The library might be an 'ancient creature' but it is a place where young and old minds can explore anew, writes Damon Young.
Children squealing at Kipper. A vague carpet-and-paper smell. An old man whose wheezing beats a rhythm with his walking stick. And taking up most of the clean, well-lighted room: thousands of books, like vertical colour swatches decorating the shelves.
My local library network has some five hundred thousand items. Its collection includes talking John le Carre thrillers, interiors magazines with rustic slate blue cups, novels in Greek, a Steve Jobs biography in Chinese, and a swag of comics (covered in my fingerprints, no doubt). Alongside its electronic databases and archives, it is chiefly a library in the old fashioned sense: a storehouse of codexes.
This institution, the bibliotheca, is an ancient creature, born when books were as rare as readers. But even today, when more books are published every year than once existed in the whole of ancient Athens, the library keeps this mood of specialness: a house of words, quietly savoured.
As a public library, it is rightly subsidised by people, for the people. Rich or poor, young or old, anyone can join the library for free, and partake in the commonwealth of literature.
This seems to run up against my immediate financial interests as an author. Public Lending Rights dividends notwithstanding, readers borrow instead of buying. My latest book, for example, has been borrowed regularly since it was on the system. These loans seem like lost sales.
But this attitude is self-defeating. Not only do library readers often buy borrowed books for themselves and others - I do this myself - but they also contribute to what might be called an atmosphere of literary thirst. They share reveries and trivia alike; they chat and email about their favourite quotes and dialogue. Libraries provide locals with a continually refreshed stream of words: picture books, author talks, language kits. They have experts to choose just the right Mem Fox for my daughter and Batman for me. They guide patrons to ancient translations and the newest historical romance vampire fiction. ("I'm looking for something like Heyer crossed with Meyer.") These are the currents in which authors swim.
Which brings us to another virtue. Libraries are also civic sanctuaries for people. The physical spaces are vital. The light and warmth, the reading nooks, the comfortable chairs and neat cubicles - they invite patient, attentive reading and writing. They also attract play and intimacy. As I write, a grandfather is saying "B for 'bird', a yellow bird," to a toddler replying with "burr, burr". I have read to my daughter here countless times, often with other children sitting down and listening, open-eyed.
Libraries, in this, have an educational, but also a psychological and social, role. At their best, they provide equal support for reflective solitude and quiet company. They do what cafes have done for centuries, but they do it gratis, and with books ready to hand.
And this immediacy of books is itself vital for people, strolling along shelves together, peering at creased spines. As I have noted elsewhere, electronic books are cheap, fast and searchable - they are not cyber-demons from the future, sent to steal the scent of paper and ink. But they do not offer that frisson of discovery, as we stoop at Dewey decimal 914 and find, amongst the travel books, Robinson on literary Paris.
This is why it is vital that we, the readers, are not seduced by the idea that libraries are simply repositories of digital information; hubs for databases. These too are valuable, and this worth will increase as more books become bytes.
But we are not only minds seeking data. We are also bodies after comfort and sunlight, seekers of literary happenstance, and social animals after companionship or moments alone. For all the genuine appeal of the digital screen (upon which I am typing), we are analogue creatures too. We often thrive, not only with the right facts, but also with the right combination of curve-backed chair, wide desk, high window and nearly-silence - all alongside a stocked shelf of well-bound novelty.
It's enough to make you (quietly) squeal.
Damon Young is a philosopher and author. He will be speaking at the Sydney Writer's Festival.