Reading Time: 3 minutes
Rock Road Library, Cambridge (photo: Cambridgeshire Collection)

What are libraries for? This question was prompted by being given a copy of The Library: A Fragile History (2021), by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen, for Christmas (full disclosure: I asked for it). But before reading about libraries, I thought it would be an idea to think about what the library represents today, when all books are (potentially) digital.

The perfect library, for me, is Rock Road Library, Cambridge, shown above. I was lucky enough to live (for a few months in 2017) round the corner from this quintessential branch library. Threatened with closure, like so many local libraries, the Rock Road Library acquired a group of volunteers, the Friends of Rock Road Library, who have organised any number of groups and events. The most important thing is that this library is well used. Children go to book reading sessions; adults go there, to read, to look for local services, whatever. The Friends opened a meeting room, and added a door providing direct access from the library to the garden (simple, but magic!).

One important point about Rock Road is that borrowing books, or even reading books, is not the only activity, not even, I would claim, the main activity. The library is many things, a social centre, a place for group activities, a lovely garden (I went to one of their plant sales), all based around the location, and helping to make that location meaningful. Sadly, where I live now in Norwich Street, Cambridge, is just a little too close to the centre of town to have its own branch library. But the pattern at the Central Library is rather similar. The Library is always busy, especially with students, who share their assignments and homework, and use the PCs provided. They are almost certainly not there for the books!

Academic libraries, at least the ones I’ve been able to see from the inside, seem to be similar. They all have hundreds of PCs available, and they are busy all the time, with what look to be undergraduates, but not so much with borrowing books (although I’m sure this takes place, at least for humanities students, along with the digital activities). These libraries are no doubt buzzing with social media, although that social media could be happening anywhere.

Rosemary Murray Library, Murray Edwards College, Cambridge

Of course, some academic libraries, such as the one above, have a dream-like quality, with comfy chairs, low lighting, and copies of the literary periodicals available to browse. This library is open 24 hours a day, which is perfect when you feel the urge to read at three in the morning. But these private libraries are deliberately not for everyone; they only function as they do because they have a very restricted catchment. Public libraries are open to everyone, which increases the challenges, but also the potential rewards.

So here is the paradox: in an age when books and content are available digitally, and hence location is irrelevant, the library continues to be a centre, in fact is  more of a centre than ever before. I remember my university library, when I was an undergraduate, having no social space apart from two dreadful coffee machines, and there was the feeling that any break from silent study was somehow letting the side down.

So it makes you think: if the library is now such a social centre, what could the library provide today? There are so few indoor public spaces where people can come together without having to spend money. Should we rethink from scratch what libraries are all about, starting with the space provided by the tiny Rock Road Library, and see what ideas we come up with? Even before opening the book by Pettegree and der Weduwen, I have a fear this will not be part of their remit.