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May 3, 2011 8:26 AM   Subscribe

It's an odd thing that libraries – by tradition temples to the unfleshly – can sometimes seem such sexy places. The Secret life of libraries.
posted by shakespeherian (37 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Libraries don't need to be sexed up. They are buildings full of stuff you can borrow for free. Porn movies with librarian stars are besides the point.
posted by jenlovesponies at 8:32 AM on May 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


Very nice. "In London during the Second World War, some authorities established small collections of books in air-raid shelters. The unused Tube station at Bethnal Green had a library of 4,000 volumes and a nightly clientele of 6,000 people. And what those wartime readers chose were not practical how-to manuals on sewing or home repairs, but philosophy. Plato and his Republic experienced a sudden surge in popularity, as did Schopenhauer, Bertrand Russell, Bunyan and Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy."
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:34 AM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


"And we had a streaker once," Collins continues. "In Tamworth. He got into the lifts, and somewhere between the first and second floors he managed to take off all his clothes, run naked through Music and Junior, and then vanish out the front doors. The library there is right next to a graveyard, so goodness only knows what happened to him. Still, all part of life's rich tapestry."
posted by shakespeherian at 8:38 AM on May 3, 2011


I saw the original request on the librarians' professional email lists for stories to quote for this piece. I'd forgotten it was out there. The final story seems pretty balanced to me.
posted by KMH at 8:43 AM on May 3, 2011


Oh, yeah - here are the media engagement and protest groups set up here in the UK in response to the cuts:

http://www.voicesforthelibrary.org.uk/wordpress/

http://foclibrary.wordpress.com/
posted by KMH at 8:44 AM on May 3, 2011


...libraries are meant to be austere places smelling of "damp gabardine and luncheon meat..."

?
posted by Iridic at 8:47 AM on May 3, 2011


What a great article, exploring so many different facets of what's fascinating, alluring, and, yes, improbable about libraries right down to their very existence.

As an undergraduate (long ago) I had a particularly favorite study carrel in the subterranean stacks at Widener Library. My friends and others came to know where to look for me. I still have a note from two boys, written in the same pen (mine, left there). My (soon-to-be) boyfriend wrote: "What are you doing?" and my (then) boyfriend added, under the fold, "And Where are You?"

Something about this place that I merely borrowed being visited like that (plus the invariably intoxicating musty smell) just gave everything, even in the relative dark and dank down there a feeling of everything being alive. Oh yes, and I was recently turned eighteen, so maybe the library really had nothing to do with it.
posted by emhutchinson at 8:48 AM on May 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's a good article, I highlighted a few parts I liked / wanted to reply to.

What's the point of buildings filled with print? Isn't all our wisdom electronic now? Shouldn't libraries die at their appointed time, like workhouses and temperance halls?

I know that the article isn't making this statement, but if someone says this then you know that they don't really understand what a library is. A library is a tool to access information, and that information can come in whatever container the librarians see fit to purchase or provide.

libraries are meant to be austere places smelling of "damp gabardine and luncheon meat", as Victoria Wood put it, and librarians are either diffident, mole-eyed types or disappointed spinsters of limited social skills who spend their time blacking out the racing pages and razoring Page 3.

In the past, maybe (once again I realize the article is only trotting this out as a common stereotype). The current trend (and rightly so) is to develop mixed use libraries that are as much a community center as they are a repository for material. Recognizing that meeting space, technology, social interaction, and community knowledge are information resources is driving this idea of a "learning commons". I think it's the right direction.

"Libraries are always trying to prove themselves because what they provide is so intangible. How do you quantify what someone gets from a book or a magazine?"

Absolutely one of the challenges of managing a library system. If you're in the trade you can't help but realize how much you do, but the metrics you use to measure your work are hard sells for politicians who only want hard numbers that they can campaign with.

"The council once asked us for an assessment of outcomes, not output,"

It doesn't help that a lot of local government types are the type of people who don't need or desire libraries.

The unused Tube station at Bethnal Green had a library of 4,000 volumes and a nightly clientele of 6,000 people. And what those wartime readers chose were not practical how-to manuals on sewing or home repairs, but philosophy. Plato and his Republic experienced a sudden surge in popularity, as did Schopenhauer, Bertrand Russell, Bunyan and Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy.

