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The death of the reading library

7 May 2014

11:51 AM

7 May 2014

11:51 AM

‘Quiet Zone: No Laptops Please’. So read the paper signs stapled as an afterthought in a dust-cloaked corner of the Radcliffe Camera. The Rad Cam is the magnificent Palladian dome at the heart of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Set in sunlit Radcliffe Square, and surrounded on all sides by gargoyles, pinnacles and the city’s dreaming spires, it coruscates greatness. From the cobblestones below, one cannot help but feel that one is looking at the very apotheosis of the thinking world. What isn’t obvious, however, is that the Rad Cam is actually a symbol – albeit a very well-disguised one – of the death of a cherished cultural institution: the reading library.

Libraries used to be for reading books. But these days, they seem to cater to everything but. In most libraries, readers are second-class citizens. The first time I entered the Rad Cam I was deaf-struck by the sound of heavy rain echoing cacophonously about its gilded interior. That’s odd, I thought, it was sunny outside. And I was right – it was sunny outside. Looking around, I realised with a lurch of despair that it wasn’t rain causing the clamour, but a legion of automaton-like students typing robotically away at their laptops. I expected the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but instead I got my grandparents’ conservatory on a May Bank Holiday.

The Bodleian Library, like many other libraries, has fallen before the onslaught of computers. The symphony of boot-up noises and clunky hardware is all-pervasive. No reading room is free of the tap-tap-tap of student typing. At best, a few desks are perfunctorily designated a ‘Quiet Zone’; but even when these areas exist, they are rarely policed (brazen laptop-users, like gas molecules faced with concentration gradients, have a knack of neutralising all hitherto uncorrupted spots).

To use the library for its traditional purpose – reading corporeal tomes in peace and quiet – is to brand oneself as an eccentric. The desks, shoved on top of each other and blinking with banks of plug-sockets and Ethernet cables, appear to have been designed precisely to deter this sort of madman from encroaching upon the Macbook’s hallowed turf. You are allowed to read; but the din and the flashing laptop-lights mean that you need cloth-ears and nerves of steel to do so.

The Bodleian Library is but one example of this phenomenon, and it isn’t even the most egregious. In 2012, Wellington College gained notoriety for transforming its traditional library into a ‘Centre for Research and Innovation’, wherein its collection of 18,000 books was replaced by a cache of iPads, Kindles and laptops. Students who, in previous years, may have expected their school library to offer a sanctuary from the indulgent screen-economy permeating the rest of their lives suddenly found themselves further enslaved to it – and by their librarian, of all the culprits!

Wellington is an extreme case. Most libraries, however tech-centred, do still give a cursory nod to the traditional model of book-stacks and reading desks. But the balance between books and technology is tilting perilously. Recently, my local council library adopted the ominous new name ‘Library and Registration Services’, and replaced a large section of book-shelves with what appeared to be a GCHQ sub-station. The place is always fairly busy: children play, adults chat, computers whir and printers loudly choke out documents. Yet the one activity conspicuously – and now predictably – absent is the unadulterated reading of books.

I enjoyed going to the library when I was growing up. It offered to my youthful mind the heady promise of intellectual sophistication, knowledge and awesome quiet. But now, divorced from its original telos as a place for people to read books, it has metamorphosed into something little more sacrosanct than a petrol station.

And what has become of the old royal, state and church libraries? Once at the vanguard of culture and scholarship, these libraries – glorious institutions such as the Prunksaal in Vienna, the Escorial in Madrid, the Joanina in Coimbra – now sit fossilised, like dinosaur skeletons, in the sterile museums that have been created around them. Though physically intact, their purpose has been radically subverted. Our attitude to reading books is reflected clearly in our attitudes to these sorts of libraries. We view them as we would view an antique roller-coaster: curiously, but with absolutely no intention of trying it out.

Thus, the library is no longer a place where people go to read books. In the case of the Bodleian, it is where they go to be entranced by their laptops; in the case of the local, it is where they go to print out their CVs; in the case of the Prunksaal, it is where they go to gawk at the decadence of the Habsburgs; and in the case of Wellington College, it is where they go to do goodness knows what. These are important services that ought to be provided for – but not necessarily by libraries.

Something important is lost when libraries cease to serve those who want the honest pleasure of settling down at a desk in a silent room and opening up a book. Computers dominate so many other aspects of modern life that the library is the natural counterpoise – a place where one should be able to disconnect, shake off one’s wireless shackles, and enter onto a more cerebral plane. Would that librarians had the courage to ban computers from their fiefdoms. Alas, the tech bug has metastasised to where it shouldn’t have. And as I sit here, in the Rad Cam, my typing merging hypocritically with the general patter, dust continues to accumulate on the bookcase next to me.

Sam Williams is reading for a degree in political theory at Oxford University.

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