How can libraries improve our lives? Do they even need books?

By Elizabeth Farrelly

From left: The Tianjin Binhai Library in China, the Long Room in the library of Dublin’s Trinity College and Phillips Exeter Academy Library, New Hampshire.Credit:Zhang Peng/LightRocket, Shutterstock, Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

What is a library? For a few weeks, as a young adult with considerably more chutzpah than nous, I set myself to read every significant book written. It didn’t last. I’m not a fast reader, preferring to savour the good bits, but even if I were, the task would be Sisyphean.

Even so, I dreamt of a library-centric house. One version had a fabulous vertical stack that encompassed a fireplace (with reading nooks) at ground level and was encircled by a stair that wound down into the ground and up through the house to the sky.

This urge was tested recently when, moving into a new house, we had the opportunity to make a dedicated library. It wasn’t in the centre but it was a large and lovely room, well lit and lined top to toe with books. But within hours we knew it was wrong – too intense, too separate. The books are our friends, and concentrating them, far from making them accessible, shut them from our lives. So we undid it all, distributing our rather excessive book collection throughout the house, throughout our lives.

I tell you this, noting, too, that the book-based library is making a comeback because it poses questions about the relationships between books, libraries, knowledge and power. What is a library, in essence, and how can it improve our lives?

If, as the name implies, a library is a collection of books, the urge to read everything goes to the “collection” part of that definition. An interesting mix of the protective and the controlling, collection is an act both of reverence and of its opposite, possession.

Take the British Library. This vast keeping-house is charged with collecting every book produced in Britain and Ireland, and a few million others besides. Containing more than 170 million items in most known languages, its 746 kilometres of shelves lengthen by eight kilometres a year. Even at five books a day – which would be impressive – it would take you 80,000 years to read your way through it.

The reading room at Sydney’s Mitchell Library.Credit:Wolter Peeters

Such a library is an extraordinary gesture, a protection but also a statement of empire, however passe that sounds. This will to dominance is emphasised by the Library’s imposing and now-listed Brutalist architecture – which dominates its St Pancras site and colonised the life of its architect, Colin St John Wilson, for 35 years. The library moved here in 1997, decoupling from the British Museum with its famous round reading room, where Marx wrote Das Kapital.

As to the “books” part of “library”, recent decades have forced this into question. Never mind that the word library is derived from the Latin liber, or book. Many libraries have rebadged as community hubs, play spaces, meeting rooms, yoga spaces, internet access services or any combination of the above. Does a library even need books? No one seems certain. Indeed, for a while, the book-free library seemed a real possibility. Librarians were encouraged to think of this as “reinvention.” But we all knew it for what it was; the triumph of the neo-Liberal bums-on-seats barbarians over any kind of respect for scholarship.

Now, though, both paper books and libraries are returning. How will this look?

Phillips Exeter Library, Exeter, New Hampshire.Credit:Carol M. Highsmith/Getty

Writers have often been drawn to the idea of library, intrigued both by the sense of sacred mystery and by the will to epistemological control. Jorge Luis Borges’ famous 1941 short story, The Library of Babel, postulates library-as-universe.

Borges was himself a former librarian. His fictional library comprises an infinite labyrinth of hexagonal rooms that contain not only every book ever written but every book that could possibly be written from a random combination of 25 characters – 22 letters, a comma, a full-stop and a space. Naturally, the content is largely gibberish and the arrangement, too, is random.

This random senselessness generates a furious search for meaning as humans, trapped within it, struggle vainly to impose or discover order. The futility of it drives some to despair, some to crazed destruction and some to desperate belief in a messiah, a Man of the Book. Mystics claim knowledge of an immense circular book whose spine is continuous. This infinite, cyclical, apocryphal book is God.

″Epidemics, heretical conflicts, peregrinations which inevitably degenerate into banditry, have decimated the population…” writes Borges. “I suspect that the human species — the unique species — is about to be extinguished, but the Library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret.”

‘I suspect that the human species — the unique species — is about to be extinguished, but the Library will endure…’

Borges was evoking the so-called “infinite monkey theorem”, which holds that half a dozen monkeys provided with typewriters would, in a few eternities, produce all the books in the British Library. He was also examining the relationship between knowledge-as-power and knowledge as the source of sacred meaning.

Similar themes surfaced in the famous 2008 ‘Silence in the Library’ Dr Who episode by Steven Moffat, in which a planet-sized library has taken control, sealed itself and begun swallowing visitors.

My own relationship with the library is more mundane and somewhat mixed. As a rule, I liked the contents but not the places. For me, as a pre-schooler, library trips were a treat. Footsteps clicking, I’d follow my mum across the stiletto-pocked brown lino from the (boring) adult section, past the many-drawered card catalogue to the kids’ corner, where we were allowed as many books as we could carry.

