Inspired by an earlier blog post in which I mentioned how much time I’d spent in the local library as a child, on my recent trip to the UK I decided to revisit my old childhood haunt in Forest Hall, a suburb of Newcastle. Despite numerous family visits to the area since I left home in my late teens, I never found any reason to go back to the little library just round the corner from our house which at times had been like a second home and, given it has been nine years since my mother died, severing my final link with the area, I wasn’t even sure it was still there.
All apprehension that the library may have been a victim of budget cuts disappeared as I stood before a building which, apart from a ramp and automatic door at the entrance, was exactly as I’d remembered it. Somehow I’d imagined if it was still in existence that it would have been added to or even completely rebuilt. Did the lack of change suggest that it had hovered perilously close to the list of libraries to be axed, but miraculously continued to avoid it due to the ardent support of those, unlike me, who had stayed close to their roots as they
Even inside, not much had changed. The children’s, adult fiction and non-fiction sections were all in the same place. The children’s section did look a little more user friendly than I remembered, probably due to the bright yellow walls which had replaced the standard beige of the 60’s and 70’s. Or maybe due to the absence of battleaxe middle-aged librarians who enforced the silence rule then with withering glares that few dared ignore.
Sadly, the reference room, the tiny enclosed space where I had passed many an hour in my early teens doing research for homework and imagining my future as I worked my way through a hefty A-Z of careers, had been made into another open space, the books all removed and replaced by the modern reference tool: computers.
Now I accept that computers are great for finding information you need fast, but the downside is you only see what you are looking for (or think you are looking for) whereas if you pick up, say, an encyclopedia to look up the same facts, chances are as you flip through the pages you will find something else interesting that catches your eye and you may finish your research knowing more than you’d originally been looking for or even come across a piece of seemingly irrelevant
information which could change your life. I remember being in awe when I flipped through a hefty careers guide in my early teens. So many jobs I’d never heard of, let alone considered. It was like finding an alternative universe.
I suspect that while researching careers on a computer the website for any one would be unlikely to have a link to anything outside that particular field of interest, effectively putting blinkers on our vision. And the same goes for any other area of research as more and more encyclopedias are available only online and people use the search function to take them directly to what they want.
Given the majority of the people in the library during my visit were using the computers, and with the advent of library lending for e-readers, I had to wonder whether as more and more homes get access to the internet, library usage will eventually drop to the point where few are interested in saving an institution which has become a relic of the past. Is it possible that one day libraries may only
exist as museums – to show future generations how quaint we were in our reading habits?
It was a strange sensation seeing this place which had played such an important part in my childhood. I tried to imagine whether I would have been so enchanted by today’s library. Maybe I would have spent more time scrolling through screens than flipping through pages. Would this have affected my love for the written word? There is a tendency to romanticize memories of the past but, given the huge amount of pleasure books have brought me, I couldn’t help feeling blessed by being a part of the generation before computers. And I’m so glad I took the time to go back – for who knows how much longer that little library will still be there.