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.