There was a bad joke that did the rounds soon after his election about George W. Bush going to a library. “I’ll have a big mac and a large fries,” he says.
“Mr President”, says the librarian, aghast, “this is a library”.
“I’m very sorry,” he says. Then he whispers, “I’ll have a big mac and large fries”.
The joke always seemed to say more about what people thought of libraries than it did about the incumbent of the White House. Libraries were stern and forbidding places.
The library at the grammar school was dark and gloomy; high shelves filled with books that had been unopened in years The librarian set out to be intimidating. Each class of new arrivals in the school were subjected to similar treatment. A library class was timetabled once a week, and the first session in the first week of first year followed a similar script. The class would enter the library in absolute silence and then the librarian, a woman who could have sung tenor, would stand up and glare at the assembled eleven year olds. There was never a word of greeting or welcome, instead she would tell everyone how to spell her name; it was French. Her voice would boom out, “Small ‘d’, small ‘e’ capital ‘s'”. On reflection, the similarity of her name to “de Sade” may have given her a complex that compelled the odd opening to the year. Whatever the reason for what was strange behaviour even in the 1970s, the library became a place to be avoided except when the timetable required our presence.
The experience of the library at sixth form college had hardly more an auspicious beginning. The librarian handed a registration card across the counter. Not having the tidiest handwriting, completing the registration in neat block capitals seemed wise. The librarian snatched the card back. “You’ll have to learn to write faster than that if you think you are going to pass A levels”. It was the beginning of an unhappy relationship that lasted the two year duration of the course.
By the time university was reached, libraries had become automated places. Access was not past a glaring librarian but through an electronic barrier. Library staff were remote people engaged in tasks that seemed to demand their fullest possible attention. In a university hierarchy where undergraduates had a status similar to algae in the evolutionary process, to have disturbed the researches of some of the staff members would have been an unthinkable
act of anarchy.
On the day when the A level results are published in England, I thought back thirty years to the corresponding day in 1979. Had I spent more time in the library and less time in the canteen, my results may have been very different. But had the library been as welcoming as the canteen, perhaps there would have been more inclination to go there.
Maybe academic libraries have changed beyond recognition in the years since. Maybe there’s no big mac and large fries, but even a friendly face would represent a revolutionary change from those years.