Library Anxiety

Didsbury Library

Didsbury Library in South Manchester. Not my favourite place.

I have just finished reading The Young Atheists Handbook by my friend Alom Shaha. The book interweaves Alom’s philosophical approach to life with his experiences as a child, an adolescent and an adult. And one of the most powerful influences in his early life, was his local library. He vividly describes how it formed a kind of portal into worlds very different from that in which he was growing up.

My wife feels the same way. As she recalls her childhood visits to the library she enters a kind of blissful reverie, and recounts how if she had understood that librarians were actually paid, she might well have chosen that as a career.

My sister and brother were both bibliophiles, and as children they worked their way through the library stock like gourmands at a never-ending buffet.

But not me. From the earliest age I remember libraries being places of fear and anxiety. Libraries were places of mysterious rules and codes which you might transgress by chance at any moment. They were places where you would be fined! In short, places it would be smart to avoid. At University I only entered the library because the single precious Commodore PET computer was kept in a small room in the basement.

I would like you to know that as an adult I have managed to overcome my anxiety and I can use libraries quite proficiently. And I generally find librarians to be extremely kind and helpful people. But I have never, ever, felt that I was welcome in a library.

This may be just me, and I may be unique in this anxiety. But I have often wondered whether anyone else had felt this way. Whether anyone else had -like me – been embarrassed to mention this in the face of the glorious tales of libraries told by the literati. Perhaps someone will let me know.

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7 Responses to “Library Anxiety”

  1. teddnet Says:

    Absolutely! That was definitely me! The only book I remember taking out from my school library was a thick tome called The Manhattan Project that was my introduction to nuclear physics- very little was taught at O level and A level at the time. At university I went in and did what I had to, and even post graduate it was just a necessary chore looking up scientific papers. I never realised that this library avoidance behaviour was irrational until today when I’ve discovered there’s a fellow sufferer. I had loads of books at home, but those were MINE. Not borrowed from some stranger and to be returned at a date I was hard-wired to forget. Much of my love of biology and natural environments was perversely nurtured by an uncle who gave me a metre high stack of the American _Field and Stream_ – a hunting and fishing magazine- full of first person accounts of expeditions to wild places completely unimaginable in Hong Kong where I lived; and my grandmother who passed on her yellow shelf cancer- the National Geographic.

  2. James Says:

    The thing that I don’t understand about libraries is the policy of fining you more the longer you have a book for, making it less and less likely that they’ll actually get the book back. That said I did use them massively as a kid.

    • teddnet Says:

      It would be less understandable if you got fined less the longer you kept it.

      • James Says:

        As far as I can tell the fines at libraries are mainly about making money for the library with some function of trying to make you bring the book back promptly or at all. In order to make the most money they need to have lots of books out on loan so they need the maximum number of active customers taking out the maximum number of books.
        I find the fines are set at a high enough rate that I don’t go to the library (I’ve been stung too many times and so now don’t pay them any fines at all) – I buy books from charity shops instead. Given library usage is generally dropping it’s possible others do the same.
        If you’ve got a load of books which are weeks overdue and have racked up fines over the value of the book what incentive do you have to continue using the library if a similar thing is likely to happen again? And if you aren’t going to use the library again why would you then take the books back in order to be fined?

  3. Bernard Naylor Says:

    Michael: I’ve only just read this one and, of course, I had to rise to the bait! I loved libraries from the first date I was allowed to become a borrower, on my 7th birthday. When I was Director of Libraries at Southampton University, members of the teaching staff would sometimes ask me: ‘How is your library getting on?’ I always began my reply by saying: ‘ It’s not my library; it’s your library. I just have the privilege of looking after it for you.’ Did you ever get the feeling that what you were so fearful of entering was your library, not somebody else’s? If not, what a pity.
    At SUL we never fined readers. But we did block their borrower tickets if they kept books beyond the due date. This was not because they had offended us, the library staff, but because they were being unfair to other library users. We rescinded the block as soon as they reverted to respecting the rights of their fellow users. So far as we could determine, we were just as successful at getting books returned as fining libraries were. We tried to emphasise that a university is a community of responsible adults which can only function if we respect the rights of others as much as our own.
    We adhered to our non-fining policy even though senior people in the university urged us to fine. I always used to say that fining would favour those who could afford to pay over those who couldn’t, which was very anti-egalitarian. I used to say that fining library users really amount to an unadmitted book rental system. I said I wasn’t against a book rental system, but it would have to be separate from the ordinary library collection, funded and run within its own discrete terms.
    But I admit that I didn;t know of any other UL which adopted our policy on fines.


  4. protonsforbreakfast Says:

    Nice to hear from you Bernard. I trust you are well.
    I certainly have never had a sense that a library was ‘mine’ or that I was ‘welcome’. I understand that many people fall in love with libraries but that was never my experience, and rather than keeping quiet about it, I thought it was significant enough to mention.

    In the current context where. despite being local neighbourhood portals into a transcendent world, libraries are under threat, the experience of people who feel uneasy in libraries is probably significant. How libraries – and librarians – can get people like me to feel a sense of ownership and to feel welcome may become critical to their future.

    Your idea of not fining but suspending lending privileges sounds revolutionary and as you say indicative of a different kind of relationship between a library and its users. I don’t want to get you into trouble, but it sounds almost, well, … a little bit socialist !

    Have a lovely day: M

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