Terrific.

"we had four couples leaving their spouses for each other. We ended up calling it the Mile Out Club."

!!!

"In the 60s, before the Lady Chatterley trial," says Ian Stringer, "you used to get block books – literally, wooden blocks in place of any books the librarians thought were a bit risqué, like Last Exit to Brooklyn. You had to bring the block to the counter and then they'd give you the book from under the desk. So of course you got a certain type of person just going round looking for the wooden blocks."

!!!

Anyway, I'll probably be forwarding this along to the other librarians I know.
posted by codacorolla at 8:49 AM on May 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


I'm with jenlovesponies. It's not just the idea of being able to borrow stuff for free -- it's the fact that what you can borrow can be life-rocking, earth-shattering, mind-bending, expansive stuff. THAT is hot.
posted by pupstocks at 9:09 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


My favorite bit:

There are other uses for libraries. In Marylebone they take a lenient view of sleepers. "As long as they're vertical, it's all right," says Nicky Smith, senior librarian. "If they're horizontal or snoring, then we wake them up. Mind you," she adds cheerily, "we were always told to wake people well before closing time, because if they turn out to be dead, then you won't get home before midnight."
posted by mannequito at 9:10 AM on May 3, 2011


The great untold truth of libraries is that people need them not because they're about study and solitude, but because they're about connection

Yeah, one of the last remaining centers of community, at least in the U.S.
Especially with public schools under the grinder.

Even so, theft remains a sensitive subject. "If someone suggested the idea of public libraries now, they'd be considered insane,"

It's really really bizarre that this is true. Perhaps it's a reflection of how ubiquitous commercialization is and how badly people seem to want to 'own' something.
But you can't truly own things, you can only pay for the exclusive right to lug them about until you die.

I've got tons of books. I've walked out of the library without checking out books on accident a number of times. And I always return them, for a number of reasons. But one of the big ones is - why would I want to take up that kind of space in my house?
My private library does no one but me any good. A book at the public library, well hell, someone else might read it and I might get to *gasp* talk to them about it.
posted by Smedleyman at 9:19 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


"If someone suggested the idea of public libraries now, they'd be considered insane,"

Yeah, all those lunatics down at the asylum that came up with the world wide web are just totally batshit.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:26 AM on May 3, 2011


So I'm at the library ... *bow chika wow wow*
posted by Smedleyman at 9:31 AM on May 3, 2011


...libraries are meant to be austere places smelling of "damp gabardine and luncheon meat..."

Pretty sure that's a Beck lyric.
posted by grubi at 9:34 AM on May 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


*sigh* one of these first days, I must whip up a proper boilerplate for this kind of FPP. Look, I like that people like libraries, but can we, will we ever get past the cliche of article writers evoking the threadbare old stereotypes in the name of challenging them? It's like the "comics aren't just for kids anymore" thing.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:35 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


The undergrads at University of Chicago spend a good deal of time having sex in the stacks of the Joseph Regenstein library...that is, when they're not busy being depressive or sitting around in the dark.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:35 AM on May 3, 2011


Also:
"If someone suggested the idea of public libraries now, they'd be considered insane,"

Yeah, all those lunatics down at the asylum that came up with the world wide web are just totally batshit.


Son, maybe you should just put that box down and think about it for a minute before you open it.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:36 AM on May 3, 2011


The undergrads at University of Chicago spend a good deal of time having sex in the stacks of the Joseph Regenstein library...that is, when they're not busy being depressive or sitting around in the dark.

Not just the stacks.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:53 AM on May 3, 2011


Uh, I mean, so I've heard.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:53 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


And they stay pretty much vertical, I assume.
posted by emhutchinson at 10:00 AM on May 3, 2011


By the time the fourth couple got together, the erotic charge of the vans had grown so great that "all the relatives ended up having a fight on the loading bay, everyone pitching in, all chucking boxes of library tickets at each other"

This is a David O. Russell script in development, as I understand.
posted by dhartung at 10:01 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


The undergrads at University of Chicago spend a good deal of time having sex

Or a deal of good time.
posted by grubi at 10:02 AM on May 3, 2011


Libraries can be sexy, yes, with all of the inter-stack loving going on and such, but they also tend to be refuges for homeless people with questionable hygiene, people who think it's fine to watch porn in public, and people who can't seem to grasp the idea of flushing after they go poop.