Traditional filing cabinet at the Miguel Cane Municipal Library in Buenos Aires where writer Jorge Luis Borges was once an assistant.Credit:Ricardo Ceppi/Getty

At primary school, I devoured every volume of folk-tales in the library’s “around the world” series, then began on the adventure section. At home, I’d hunker down in the bookshelf corner and pore for hours over encyclopedias that were even then old-fashioned and my mother’s book of full-page black-and-white photos from the American south, fascinated appalled at images of lynchings, thin-lipped white men in hats, laughing around the corpse. Books became emotional and intellectual food.

At uni, the library became a hunting ground, offering a sense of open-ended adventure. The serendipity of the shelving system meant you could be looking for Keats and come out with Copernicus. I loved the adventure but could never work there. Somehow, it was both too closed and too open, at once angsty and soporific. However I tried to study, I’d feel oppressed and eventually depressed, then scurry off home with my book-hoard.

The British Museum Library Reading Room: I found the intensively centred space was too inclusive, too controlling for writing.Credit:Getty

Later, in London, I decided the British Museum Library Reading Room would be a fine book-writing venue. I applied for a reading card and headed in by Tube every day for a month. Again, I found it impossible. The great dome provided headspace but maybe too much of it. Or maybe the intensively centred space was too inclusive, too controlling.

Only recently, during the 2019 fires, did I find a library in which I could work. To my surprise, it was in one of the most placeless of places, Canberra. I’d always admired the National Library for its solemn stripped classicism and its lakeside dignity. Now, looking for clean air and Wi-Fi on a 40-plus day, I found the perfect work spot. Populated but quiet, plush, hushed, embracing and immense, it holds you with confidence but without control, offering headspace, comfort and long views onto a smoky world.

What was the key? There’s no formula but for me, a library must enable the imagination. It must balance engagement with the world against separation from it, and it must engender deep respect, not just for its own control of knowledge but for that knowledge as shared a repository of sacred meaning.

A library must enable the imagination. It must balance engagement with the world against separation from it, and engender deep respect.

The great libraries of the ancients, available to us only via description, while scarcely averse to aggrandisement, offered precisely this reverence.

The fabled library of Alexandria, probably created by Ptolemy II (283–246 BC), drew scholars from across Greek, Roman, Jewish and Syrian cultures and was designed explicitly to manifest Egyptian grandeur. Offering hotel accommodation, dining halls, gardens, a colonnaded walk and even a zoo as well as reading rooms, it was also a shrine to the nine muses.

Scholars converse while reading the papyrus scrolls in the Great Library at Alexandria in an undated illustration. Credit:Getty

A century later, the Great Library of Pergamum in Anatolia (now Turkey), also featured, a vast banqueting hall and long colonnaded walk as well as a grand hall of scrolls and a temple to Athena; power and reverence side by side.

One of the most touching sequences in the TV series Vikings is where Ecgberht, the 9th century Anglo-Saxon King of Wessex, guards his beloved collection of Roman artefacts. The scrolls in particular he reveres. He can’t read them but, having spent time in exile at the court of Charlemagne, intuits their significance and hopes above all for a Latin scholar – a monk – to render them intelligible.

This was the dark ages. Book-bound knowledge, now largely unrecognised and unintelligible, was knowledge locked away within closed monasteries – again, partly for safekeeping, and partly to maintain power. These monastic libraries, often intensely beautiful with tiered galleries and vaulted ceilings, were almost the opposite of our idea of library as public institution; but still there was that mix of possessive power and high-minded altruism.

An invitation to learning and a statement of power: the La Trobe Reading Room at the State Library of VictoriaCredit:Adrian Flint/La Trobe Picture Collection

The lovely immensity of the New York Public Library, for example, and the charm of Sydney’s beloved Mitchell Reading Room or Melbourne’s domed La Trobe Reading Room, are both invitations to learning and statements of power. Perhaps, in fact, the two urges are inseparable; a recognition that civilisation depends on both a reverence for knowledge and a measure of power. This is why book destruction, either accidental or deliberate, feels like an attack of existential significance.

Consider the scene in the 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow, where Jake Gyllenhaal and his friends take refuge in the New York Public Library and, when the temperature plummets catastrophically, are forced to burn books to stay alive. The audience heaves a collective sigh when Jeremy saves, at least, the Gutenberg Bible declaring, “if Western civilisation is finished, I’m gonna save at least one little piece of it.”

Throughout history, book burning has been a favourite tool of totalitarian regimes, from the seventh-century Muslim sacking of the famous Persian university at Jundi Shapur in south-western Iran to last century’s Nazi book-burnings. When the Taliban and Al Qaeda ruled Afghanistan for the first time, the river Helmand, it is said, ran black with the ink of 10,000 books and beloved texts. Now, once again, museums and libraries are scrambling to save their treasures.

Throughout history, book-burning has been a favourite tool of totalitarian regimes: Nazi book burning in 1933 aimed at destroying “non-Aryan” texts. Credit:Getty

Here, destruction has been more gradual. When, 100 years ago, Bauhaus-inspired functionalism decided a library should look like a factory, everything changed. Gone were the great spaces, the reverence. Suddenly, books were mere tools, to be crammed into cheap shelving under eight-foot ceilings with strip fluorescent lighting.

