An elegy for the library

'Google can bring you 100,000 answers but a librarian can bring you the right one.' Fighting words.

An elegy  for the library

It’s an unseasonably hot winter day in Mysuru, and the midmorning sun is turning the crumbling yellow stucco of the 100-year-old building a shade paler. A hawker is yelling on the busy road, trying to drum up business for his collection of old coins and medals. As I take the stairs to the first floor of the City Central Library’s main branch, I can see a bit of a queue at the drinking fountain.

The occupants of the small reading room are all middle-aged men poring over newspapers in at least three languages. The ceiling fans whir. Pages rustle. Not one man is looking at his phone. Overhead, a framed poster features a loose quote of a line from the novelist Neil Gaiman: “Google can bring you 100,000 answers but a librarian can bring you the right one.” Fighting words.

In the larger reading room, the crowd is mixed. An elderly woman looks up from her notebook; a lanky boy is mouthing the words he reads. Every seat is occupied, and I drift between the stacks: Astronomy, Home Economics, Satire in Kannada Literature.

Every so often, there are rumblings, among students gathered on the front steps or in the local press, that the library will close: the predatory gaze of developers is never far. And I’m more conscious than ever of the many things we would lose.

Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve used the library. When I was growing up in Nairobi, I would sometimes go to a tiny community library run by a church organisation. It was a stronghold of stalwarts; there were hardly ever any new faces. The dust was thick.

Branches of a jacaranda tree pressed against the single large window. The place had a vaguely medicinal smell, as though along with tonic for the mind, it administered tinctures and liniments.

One evening, a few minutes before closing, the librarian and I were packing up at the same time. He glanced over at one of my books and did a cinematic double take. “That’s not from this library?” he asked. “No, it’s mine,” I said, telling the truth but sounding cagey. I was in early adolescence, and everything I said seemed like an admission of guilt. “I’m reading it too,” he said, whipping out his own copy.

It was the same edition of Iris Murdoch’s The Word Child. Its cover even seemed to have the same fold as mine in the right-hand corner. I looked at my copy for a few seconds and put it in my bag. I felt a sudden rush to the head: After years of longing to leave childhood behind, it felt as though I had finally become an adult.

Years later, I would sometimes go to a library in North London, a drab hulk of a building where I became friendly with one of the chattier librarians. Ms R was a middle-aged woman with close-cropped hair and scarlet fingernails that flipped absently through the cards of her Rolodex.

“Oh, that Hemingway,” she would say. “And Scott Fitzgerald. Such drinkers. They’d drink you out of house and home. It’s amazing they were ever clearheaded enough to plan a novel.” She would describe Daphne du Maurier’s Cornish home in detail, as though they spent summers there together.

Ms R favoured dangly earrings, often of sea creatures — gold crabs, diving dolphins — and I came to associate their dainty glamour with the stories she told. She once handed me a copy of “Wide Sargasso Sea,” while describing Jean Rhys’s bohemian life in Paris. “Her book is much better than ‘Jane Eyre,’” she said.

Ms R’s anecdotes bridged the gap between those semi-mythical beings with great imaginative powers and we ordinary individuals who borrowed their books from libraries. Authors may have had spells of adventure and excess, but they weren’t that different from the people around me, after all: They also fought with their spouses, worried about money, cheated and lied, and then mowed the lawn. If they had got it into their heads that they would write, maybe some of us could, too.

Today I do write, and as I wander around the central library in Mysuru, that still seems like a bit of a miracle. At Botany and Horticulture, a woman is dusting old volumes with the vigour normally reserved for beating carpets. The prim, desiccated formality associated with libraries is absent. On the other side of the stack, a woman dozes on a stool, a mop clutched in one hand.

Once, as I wandered past her office enquiringly, the librarian, H N Poornima, beckoned me in. We chatted about the books that were most in demand, and I told her that I was surprised by the large number of shelves of Kannada poetry. “Oh yes,” she said, “poetry is very popular with housewives.” “Do you think the library is in danger of closing down?” I asked. “No chance.”

The library has 28 branches scattered around the city, in addition to a few reading rooms at community outreach organisations. Poornima tells me each local branch regularly orders books at readers’ request from the state’s central library system.

Space of respite
Computers are much too costly for many families. Even books remain expensive. The library’s website lists “uninterrupted lighting” as one of its services — a real advantage in a city that suffers from frequent power cuts. This is a place of refuge. It offers a respite from the heat, from office life, from noisy homes, from all the irritations that crowd in.

It also offers the intangible entanglements of a common space. One of my favourite descriptions of the public library comes from the journalist and academic Sophie Mayer, who has called it “the ideal model of society, the best possible shared space,” because there “each person is pursuing their own aim (education, entertainment, affect, rest) with respect to others, through the best possible medium of the transmission of ideas, feelings and knowledge — the book.”

Libraries may have their local idiosyncrasies, but the fundamentals of their ecosystem are universal. They are places of long breaks, of boredom and reverie, of solace and deliberation. They offer opportunities for unobtrusive observation, stolen glances and frissons, anticipation and nudging possibilities. And when the sensible realisation strikes that a thrilling plan is better left unaccomplished, they might also become sites of abandonment.

I once discovered a gorgeously caustic letter of resignation on a library desk, unsigned and presumably unsent. I can’t remember now what words it used, but I remember leaving it where I’d found it so that as many patrons as possible could enjoy its fruitiness.

As I read of library closures around the world, I worry that these ideal models of society will soon recede into sepia. Mysuru’s City Central Library, where every seat is currently occupied, may one day exist solely as images in a database. And it’d be my fault, too. A little bit.

You see, I have a confession to make. About a month ago, I came upon a book on one of my shelves that I hadn’t spotted for years. It was a copy of François Mauriac’s Therese in English. When I opened it, the slip on the inside cover told me that I had borrowed it from the library of my school in Nairobi on March 2, 1991. It was due back 14 days from that date. I felt a little sick. I couldn’t even remember if I had read it.

I posted the book back with a letter of apology and a donation to the school alumni fund. But surely, further penance was required — some expression of how much I valued every library I had ever spent time in, every librarian who had told me a salty anecdote, every book I had signed out. Well, here it is.

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