So, I think it's basically a toss-up, and that university libraries are probably more likely to be "sexy" than public ones, at least where I live, where we have one of each. But that's just one man's opinion.
posted by elder18 at 10:03 AM on May 3, 2011


The undergrads at University of Chicago spend a good deal of time having sex in the stacks of the Joseph Regenstein library...

Not just University of Chicago.

Ah, those were the days....
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:11 AM on May 3, 2011


At the University of Denver, where I work, there's a big fuss right now over an upcoming renovation to our library that will remove 80 percent of the books and replace them with "group space, seating and technological capacity. Chalk graffiti on the sidewalks today reads "KEEP THE BOOKS."
posted by Clustercuss at 10:43 AM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Heh:
"Output was how many books we'd stamped out, and outcome was something that had actually resulted from someone borrowing a book. So say someone took out a book on mending cars and then drove the car back, that's an outcome; or made a batch of scones from a recipe book they had borrowed. It lasted until one of the librarians told the council they'd had someone in borrowing a book on suicide, but that they'd never brought it back. The council stopped asking after that."
posted by doctornemo at 10:53 AM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


"The pace of life is different now, and people expect art to happen to them. Music and film do that, a CD will do that, but you have to make a book happen to you. It's between you and it. People can be changed by books, and that's scary. When I was working in the school library, I'd sometimes put a book in a kid's hands and I'd feel excited for them, because I knew that it might be the book that changed their life. And once in a while, you'd see that happen, you'd see a kind of light come on behind their eyes. Even if it's something like 0.4% of the population that that ever happens to, it's got to be worth it, hasn't it?"

God, that made me tear up a bit.
posted by verb at 11:11 AM on May 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


The Eroticon of Yoryis Yatromanolakis, "done into plain English" (that is, translated) by David Connolly, contains a chapter called "Concerning Places of Travail yet likewise of Coition" whose third part concerns the library:
If you are a studious reader yet also seasoned amorist and you spend much time in reading-rooms, neglect not the benefit of knowledge nor yet the delights of Aphrodite's arts. Wherefore, avoid whatever is pedantic and insipid (for this has ruined many a scholar and tutor) and, as you have your eyes open in the books, so also keep open the eyes of your verge and your other organs. When from afar you espy and strongly smell a lady entirely engrossed in her study, yet you are impassioned by her fair figure and beset by her fragrance, straightway leave your seat and move beside her, for supposedly the lighting is poor and your vision is impaired.

When sufficient time has elapsed and your bodies become reconciled in their proximity, lift up your tome and softly and humbly ask her "My studious lady, here I cannot grasp the meaning of this passage. Grant me the light of your learning and wisdom for tomorrow my Tutor will question me and revile me for my ignorance. I read in these lines, 'O feet, o legs, o thighs for which I justly died, o buttocks, o bosom', and I understand all these, yet that 'O comb' I fail to comprehend its meaning. Does it mean, I wonder, the comb in her hair. Yet I deem it unbecoming for the poet to enumerate a trinket together with her physical charms. Or is it that this too is a true part of her body?" And, so saying, move yet closer to her and boldly clasp her foot and say "Regard the foot". And similarly clasp the flesh of her legs and thighs that inflame you, and her flanks and breasts to their very milk, and say to her "Regard these your limbs, yet your comb I see not, and who will show me, ignoramus that I am, if not you who are most fair and wise!"

Ply her then with blandishments and lead her to a secluded and quiet reading room and bare her to the roots of her hair. Thereupon, remove all your own garments and place these either upon the desk together with the open lexicons and reference books or beside the desk that they may serve as a place of learning and study. Thus, when you study her ala recto, viz. wide-open and from the fore, and you riffle through her beside the Mega-Lexicon of the Greek Language, be sure not only to grasp her points but also to learn by heart her passages, and digest everything learnedly and comprehensively through your sense and likewise through your sensibility.

