Credit jeevan farthing

A sociological exploration of the library

By Leah Hart

Leah dissects her personal relationship with Glasgow’s libraries, and debates their future.

Originally serving as archives, libraries have functioned as a record of humanity throughout history. Evolving from the legendary likes of the library of Alexandria to the modernist Beinecke at Yale University known as a “jewel box”, libraries have always been symbolic of knowledge and wisdom. Like churches, libraries are areas of communion and cultural renewal. During the reign of the Nazis, books and art that did not fit the mould of fascism and totalitarianism were destroyed, and libraries were replaced with propaganda. Currently, the same rewriting of ideology and history is happening in Ukraine, as Putin attempts to legitimise his war through the extermination of Ukrainian cultural records. A priceless resource, they are one of the first targets for societal disruption and censure.

Reflective of the times in which they were built, libraries are historical buildings. They are the muscle of art and industry, founded on living ideals, such as the Gothic Abbey of Saint Gall in Switzerland. The aesthetic appeal of libraries is hard to deny and is supported by the tourism generated by historic libraries, as well as the great popularity of Hogwarts-esque learning institutions (like UofG) and the dark academia aesthetic. However, modern libraries are often underfunded and depressingly uninspiring in their appearance, lacking colour and interesting texture (Glasgow libraries among them). While the University library is extensive in its resources, the building looks dark and unfriendly, saved only by its goofy sign in Arial font. 

When I first really got into reading books, I started at school, because I couldn’t stop fiddling with the shelves in this quaint room of books that I passed every day. Rows of academic journals, chunky Churchill biographies, and finally, the classics caught my eye. When I had built my appetite with the basics – Catcher in the Rye, 1984 and Jane Eyre – I connected with my local library: my soulmate, my second home and a rarity among libraries. I was instantly enchanted by the myriad of bulbs hanging from the well-lit ceiling, and the winding staircase that leads to an elevated study space overlooking the rest of the library. I have never stopped going and now I even use the ugly libraries in Glasgow, rarely paying for a book, unless it’s vintage.

In the age of digitalisation, some might say that libraries have become redundant, replaced by Google and ebooks. With Covid-19 normalising remote work and schooling, that is definitely the course humanity is taking. However, the depression and isolation placed on us by the pandemic also unearthed our deep-seated need to leave our houses regularly and get outside into nature. The University library was under high demand during the Covid come-down, and as established by daily walks, so was the vitality of nature. Alas, the West End is ruled by Byres Road and its wealth of charity shops and bookstores – even in Hillhead library’s immediate surroundings, the triggers for consumer addictions surround us. While libraries too often have uninviting architecture and dusty interiors, the Oxfam shop is satisfyingly cheap, while Waterstones is atmospheric and pleasing for a book lover’s soul. Is there hope for a comeback even in the aftermath of the pandemic, or are we too independent and online? The wonderful thing about society’s collective phone addiction is that libraries have embraced it, becoming an online platform for ebooks, music and audiobooks. Underfunded and abandoned as they might seem, libraries have moved with the times, offering DVDs and the internet to those in need. Libraries also facilitate equality, providing shelter and resources for those who otherwise cannot afford them. 

Despite the virtues of the library, the cynic in me can’t help but recognise that we humans are pack animals that emulate each other, including in our buying habits (I too own a tattoo choker). The act of buying gives you ownership and independence, while reading is what connects you with others through book clubs and online collectives, such as Booktube and Booktok. There is something about buying a book that gives you identity, whereas the temporary act of borrowing will never stick to you like the way you present yourself through your belongings. I just can’t help myself when I see those derelict first editions. 

Cicero once said: “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” While students may have to replace a garden with a daily walk through Kelvingrove Park, our own private libraries are flourishing. Perhaps at the expense of the public good that public libraries provide.


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