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Open Features: Three Unwritten Rules I Think You Should Know About Using Your Library

Nilam Ashra-McGrath brings entertaining thoughts on how to use your public library in this modern age.

At Hudderfield Library recently we celebrated World Book Night two days early and during the day. Hereís an edited version of my reading, taken from The Living Library:

If you think back to when you went to the library as children, youíd be forgiven for thinking that libraries have changed beyond recognition. The buildings remain the same Ė big and imposing, or small and intimate. And perhaps the decor remains the same, with yellow, peeling walls coupled with a familiar smell that lingers. Yet all of this is largely cosmetic.

Visiting the library is different now, and itís different because the rules of using your library have changed. By rules, I donít mean the number of forms you have to fill in, or how to book yourself time on the computer, I mean the Unwritten Rules. So, to help you make sense of these rules, Iíve put together a list of things I think you should know, helpfully titled: 3 Unwritten Rules I Think You Should Know About Using Your Library (It Wasnít Like This In My Day).

Rule No1: pretend to be silent without actually being silent. Remember when libraries used to be sanctuaries, places of quiet reverence where the hushed tones and the sleepy atmosphere helped cure your insomnia? (Going to the reference section of Leeds Library is like drinking a warm cup of milk before going to bed.) Remember when you darenít breathe for fear that just the sound of your breath would make heads turn? And not just any head turn Ė no Ė what really frightened you was turning the head of the librarian, making her eyes bulge out of her head in disapproval. Then youíd suffer the humiliation of being told to SHUSH; a simple sound that held so much power and brought so much shame. Remember the sanctuary of it all? Libraries are still sanctuaries, but now they come with a cloud of white noise, what I like to call Ďnon-silenceí silence, that wasnít there 20 years ago. This includes, and is not limited to, sounds of the tap-tap-tapping of keyboards, mobile phones buzzing, and entire conversations happening for what seems like hours on end. The noise is endless, but itís an unwritten rule now that being silent actually means having a conversation. So now you know that next time you visit the library, the rule is: pretend to be silent without actually being silent.

Rule No2: make sure you have the right equipment for visiting your local library.

The only thing I needed to bring with me to my library as a child was a 10p piece in case of emergencies. On the odd day, Iíd have a pencil case. But now you need a bit more if youíre to make the most of your visit. The right accoutrements will make your visit to the library much more efficient. Youíll need 4 things in particular:
1. A phone. Why would you need a phone I hear you ask? Well, you have to pretend to be silent donít you? And what better way to do this than shout ĎIím in the library, I canít talk nowí and then just have your conversation anyway?
2. Bags, assorted. Bags are good for hiding things in, and for putting other bags inside them. You can kid yourself, and others, by thinking youíll need a bag for putting your library books in, but really you need them for the third thing, which isÖ
3. Food. You definitely need food for the library, preferably something that involves licking your fingers clean. And thatíll just make you thirsty, so the final thing you need isÖ
4. A drink. The slurpy kind that comes in Ďsuper-size meí buckets. Fluorescent colours are best if you want lots of attention and enjoy the sound of pensioners tutting through their dentures.

So, thatís your accoutrements sorted.

Itís not just what you bring to the library that is subject to rules. Itís also what you use it for, which brings me to the third and final rule:

Rule No3: donít bother with books, thereís better things to be getting on with.

As a child, I used the library to read mysteries about missing pets and to play on the cushions in the childrenís library. As a teenager, I used it as place to do my homework in peace, and to complete my university applications in private, so I tend to recognise this in others when I see patrons making use of the library in similar ways. But what else do you use the library for?

It appears that some people think that itís perfectly acceptable, romantic even, to meet at the library for clandestine love trysts. I didnít know where to look whenever I accidently stumbled on an amorous couple. Thereís some serious smooching going on amongst the stacks. On one occasion, I even saw a box of Milk Tray being presented to a girl by her suitor, and she started cooing at him and fluttering her eyelashes. Poor girl, I thought, Milk TrayÖ I hope for her sake heís managed to upgrade to the vastly superior Thorntons range.

What I also saw was that people use the library as a port in a storm, and thereís more about that in the book. So, these are the unwritten rules, for now at least:

Rule No1: pretend to be silent without actually being silent.
Rule No2: make sure you have the right equipment for visiting your local library.
Rule No3: donít bother with books, thereís better things to be getting on with.


The aim of these rules isnít to mystify, theyíre just there to help you make sense of a diminishing world. Donít let the changes happening to your library put you off using them, just make use of your library while you can.

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