Friday, February 04, 2011

Significant libraries of my life 1988-1994

Thank you for all the lovely comments on the first installment. This is the second, and covers the years between leaving home for the first time and moving to Oxford. Not all public libraries, but all significant.

Trinity College Library. During my first week at Cambridge, I sat in here and read the Communist Manifesto. If Radiohead had released Creep in 1988, I am sure the words "what the hell am I doing here, I don't belong here" would have started running through my head. And continued as I read The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism right through to the end of On Suicide. But by the end of the first term, I was getting the hang of the place. It was an excellent library, open till midnight during the week, and you could only borrow books overnight, so you could be fairly sure that if the book was in the card catalogue it would either be on the shelf, or you would be able to spot the person who was reading it and find out when you could get it off them. It had comfortable chairs and a members-only air. You were lucky to be in there and you knew it. And when it all got too much you could sneak out into Nevile's Court for a cigarette, and pace up and down the cloisters, considering your position.

The Wren Library. After a couple of years of viewing this glorious building from the outside, someone told me that we were allowed to go and work in there. You fucking what? I said. But it was true. Maybe only in exam terms when the main library was busy, I can't remember. But in the hot, stressful days before my finals, I would sometimes carry a stack of books across the cool black and white tiled floor to sit near the huge statue of Byron with the sun streaming through the high windows. I would write notes on the social structure of modern Britain and try not to think about that fact that soon I would have to leave this place.

The library of the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences (now the Faculty of Politics, Psychology, Sociology and International Studies). This was a different kettle of fish altogether. I remember it as an open, modern place (in the 1970s sense of the word modern) that was full of radical wonderfulness. I read the Kinsey Reports in here, and Masters & Johnson, as well as lots of social psychology texts, participant observation studies and books about Thatcherism. But the real discovery was the women's studies section. These weren't set texts -- I decided it would be a bit of a cliche to do the Women in Society paper (I was terrified of being typecast. Still am) -- but I sat in there in my dungarees drinking bad coffee and reading Andrea Dworkin, Kate Millet and Mary Daly. An awareness of something profound and fundamental settled around me in there. It has never quite left.

Cambridge University Library. The mothership. The place where all the books meet, yeah. My first encounter with a library OPAC, for anything published after 19... something. I forget. But it was very exciting. Occasionally I would need something published earlier than whenever that was, and would have to haul one of the giant hard copy catalogues off the shelf. Then you would write your reference number on your slip of paper, and then either wander the open shelves, via creaky lifts and hidden alcoves, or, if it was in a closed stack, pass your slip to one of the reading room assistants and wait. It was all astonishingly serious. And quite time-consuming, but there was nothing like the thrill of finally securing your super-obscure text, then taking it into a dark corner, or bagging a space at one of those long reading room tables. After a while, I worked out that I could borrow *any* kind of book, not just ones for writing essays from, and that I should perhaps make more of having access to every book in the world ever. So this was the place that first furnished me with the poems of Dorothy Parker, Sylvia Plath and Stevie Smith. Also the place with the tea rooms which, in the late 80s, still had a bit you could smoke in. Reading poems in the smoking room of the UL was about the coolest thing on the planet. I loved it in there.

Cambridge Central Library. I still had a fiction habit to feed. And for three years, this is where I fed it.

Andover Library. My parents accidentally moved to Andover for seven years, and I lived here too in the summer holidays between my second and third years at university. It was kind of bleak: I didn't know anyone, I didn't have any money, it took me a while to get a job, and, to be frank, it's a hard town to love if you didn't grow up there. I was pretty miserable. I spent a lot of time lying in bed reading. I was in a bit of a sci-fi and fantasy phase at that point, because I was mostly hanging out with boys. I remember one day when I couldn't bear to leave the house, until I suddenly thought 'I should go and join the library'. So I got dressed and headed into town, returning with part one of the Illuminatus Trilogy. Can't say it cheered me up much -- I don't go for libertarianism, frankly -- but it did keep me busy. A couple of years later, I lived there again for a year, first while signing on, and then for 10 months working as a research assistant at a management consultancy firm. In retrospect, it was useful experience, but at the time it felt like slow death in bad clothes. The good thing was that my office was in the middle of town, near M&S and its prawn sandwiches, near Our Price and its blank tapes, and near Andover Library and its books. I took every minute of my lunch hour every day, and when it was warm enough, I sat on a bench and I read.

There were days in my early 20s where I can genuinely say that the library is the only thing that kept me sane. That's the library. The free at the point of use library. The each according to their need library. There's a spectre haunting Europe, all right. But there's nothing Communist about it.


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Blogger Fiona said...

for some reason, made me cry AGAIN. The bit about 'every minute of my lunch hour every day'. Truly inspiring. And helps me to know you better too. I LOVE YOU!

12:51 am  

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