When I got my first library card, I remember thinking that it resembled a ‘money card’, like the one my mother used to pay in the supermarket. It had grey and white stripes, with my name inked above the sticky-back-plastic barcode. Now languishing somewhere in my old bedroom at my mother’s, the stripes faded to cream, I’m not sure if I could still use it in the small, bungalow-esque library in West Sussex that my mother used to take me to every week. I picked up a bad habit in skim reading from a young age (which helps a little at University) and by Junior School was taking out the maximum of 10 books a week. People always say ‘devour’ in relation to books, and that’s truly what we do. I gobbled and digested Judy Blume, Enid Blyton, The Babysitters Club, Nancy Drew, Goosebumps and Penguin Classics. Then, a library to me was carpet-tiles, A-Z, musty smells, old people and smiley librarians. Now, years on as a University of London student my idea of a perfect library is defined in Senate House. The peace and quiet of the warm, woody interior; the twists and turns to find the book you need; the beautiful Middlesex South Library; the sense of being tucked away from the busy world outside. What’s the appeal in new editions when stamped, read and loved books can sit in your hands?
Yesterday it was a pleasure for me to meet Miriam Valencia, who is joint librarian at Southbank Centre’s wonderful Poetry Library, before I attended a poetry reading there to launch the latest issue of Brittle Star Magazine. She’s been here for about six years and seemed the ideal authority to ask a few questions about libraries, her library in particular and the possible death of the book.
What does your work involve in the Poetry Library?
My role is co-ordinating what the team does, acquiring books for the library, magazines and audio-visual. We run an information service through our website, we run events and workshops for schools. We also have our digitalisation website that my colleage, Chris, oversees, which means providing digital access to a lot of the magazines collection. Magazines are part and parcel of the poetry lifestyle so to speak, and it’s difficult to get hold of those beyond the London scene.
And what makes the Poetry Library special?
In terms of publicly accessible poetry collections it’s probably the biggest in the UK. We collect poetry from 1912 onwards but saying that we hope to be able to provide the older material for people through different means such as databases we subscribe to. Most libraries try to be more than ‘just a library’ so to speak. Libraries in general are about engaging people with reading and learning and the Poetry Library is no different. We have an events series once a month, but we have other events that include regular visits from primary schools which is very important to us as we’re engaging with the local community and encouraging young people to find a place in poetry, or a place for poetry. We also have exhibitions in the library; either about the artist exploring the library or some kind of connection with events going on around Southbank Centre.
One of the really important things that I’ve experience in the library, and what other people have too is it’s a meeting place where you encounter other poets or other poetry readers. There’s a sense of the reading and the writing, a meeting in that way. Also I think there’s an important intellectual meeting between those writing now and the poets they’re reading. In a way, that’s really significant to writing poetry: how you’ve digested what you’ve read and how that’s nourishing your writing.
What are the memorable reactions to the library, from people coming for the first or fiftieth time?
Often what we hear is ‘I can’t believe I didn’t know you were here’, so we’re always trying to spread the word about the library because so many people describe it as ‘a hidden gem’. We’re constantly trying to make people aware. We did have to close the library for two years during the refurbishment of the Festival Hall and I think people felt very bereaved by that, they were very emotional about the prospect.
Finally, what would you say to the idea that the digitalisation of books and the popularity of e-books could threaten libraries as an institution?
I think the answer lies in what we were talking about before, in that a library is much more than a collection of books. It’s about how you provide access to books, how they’re organised, how the catalogue helps you find stuff, how the staff know it and how people experience the physicality of the library. It’s more than a sum of it’s parts: it’s more than a hundred thousand books, it’s a library of a hundred thousand books. That sounds quite mundane but poems aren’t needles in haystacks, and we can help you find that needle in a haystack. You can do that.
I believe the book has lasted for a hell of a long time, and I don’t see it diminishing. I’ve heard that book sales are soaring and whilst you might have independent bookshops disappearing and publishing houses gobbling each other up, on the other side of it smaller print runs are possible at less expense. I think what’s really important is just that people are so emotionally attached to the book.
I completely agree with Miriam that emotional attachment to the physicality of the book and the atmosphere of the ‘intellectual meeting-place’ means that the death of the library is an unrealistic prospect. If not, and we find ourselves in 50 years time (as a consequence of even more dramatic funding cuts to the arts) in an awful dystopia of floating touch screens and empty bookshelves I shall endeavor to convert my entire home into a public library where you shall all be very welcome.
Thanks to Miriam for chatting to me, and if anyone is on the hunt for a good poetry magazine what I heard read at the Brittle Star event was fantastic.