Sunday, 9 October 2016

#18: My local library

Alexandra Park library, North London

To fight funding cuts and closures, libraries have been energetically trying to prove their worth over the past couple of decades. One way to do this is by using five categories of experience supposed to conceptualise informal learning – the kind that happens outside school or university. (These were developed by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Association and labelled Generic Learning Outcomes).

As a big fan of libraries, I will now try to use these categories to summarise what I remember learning over the past two years from books in five of my local libraries in North London – Southgate and Palmers Green (both London Borough of Enfield) and Muswell Hill, Alexandra Park and Wood Green (all Haringey).

Enjoyment, Inspiration, Creativity A lot. Fascinated to read about the development of writing from cuneiform on clay tablets to email in Steven Fischer’s A History of Writing (particularly liked the picture of bird bone tubes incised at regular intervals by Neanderthals paired with a picture of the ‘pictograms and pulse signals’ on the 1972 Pioneer 10 spacecraft which the designers hope will be readable by any alien life which happen to meet it). Also: Fischer’s A History of Reading; Rosemary Goring’s Scotland: The Autobiography (collection of disparate pieces written over a thousand years: funny, touching, intriguing); biography of Amy Winehouse by her father which seemed after a skim read to be a lot about attempts to help her stay off drugs; Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (an old favourite).

Knowledge and Understanding Can’t be separated from the above IMO. Felt I was getting some insight into complex physics from Steven Hawking’s A Brief History of Time since it was carefully structured, well-written and not too faux-chatty as many popular science books tend to be, which too often comes across as patronising. This was fished out of the Alexandra Park reserve collection for me a couple of times – thanks!

Activity, Behaviour, Progression Am gradually moving towards a Paleo diet (no refined carbs or sugars, no dairy) prodded partly by Daniel Lieberman’s The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease which explains how our hunter-gatherer bodies are ill matched to a world filled with chairs, sugar, lifts and shoes. It’s also a good read apart from any health changes it provokes (Lieberman is Professor of Biological Sciences at Harvard) – did you know Neanderthals’ brains were about as big as ours? Lieberman thinks they were as ‘smart’ as homo sappy but not as creative or communicative. Also got a lot from another health-related book which I would not have seen but for a display mounted at Southgate Library.

Skills Umm… struggling a bit here. Learnt a bit about putting a ‘call to action’ on your website from a marketing book whose title I don’t remember (must try that one day) and the best way to use your LinkedIn profile (reminds me, must update mine) – from Social Media for Dummies or similar.

Attitudes and values Neanderthals rocked. The medical profession should focus more on preventing illness rather than treating it.

None of this will show up on any official statistics (how can I quantify an expanded understanding of the wonderful world in which we live?). Perhaps most of what we get from books can’t be expressed simply, let alone measured. I can say though that the NHS has already saved something due to the health-related book I read (and subsequently bought a copy of) and might save more if Daniel Lieberman is right and the Paleo diet keeps people healthier for longer. 

What I particularly love about libraries is the way you discover things by accident – this doesn’t happen so much on the cookie-controlled web. It happens in bookshops too of course, but those are diminishing even more than libraries. And you are more likely to risk reading something new if you don’t have to pay out. We need paper, we need accidental discoveries. Here’s to the value of a good local.

PS Library attendance has fallen by almost a third over the past 10 years – 48.2% of adults visited libraries in 2005/6, compared with 33.4% in 2015/16, according to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. One hundred libraries closed in 2014.

Trinity College library, Dublin