Culture House Daily

The death of the reading library

7 May 2014

‘Quiet Zone: No Laptops Please’. So read the paper signs stapled as an afterthought in a dust-cloaked corner of the Radcliffe Camera. The Rad Cam is the magnificent Palladian dome at the heart of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Set in sunlit Radcliffe Square, and surrounded on all sides by gargoyles, pinnacles and the city’s dreaming spires, it coruscates greatness. From the cobblestones below, one cannot help but feel that one is looking at the very apotheosis of the thinking world. What isn’t obvious, however, is that the Rad Cam is actually a symbol – albeit a very well-disguised one – of the death of a cherished cultural institution: the reading library.

Libraries used to be for reading books. But these days, they seem to cater to everything but. In most libraries, readers are second-class citizens. The first time I entered the Rad Cam I was deaf-struck by the sound of heavy rain echoing cacophonously about its gilded interior. That’s odd, I thought, it was sunny outside. And I was right – it was sunny outside. Looking around, I realised with a lurch of despair that it wasn’t rain causing the clamour, but a legion of automaton-like students typing robotically away at their laptops. I expected the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but instead I got my grandparents’ conservatory on a May Bank Holiday.

The Bodleian Library, like many other libraries, has fallen before the onslaught of computers. The symphony of boot-up noises and clunky hardware is all-pervasive. No reading room is free of the tap-tap-tap of student typing. At best, a few desks are perfunctorily designated a ‘Quiet Zone’; but even when these areas exist, they are rarely policed (brazen laptop-users, like gas molecules faced with concentration gradients, have a knack of neutralising all hitherto uncorrupted spots).

To use the library for its traditional purpose – reading corporeal tomes in peace and quiet – is to brand oneself as an eccentric. The desks, shoved on top of each other and blinking with banks of plug-sockets and Ethernet cables, appear to have been designed precisely to deter this sort of madman from encroaching upon the Macbook’s hallowed turf. You are allowed to read; but the din and the flashing laptop-lights mean that you need cloth-ears and nerves of steel to do so.


The Bodleian Library is but one example of this phenomenon, and it isn’t even the most egregious. In 2012, Wellington College gained notoriety for transforming its traditional library into a ‘Centre for Research and Innovation’, wherein its collection of 18,000 books was replaced by a cache of iPads, Kindles and laptops. Students who, in previous years, may have expected their school library to offer a sanctuary from the indulgent screen-economy permeating the rest of their lives suddenly found themselves further enslaved to it – and by their librarian, of all the culprits!

Wellington is an extreme case. Most libraries, however tech-centred, do still give a cursory nod to the traditional model of book-stacks and reading desks. But the balance between books and technology is tilting perilously. Recently, my local council library adopted the ominous new name ‘Library and Registration Services’, and replaced a large section of book-shelves with what appeared to be a GCHQ sub-station. The place is always fairly busy: children play, adults chat, computers whir and printers loudly choke out documents. Yet the one activity conspicuously – and now predictably – absent is the unadulterated reading of books.

I enjoyed going to the library when I was growing up. It offered to my youthful mind the heady promise of intellectual sophistication, knowledge and awesome quiet. But now, divorced from its original telos as a place for people to read books, it has metamorphosed into something little more sacrosanct than a petrol station.

And what has become of the old royal, state and church libraries? Once at the vanguard of culture and scholarship, these libraries – glorious institutions such as the Prunksaal in Vienna, the Escorial in Madrid, the Joanina in Coimbra – now sit fossilised, like dinosaur skeletons, in the sterile museums that have been created around them. Though physically intact, their purpose has been radically subverted. Our attitude to reading books is reflected clearly in our attitudes to these sorts of libraries. We view them as we would view an antique roller-coaster: curiously, but with absolutely no intention of trying it out.

Thus, the library is no longer a place where people go to read books. In the case of the Bodleian, it is where they go to be entranced by their laptops; in the case of the local, it is where they go to print out their CVs; in the case of the Prunksaal, it is where they go to gawk at the decadence of the Habsburgs; and in the case of Wellington College, it is where they go to do goodness knows what. These are important services that ought to be provided for – but not necessarily by libraries.

