Library photoSimon Schama writes eloquently about libraries, at a time when they seem to be under threat. When I was a child, I was left one afternoon a week at the British Council library. It was the highlight of my week, and the smell of a library still evokes hours of contented browsing and reading. And there is a very special place for them, especially in today’s hyperconnected world.

“Isn’t the book that changes your life, or at any rate your mind, the one sitting on the library shelf next to the one you thought you’d wanted? But such serendipity of adjacency can only happen in an open stack library. …

“Years ago my trawl of histories of the Battle of Hastings was distracted by a slim volume on the medieval horse. Equitation was not uppermost on my mind, but the briefest dip into its pages gave me the information that explained the outcome of the battle. …

“Such random insights can’t happen in an online search because your engine has too doggedly literal and narrow a view of what you’re seeking. You ask for revolutions and you get French, Russian, Chinese, Cuban. What you don’t get is etymology and the revolutions of the spheres. But the long, dimly lit galleries of a library’s open stacks are invitations to wander away from the subject as you thought you’d defined it; the end of one aisle revealing an opening to yet another further away from the door.”

Published in the Life and Arts section of the Financial Times, 29 April 2016. I tried linking to the article but couldn’t. So I’m putting in the Google link, which should lead you to it: https://www.google.ch/search?q=simon+schama+on+london+library . Happy reading!

Photo by SusanAstray (via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).