsing through the shelves. It's to the bigger bookshops I go to nowadays for browsing, and I am fortunate to live with easy distance of Central London & of Oxford.

I agree that libraries must cater for children, but on Saturdays, public libraries effectively become a creche where parents drop the children off to do some shopping. We have a DVD stall, but the DVDs are invariably the most populist titles. There is a CD library as well, but the classical stock has all been sold off. Basically, I find going into public libraries these days a very dispiriting experience. The gap between what they should ideally be and what they are is depressing.
Green Jay

My son has recently become a library member again after a gap of probably 15 or more years, as he has discovered he can get expensive science and other factual books out on loan, which he can't afford to buy, and anyway he can experiment more with library books. Probably helps that it's free, as he is of the generation that don't expect to have to pay for their news, their films or music, and seem to have no qualms about pirate editions. (His dad and I are so law-abiding  in every way, that it is difficult to see that sea-change in attitude.)

I agree that libraries can't just cater to the older members, but children do grow up and change and it doesn't have to be all-singing all-dancing. He just wants the books!

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