Something important is lost when libraries cease to serve those who want the honest pleasure of settling down at a desk in a silent room and opening up a book. Computers dominate so many other aspects of modern life that the library is the natural counterpoise – a place where one should be able to disconnect, shake off one’s wireless shackles, and enter onto a more cerebral plane. Would that librarians had the courage to ban computers from their fiefdoms. Alas, the tech bug has metastasised to where it shouldn’t have. And as I sit here, in the Rad Cam, my typing merging hypocritically with the general patter, dust continues to accumulate on the bookcase next to me.

Sam Williams is reading for a degree in political theory at Oxford University.

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  • Alexianne

    My dear fellow, you are absolutely spot on. The aggressive erosion of libraries as a hallowed domain of learning, thinking, reflecting, contemplating and being silent is a dangerously short-sighted social trend. Only when they have all been turned into glorified internet cafes will we realise the folly of our collective contempt towards them. The problem is, this regret/nostalgia is a sentiment destined only ever to be narrowly-shared. Most people nowadays – including, especially, people who work in public and social services (and who therefore hold the germane levers of power) – are steeped so thoroughly in the simplistic ideology of ‘technology good, traditional stuff bad’ that they will never be brought to reason. Libraries are doomed to destruction under the stewardship of people who are undoubtedly well-intentioned, but who are nonetheless the very worst people for the job: people who have a vested interest in improving ‘access’ to their demesnes; who have been schooled relentlessly in the virtues of digital technology; who are inherently suspicious of institutions that yield even the faintest trace of ‘elitism’. When the last library falls, a few of us will be sad, and will grasp that something profound has been lost. But for everyone else – those who have overseen and participated in the iconoclasm – it will represent a victory; an important step towards the expurgation of all simple, old-school erudition from the world. If I ever make a lot of money, I will donate a significant chunk to a library somewhere: on the strict condition that it remains, in perpetuity, a wifi/computer-free zone.

  • Marie Louise Noonan

    Won’t somebody think of the Librarians?

  • Picquet

    Well done for your final, honest sentence. The truth is, of course, that such institutions have become more in the way of museums as the information they contain is made more accessible. It is one of the few Great Changes that I am willing to subscribe to!

  • Paul Burgess

    Believe it or not, many people still have no internet access at home. Libraries have always served a function as a place of education and information provision. The Government positively encourages people to use their local library for free universal internet access (necessary today to claim benefits or renew passports, driving licences etc.) A balance has to be struck between allowing people freedom to read in peace and quiet (which I adore) and to be a fully particiipating member of the internet world.

    • Moderator

      According to official stats, 80% of households had internet access in 1212. With smartphones and the large increase in tablet computers, I expect that figure is now higher. That is not ‘many people’ without internet at home, it is a minority. Am guessing those without internet access at home are either uninterested, too poor or too remote.—households-and-individuals/2012/stb-internet-access–households-and-individuals–2012.html

      • carlio ADR

        Many is not most! And yes, they might be too poor to get internet. But isn’t that why we have public libraries in the first place? So that less well-off people can access books and information they cannot afford? I do not understand what you are trying to suggest.

  • James Hannam

    Then join the London Library! We have over a million real books and anyone can join. The Library has a central London location in St James’s Square and our main reading room is for reading only – no laptops. The Campaign for Real Libraries could start here.

    • Cooper1992

      Sir your library looks wonderful.

      The backbone of England is our literary and educational culture, built up throughout the 19th and 20th centuries by a voracious appetite to read.

      Unfortunately computers and the internet have damaged this appetite, and made the English people worse for it. Many young people will struggle to read one book in a year, and I know university students who don’t read now, they just search and glide. Our concentration levels, and educational levels, are plummeting.

      I do find it a shame though that even your library seems to have some computers (or are they just for searching?). A ban on all computers with internet access, as well as mobile phones will be a step in the right direction for libraries across England.

      I am not a Londoner, so will not be able to visit your library, but I would definitely support a ‘Campaign for Real Libraries’. Good luck.

      * Oh and by ‘reading’ I meant books, not Twitter and The Sun.

    • Ricky Strong

      Now that certainly looks worth a visit, and a campaign to boot worth fighting for. I shall gladly share that link for you.

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