Many days I pass our National Library, and I never fail to bestow a silent blessing on those who work within its rooms quietly, rendering service of inestimable value. You cannot easily measure the huge impact on society of children being encouraged to love books and reading.
I have always loved libraries. Sixty-two years have passed since I went to Cambridge and first visited the Seeley Historical Library near the Senate House. In that library I spent some of the happiest hours of my life: I can still recall the special fragrance that wafted through those corridors of books – a mixture of book-stain, old ink, ancient shelves and the apples scholars brought to eat for lunch. On those quiet Autumn afternoons I first seriously embarked on that never-ending adventure which is the search for knowledge and the discovery of new opinion.
Libraries are where language is most honoured. And language, of all the arts invented by man, is by far the most precious. W H Auden’s epitaph for his fellow poet WB Yeats tells the truth:
Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives.
The semi-literate West Saxon kings of the 10th century thought books so precious that they stored them with the holiest of their religious relics. So will libraries always be holy places and librarians their hallowed keepers.
My only fear is that in time to come libraries may become repositories not of books but, as computers inherit the world, only of databases. The thought that scholars and bibliophiles may even now be able to put whole libraries in their pockets and consult them on computer screens at home fills me with wonder but also with a degree of dismay.
And yet I know it should not. Libraries must move with technology and the times. There must have been those who hated the paperback revolution and yearned for a time when books were vellum-wrapped and bound with gilded leather.
And no doubt there were mediaeval Luddites, monks of the quill and the illuminated scroll, who tried to smash the first presses made by Gutenberg. But anything that promotes learning is immensely valuable and must be actively encouraged. I will never understand what a gigabyte is, but if the technology involved will help fill a child’s mind with knowledge then let the gigabytes multiply in all the libraries, great and small.
Yet I truly cannot believe the age of the book will ever be over. Technicians should never assume that books are merely primitive databases, ignoring their aesthetic and emotional riches. A visual display unit can be a source of erudition but it leaves out the love of a book for the book’s sake. The browsing in a book, the turning of the pages and the look and feel of them, the slight but satisfying crack of the spine are important as well as the text. There is no intimacy in a magnetic disc. A book still remains the most convenient package of pleasure, power, and enlightenment yet devised by man. And the cheapest way out of the poverty of existence – and out of the existence of poverty – is still, all over the world, good books.
But whether one is a computer buff and sees the future in terms of electronic databases, hard drives, DVDs and flash drives or whether one is an irredeemable lover of old-fashioned books standing in their shelves, row on glorious row, the objective is the same: knowledge and peaceful entertainment for as many people as possible.
And libraries will serve that purpose as they have done in every land from time immemorial. In our country, in our age, reading must be freely available to all. Open access to education, information, and literature as offered by public libraries is one of the keys to a civilized and democratic society. In the 14th century Lollards died for the right to read their own books in their own language.
Andrew Carnegie, founder of libraries in countries all over the world including Guyana, wrote that “Libraries are entitled to first place as institutions for the elevation of the masses of the people.” That is simply another way of expressing the exhortation which urges “empowerment of the people.”
I am not sure what happened in the end of the One Laptop Per Family programme. But it seemed to me that it had the potential, if efficiently implemented, to transform society – especially if it could help bring home to all those who benefited from the programme a great hunger for the written word, computerised in the beginning but gradually building into a larger love of reading books on kindle or ipod or – my own old-fashioned preference – from shelves in a much expanded national library system.