So unlovely were these libraries that there was almost no protest when, 50 years on, in the 1990s, libraries were beset by a sudden book-phobia, banishing books to the basement or some yet-more-distant location.

In the NSW State Library, suddenly, only a few stern “reference” books remained visible. The University of Sydney’s Fisher Library stack– brilliantly designed by Ken Woolley in the early 1960s to let you wander at will within the full, 3-D, total-immersion experience – was suddenly chopped up into deathly study cubicles. You’d have to summon your book by name and wait hours or days for it to appear from some secret basement or off-site storage. It was efficient but soulless. Gone the infinite jungle of surprise. Gone the sense of adventure. Gone the fragrance of old books.

Now, though, there may be hope. Across Sydney a new crop of small, sweet cupcake libraries has sprung up, suggesting that book-phobia may have been halted, if not reversed. First was FJMT’s 2010 Surry Hills library for the City of Sydney. This little sweetie, with its tall internal gardens, double-height timber louvres, tranquil reading nooks, smart community rooms and bustling street views, is still a favourite refuge from baking summer streets or yet another failure of the NBN.

In Woollahra Library, diagonal bridges are flooded with light and hung with live jungle plants.

Next, Woollahra, by BVN, completed 2016. Grand stairs, sinuous balconies and diagonal bridges are flooded with light and hung with live jungle plants. Great folding planes of bleachers are scattered with happy, cushion-settled readers. There’s even a secret slide between levels.

The child-friendly Green Square Library is all interior with a secret underground garden. Credit:City of Sydney, posed by model.

Then there’s Green Square library in Alexandria, the little underground job by Stewart Hollenstein (2018) with its mini-Louvre through-pavement pop-up. This building is all interior, with a secret underground garden and, although much is dominated by children’s noise, there are quiet reading rooms in a stack.

Marrickville library (2019), also by BVN, and on the site of a former hospital has won many awards and is adored by locals. The great exclamatory exterior has more facades than street addresses while the inside offers another flight of the same timber bleachers. It’s casual and fun, offering street connection, communal courtyards, respect for heritage and decent coffee.

The award-winning Marrickville Library is casual and fun, offering, respect for heritage and decent coffee. Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

Most recent of the cupcake libraries is Darling Square (2020). An eye-catcher from Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, it is often likened to a bird’s nest for the spun timber palings that twine around it like string. The interior is nothing special but the location, in the bustle but not of it, is great.

Those five sweet Sydney cupcake libraries seem to offer hope – in the form of flavour, style, comfort and, above all, books.

Far less persuasive is the new library, now under construction, in the massive Parramatta Square development. Designed by French architect Manuelle Gautrand with Lacoste Stevenson, it doesn’t even call itself a library – though this is what it replaces – but “a civic centre”. Billed as “world class” (which is always a downer), it has a stepped coxcomb, a garish raking glass roof and a digital façade promising “specially curated creative content.” Like Darling Harbour, or one of those ghastly doctor’s waiting-room televisions you can’t hide from, only bigger. Worse. And on public land.

Green Square Library.Credit:Tom Roe

So, there are upsides, and down. What of the future? In Britain, which leads Australia in the decay of public services, private libraries are re-emerging. They’re often beautiful, like the astonishing London Library or Newcastle’s grand Lit & Phil, but they cost – up to $1000 per year – and that tips access to learning still further toward inequity.

One of the most eye-catching contemporary examples is the Tianjin Binhai library in China, by “global” Rotterdam-based architects MVRDV. True to their logline – “we create happy and adventurous places” – this library appeals to everyone who loves a gimmick. Dull as an aircraft hangar on the outside, this library entertains the masses with scores of undulating “bookshelves” that snake in around its amorphous interior, which centres on a giant white golf-ball of an auditorium. But many of the shelves are inaccessible and fake; the “fun” amorphous interior resonates with the sound of crowds at a funfair and anyone wishing actually to read or study is consigned to the dully utilitarian spaces around the edge. No sense of sacred learning here; in fact, almost the opposite. This is a building that, like the rest of our culture, elevates easy popularity over scholarship.

China’s Tianjin Binhai library elevates easy popularity over scholarship. Credit:Getty

At the other end of the respect spectrum is the library proposed by Ghanaian photographer Paul Ninson, as championed by Humans of New York. Needing to support his daughter and unable to find “a single photography book” in Ghana, he leapt at the opportunity to study in the US. Now, having amassed 30,000 books, he is crowdfunding money to build Ghana’s first photojournalism library, complete with theatre and film studios. In the first three days, he raised $1.2 million.

As to Sydney’s tiny neighbourhood libraries – the cupcakes? Tiny libraries are fine but unless they specialise (a music library here, a poetry library there), they can never build decent collections. In the end, then, if it’s civilisation we’re after, there’s no substitute for the great and enduring public institution, a keeping-house for our treasured narratives. And let’s be frank, there’s nothing wrong with a touch of reverence. Perhaps, rather than jettisoning the book, or the library, we need to lose the threadbare assumption that everything must be popular, dumbed down and profitable. Some things are beyond price.

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