And when you journey down from the upper to the lower and come to the place commonly known as the Mound of Venus (or in dialect as the Mount) and you stoop and fully savour the parched and wooded areas, bring your tongue and dip in to the Greek fonts, in the hollows and fragrances that in older times were known collectively as the Wide Straits. And as you drain and comb the reefs, you will feel, being as you are a linguist and lover of Greece, the teeth of her comb opening melodiously like the comb of a loom or lyre, or like the bivalve marine mollusc. And since you are by nature conscientious and studious, bring your member to her comb, saying "O my Coiffeuse and Instructress! Regard how I am unkempt and dishevelled and the time for the lesson is nigh and how shall I enter thus untidy into my Tutor's class? Pray do not refuse to groom me and comb me diligently and carefully to my roots." And take up your member, aroused and agitated as it is, and prudently insert it between the teeth of her comb and do not end your lesson in the art of beautification save only after the passing of two hours of undisturbed instruction and three intervals.

Should you study her ala verso, viz. from the back, the rear and the rump, do not neglect to examine all her passages, the difficult and the meaningful, for the beginning of all wisdom is in the examination of terms. And when you have pored over every margin and lacuna with touch, taste and smell, have her assume the posture of the sphinx and proceed as above. And when you are thoroughly combed and spruced, take your fair instructress and dress her diligently and comb her fine hair and present her with all your lexicons and volumes, now useless, yet give praise to her, for you were unlearned and learned, ungroomed and were groomed. Then again shut yourself up in your study and investigate your life alone, till deep into the night.
posted by kenko at 11:28 AM on May 3, 2011 [10 favorites]


*fans self*

Thank you, Kenko.
posted by gillyflower at 11:34 AM on May 3, 2011


Now I don't feel quite so, well, OUT THERE, for having had nookie in two separate libraries.

And that's actually a bit of a shame; a rather boring, 40-something woman wearing sensible shoes should have something a little OUT THERE about her.

Then again, my shoes are purple, so that's something.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 12:09 PM on May 3, 2011


Then again shut yourself up in your study and investigate your life alone, till deep into the night.

Well, at least I do this part right.
posted by Errant at 2:21 PM on May 3, 2011


I dunno, this is a well-meaning article with its heart in the right place, but the gushing remarks about the 'churchiness' of libraries and the 'deep soft silence produced by so many layers of print' make me wonder whether the author has ever visited a public library in the last twenty years. I also get the feeling she isn't convinced by her own rhetoric:

[Collins] says that reading seems to be becoming an increasingly alien concept for children. "The pace of life is different now, and people expect art to happen to them. Music and film do that, a CD will do that, but you have to make a book happen to you. It's between you and it. People can be changed by books, and that's scary. When I was working in the school library, I'd sometimes put a book in a kid's hands and I'd feel excited for them, because I knew that it might be the book that changed their life. And once in a while, you'd see that happen, you'd see a kind of light come on behind their eyes. Even if it's something like 0.4% of the population that that ever happens to, it's got to be worth it, hasn't it?"

Is that really the best you can come up with? a librarian who says wistfully that 'the pace of life is different now' and maybe only 'something like 0.4% of the population' will ever get lost in a book? I mean, if that's your defence of the public library system then frankly you've already lost the argument.

Don't get me wrong, I love libraries (I should do, I work in one) and I'm dismayed by the proposed cuts. But if we're going to stop the closures we need to do better than this half-hearted apologia, with its Alan-Bennettish anecdotes about rumpy-pumpy in mobile libraries in South Yorkshire and its general sense of being a mourner at the funeral of the public library system.
posted by verstegan at 3:24 PM on May 3, 2011


I used to snog my girlfriend at school in the library at lunchtime (Hi Amanda!) because we knew nobody else would be there. That said a library without books isn't a library at all, it's just an expensive colourful room smelling faintly of tramps. If you want a community centre then have a community centre, but that's not a library any more than a bowling green is a swimming pool.
posted by joannemullen at 4:58 PM on May 3, 2011


You know, I'll say this: the "serendipitous finds" argument for libraries is largely bunk. I serendipitously find things on the Internet all the time.
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:05 PM on May 3, 2011


I used to snog my girlfriend at school in the library at lunchtime (Hi Amanda!) because we knew nobody else would be there. That said a library without books isn't a library at all, it's just an expensive colourful room smelling faintly of tramps. If you want a community centre then have a community centre, but that's not a library any more than a bowling green is a swimming pool.

