Today’s post comes for our ILN Country Coordinator for the UK, Helen Murphy.
Until a few months ago I spent quite a lot of time working in an Elizabethan chained library. (No kidding). It’s the Old Library at Trinity Hall in Cambridge. It was built in 1590, and was basically untouched ever since: everything was original. It was built according to a medieval design, so it looked a bit like a chapel. It had custom-made bookcases, in fabulous condition, many (now exceedingly rare) chains intact, holding about six thousand old or rare (or both) books, lots in their original bindings, lots utterly precious. Wanna see?
It’s gorgeous, innit? Part of my job included taking visitors round the library and its collection. Inevitably, on these tours, someone would comment on how much they envied me working somewhere like this. They’d tell me how much the loved the smell of old books, or how fortunate I was to spend so much of my time there.
The truth was that, lovely as it was, the library could’ve quite easily doubled up as a refrigerator. Which is ironic, because you really, really couldn’t take any food in there. It was so cold, with barely any natural light, and as soon as it started going dark outside (which, in the UK, is October), it was spooky, in a creaky sort of way.
There’s no denying its beauty. And I did really enjoy showing people round. But as a place to work and, by extension, as a place to study, it was utterly impractical. (The students at the college, by the way, had a lovely modern library to work in, with all mod cons, like electricity and chairs).
However, I know I’m meant to be writing about my favourite library *space* so I dutifully researched (OK, I dutifully Googled, which is almost sort of practically the same thing) pretty libraries and COR BLIMEY there are some stunners out there. There are a lot of beautiful, opulent libraries knocking about. But as I was being appropriately impressed I couldn’t help but wonder if they might be, secretly, as impractical as where I used to work.
So that made me think I should only choose libraries I’ve actually used–sat in, studied in for hours, scoured the shelves of, queued up at the photocopiers of–and, if I’m honest, none have been beautiful. Aesthetically speaking, that is. Some of them were a bit shabby, to be frank. I’ve never studied in places where the quality of the finish on the tables knocked my socks off. They’ve never had atriums grand enough to satisfy Caligula, nor furnishings so swanky that I’d been led to wonder whether it’s modern art…or a swivel chair. I remember being thrilled when I got to work at a desk which had ITS OWN LAMP. Lap of luxury, that is, individual lamps.
But they’ve had reasonable enough temperatures, good collections, decent facilities and, most importantly of all, supportive, knowledgeable, engaged staff. If I had to pick one, and I’m going to at least pretend I’m playing the game and do so, I’d say St Mary’s College Library in St Andrews. It’s where I was an undergraduate. It wasn’t the prettiest library in the world but it’s the only one I’ve ever used (as a student, and not a librarian), where I was on first name terms with the staff–and not even because I was badly behaved. They knew all the students, what modules we took, when our deadlines were. They used all this knowledge to make the library brilliant. And that–well, now, that’s my favourite feature.