Dublin Book Festival preview: Nuala O’Connor, who will be speaking at the Dublin City Public Libraries Readers' Day at this year's Dublin Book Festival, writes for RTÉ Culture about the joys of the local library: 'a community and cultural hub, a centre of joint learning and camaraderie...'
We didn’t have a library in the town in Dublin where I grew up. It seemed wrong to me, a bookish child, not to have a library on my doorstep. But there was one two towns away that we visited when we could. And I loved my trips there – the particular smell of the place, the quiet atmosphere, the rows of books lined up for the taking, the possibility of it all.
The library is a place of democracy, a private university for those who can’t afford to go to college.
Library smell is as intoxicating to me now as it was when I was a child. Vladimir Nabokov wrote ‘...nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.’ When I step into a library – we have a magnificent one where I live now in Galway – I am sent to a place of comfort by that bookish, woody smell that libraries hold. It’s a smell that reeks of promise and offers peace.
Like the place that houses them, library books have their own patinated, friendly smell, something like grass, vanilla and a clean must, if such a thing exists. These borrowed books are different to the books we own – their pages are softer, worn in by the dozens of hands that have cradled them before us. Sometimes they contain intriguing bits of detritus from former borrowers: a receipt for a long-gone café, a scribbled shopping list, a tassled bookmark, lovingly used, but forgotten when the book was returned.
Many years ago I worked as a bookseller – it was a great job: my colleagues were bookish and fun; we got to hand-sell our favourite reads to customers; we talked about books all day. It wasn’t a job I left easily but, when I did, it was to work in a library. It was a specialist one, in a university, but it still maintained that lovely, hushed, reverent attitude to books that you find in all libraries.
I am sent to a place of comfort by that bookish, woody smell that libraries hold. It’s a smell that reeks of promise and offers peace.
And this is why the library is so important: the respect for books is total because books are its business, they are literally the most crucial thing. The library is a place of democracy, a private university for those who can’t afford to go to college. But lately they are more than this too: the library is now a community and cultural hub, a centre of joint learning and camaraderie. My local library has two book clubs as well as weekly computer and crochet classes. It’s a Europe Direct information centre and it holds an annual Summer Stars Reading Programme for kids. It hosts art exhibitions and lectures in its vast gallery space. Our library is a place where schoolchildren are regularly brought who might not normally have access to books that have nothing to do with schoolwork, a place for them to learn the rewards of reading solely for pleasure.
Virginia Woolf said libraries are ‘full of sunk treasure’. I can think of no better gift for child or adult than to give them a library card, so that they can haul up some of that treasure and enjoy the varied riches of a good book.
Nuala O'Connor's new short story collection Joyride To Jupiter is out now - Nuala is participating in the Dublin City Public Libraries Readers’ Day at this year's Dublin Book Festival, which runs from November 2nd-9th - more details here.