I absolutely disagree with you. Also, aside from some basketcases in one of the richest areas in America, very few people are suggesting that we go without books.

A library isn't a mystic shrine to a particular container of information, it's an institution that's dedicated to all information. As times change, and these types of containers change, becoming digital, going onto the Internet, and as people recognize that communities learn as well from each other as from a bunch of dead trees, the library has to change alongside to meet the needs of its users.

I like books too. I like collocation and browsing in the stacks. I think that most serious people aren't suggesting we get rid of books altogether, but perhaps its time to take a look at what circulates, what doesn't, and make arrangements properly. It's not an easy time to be a librarian, since (as the article says) we're basically having a lot of eye-brows raised from greedy assholes who've always been able to afford every book they could want, the best college education their parents could afford, and have never lived without television or Internet. If we remain some shrine to the book (a shrine to the way that the world learned 50 to 100 years ago) then we'll die. People won't see us as being useful, and when that referendum comes up on the ballot that says "should we give you a 100 dollar per year tax break, or should we reduce hours 40% your local library system" guess which way they'll vote. They may like the idea of libraries when people poll them, but as soon as it's time to take out their wallet (so long as they see us as the place poor people get movies and books, and hobos take naps) they like us a lot less.

This report (PDF warning) explains it pretty well. From the conclusions:
Most U.S. residents are aware of the traditional ‘informational’ library services, such as books, newspapers, magazines and Internet access. Far fewer know about the many value-added and ‘transformational’ services provided by their libraries, such as teen programs, computer training and ‘English as a second language’ (ESL) classes.
Let's not even stop there. Let's talk about a library that has government liaison offices to help with immigration papers, and social security forms. Let's talk about a library that has an emerging technologies lab that lets people try out cutting edge equipment before they invest their money in buying it. Let's talk about community agriculture projects, civic engagement for retired boomers, and any of the other hundred things that people have decided to cut from our public services because they hate taxes so much. The article says it:

"Libraries are always trying to prove themselves because what they provide is so intangible. How do you quantify what someone gets from a book or a magazine?"


It's hard to quantify what we do, and maybe it's time that we started trying harder. I think the time is passing where we can just sit smart people at desks, sit smart books on shelves, and then drum our fingers while people come to us. There're too many options, and people have gotten lazy in how they get their information. We have to reach out to them, we have to get them through the door, and we have to meet their expectations to do that.

It's a tough pill to swallow, but the age of libraries being mostly about books may be passing. Books won't be gone for a long time (or ever, I think) but tying yourself to a single format is a good way to die.

Also: can we please stop the goddamn jokes about homeless people? It sucks that America is so abysmally bad at dealing with its homeless population, and usually the only route open to them is institutionalization or abusive and run-down shelters. The Library is, sadly, one of the few free places left in our society. We should be working with our homeless populations, because they're library users as much as anyone else is.
posted by codacorolla at 5:36 PM on May 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


You know, I'll say this: the "serendipitous finds" argument for libraries is largely bunk. I serendipitously find things on the Internet all the time.

I don't think you should understate the serendipitous nature of library shelving, but I also don't think it's the alpha and omega of collocation (finding similar items by their logical position on a shelf). I have no idea what the literature is like, so maybe it's already happening, but I feel like this is something that MLS programs should be researching heavily.

I also feel like we need to act. Quickly. I'm not saying we're on a sinking ship quite yet, but I am saying that we can see the iceberg.
posted by codacorolla at 5:47 PM on May 3, 2011


I loved the part about being able to tell a lot about the people who steal your library's books by what books go missing. For years, every book we had about marijuana would go, um, up in smoke. The books about gangs and gangsters, booknapped. "Go Ask Alice" - I could never keep one around long enough to find out what it was about. And the ones that are loved to death: "Mi Vida Loca," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," etc. Can you tell that I work in a high school library?
posted by Lynsey at 8:53 PM on May 3, 2011


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