Library nostalgia

Library nostalgia

I promised myself I would never use the phrase “when I was a student” but I can resist no longer.

I know that some of my friends consider libraries to be boring but, for me, they have been some of the most exciting and satisfying places I have experienced. When I was a student (yes, you spotted it) evenings in the library with fellow students around me, reading, working, thinking, exploring are happy memories of college life. The atmosphere of peace, discovery, collegiality in the task, encouragement of others engaged in the same calling in the same room, a sense of history picking up the books used by generations of scholars before me, these are things I have continued to experience in many libraries, great and small, throughout a lifetime of study.

But now, our virtual libraries encourage instead the individualisation of scholarship. We sit alone in a room in front of a laptop, accessing e-books, journal search engines and useful websites. There are great advantages in this situation of electronic access, of course. Location is no longer necessary for study, books and periodicals are in front of you at the touch of a button, search engines save you walking the shelves. But we have also lost much.

Libraries should provide a sense of a community of learning in two main ways. Firstly, while we study, whether we are alone or in a library together, we are in community with the people of God who have written in the subject whether they are contemporaries the other side of the world or are scholars who have thought and lived hundreds of years ago. And this is precious. Secondly, however they provide an atmosphere of real-time joint endeavour for the Kingdom by the physical presence of other students. You can have this encouraging presence within library silence – and there is always the coffee break for more interaction.

At the moment, we are emphasising the first while quietly dissolving the second.

Make no mistake, this is a big change in academic work, not sufficiently recognised except by lonely students. I have been in the Merton College old library where the books are still chained to the shelves and I don’t think we want to go back to that; technology has set books free. But the freedom of the books has led all too often to the solitary confinement of the scholar.

So, what am I asking for? No changes can easily be made in the present difficult situation. However, I am asking for a remembrance of things lost. And a determination to do all we can to provide in future a community of learning which includes, wherever possible, the atmosphere and encouragement of physical presence as we seek to fulfil our calling as students and teachers in libraries.

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One Comment on “Library nostalgia”

  1. Graham Gould Says:

    A very commendable viewpoint. Even when a book is not available electronically, I have sometimes found it is cheaper (it is certainly more convenient) to buy a second hand copy on Amazon than to travel to a library which holds it. This really is a bizarre feature of modern life. As for ‘When I was a student . . .’, I have to admit I use this phrase often, but I hope never as a mark of self-satisfaction or superiority but sometimes out of sympathy, and sometimes to remind myself that things have often changed for the better.


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