I learnt some interesting facts in Australia one of them being that one out of ten European babies is conceived in an Ikea bed. It came, like all good information, out of a book purchased by my grand-daughter. She’s almost fifteen and thought nothing of spending money on a book she intended giving to a friend who would then pass it on. That’s what happens when books are loved. Trapping a good story on a shelf and watching the spine colours fade in the sun is what we used to do when books were more exclusive in NZ. The idea of a library was a city thing. We knew how they worked but getting them back on time was always going to be an issue so joining the library was one of the first things I did when I got a job ‘in town’. I can still see the sombre shelves of the Invercargill City Library and remember the sense of amazement I felt at the thought of all those books that could, in theory, be mine.
Libraries are one of the few institutions that have responded and grown with the times. On my weekly trek to Te Hapua (my local library) on Wednesday there were people playing cards and a jigsaw laid out on a table. Books are stacked on accessible shelves with librarian recommendations and eyecatching displays of new books set amongst a large collection of DVDs. It is also a place that hums with life. For everyone. I can only imagine the relief a new English speaker must feel to kick back and read something in the words they’ve heard since birth. Or how wonderful it must be to hear a book when your eyesight has failed? Or to have the chance to use a computer when there isn’t one at home?
The world of digital information is so vast it overwhelms and is difficult for many people to navigate. But a single book is not. Compare the many hours that can be spent scrolling subscription channels on your tv to picking up a book, reading the blurb (and perhaps the first paragraph) and making a decision to read or not. Yes, you will have had to have made the effort to get out of the house and will have to carry your books home, but while you’re at the library you get to see the whole parade of life and when you’re done, you can sit down and have a coffee in the café. At Te Hapua there is another section of the building that offers rooms for rent, a summer swimming pool and a small local council office which goes to prove, that destructive though they may be, earthquakes are also bearers of good fortune.
The concept of libraries as places that evaluate and give us the future without fear, is sometimes taken for granted – usually by the sort of men who discover libraries when they’ve retired and can’t work a photocopy machine, but they are by far, the most adaptable and invaluable resource in my community and the only one I’d tie myself to a tree to protect.