Academic journal article Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services

Libraries: Strongholds and Gardens of the Imagination

Academic journal article Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services

Libraries: Strongholds and Gardens of the Imagination

Article excerpt

At a time when many people, including unfortunately some librarians, seem determined to misrepresent the literate, it is important to remember that the digitised and electronic library is not going to interest those people who are not readers already. As a place of enchantment the actual library, with actual books, will continue to work real and extraordinary magic in the 21st century. Edited version of an address given at the Alia 2000 conference 23-26 October 2000

The first library I remember was my father's, in our house deep in the green, wooded countryside of southwestern France. A great collector of books old and new, many on esoteric or obscure subjects, he had had a room set aside from the beginning in the cavernous old place he and my mother had bought when it was not much more than a haunted ruin, for just this purpose. As the house took shape again, the golden lit flesh reknitting over its beautiful stone bones, this room became a hallowed place, a place of light and shadows, cool in summer, warm in winter. Because my father is a romantic from way back, it had a fireplace and a large winged chair beside it, a desk made of fragrant Indonesian wood, quills and silver inkstand and leather bound blotter at the ready, for when note taking mania took hold of you; blue toile de Jouy curtains featuring scenes of 18th century bucolic life, a Persian carpet decorated with longtailed birds alighting in marvellous trees; and of course, books. Books in large wide open shelves of beechwood, built specially for the purpose by a local artisan with an accent so thick it sounded like he was speaking through a mouthful of the local fouasse cake; in antique bookcases with doors that were like fretted screens, so that the books behind them looked as if they were in a kind of beautiful prison; books behind glass and in sandalwood chests.

It was a place no child was ever allowed in on their own; but sometimes Papa would take you in there, sit you on his knee and read from some old collection of Perrault's stories, or the fables of Jean de la Fontaine, illustrated by Gustave Dore. Other times, he would take down the huge volume of reproductions of Hieronymus Bosch's art, and point out to his quaking offspring the hellish consequences of misbehaving, of losing your footing on the ladder of holiness, or else, driven by another mood, pull out from the sandalwood chests bound copies of 19th century magazines and read out ancient faits divers, or human interest stories that seemed, strangely enough, to pop up again from time to time, almost unchanged, in the local newspapers.

Later, as we got older, we were allowed little by little to enter the library on our own, but no book was ever to leave it. You had to read the books in Papa's library in that place only; sitting in the winged chair, or at the desk. And that seemed such an amazing privilege, such a wondrous thing.

Of course, we children had our own `library' of books elsewhere in the house, shelves crammed with the pink backed children's hardbacks of the Bibliotheque Rose, and the green backs of the Bibliotheque Verte, dogeared paperback collections of traditional stories from all over the world, and magnificent illustrated editions of the Thousand and One Nights, the Ramayana, Greek mythology; Tintin and Asterix, and, later huge 19th century novels: by Balzac, Hugo, Feval, Gautier. On those shelves were journeys and escapes and spells; but they weren't what we called the library. That word, spoken in rather overawed and excited tones, was reserved for Papa's library. In that room was all the mystery and strangeness and ordered beauty of another world; a world removed from yet strangely within the world we knew; a world you had to earn a place in, through patience and the gaining of wisdom, a world that beckoned, whose enchantment made time stand still. It is an image that stayed with me, and every time we went back to France as children--which was at last every two or three years--after having rushed around to rediscover toys and bedrooms, it was always the threshold of the library that drew me, to stand dreaming and hesitant looking in at the books, waiting for permission to be invited in. …

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