The first library I ever saw didn't have leaves or branches. It was even weirder. It had a steering wheel, a windshield, an exhaust pipe and it sat on four wheels.
It was a bus – a bookmobile, we called it. We lived in the deep boonies with no town hall, no police station and certainly no bricks-and-mortar library. So once a week, on a Thursday evening, for two hours at a time, the library came to us.
It was the first time I truly understood what civilization meant.
As I recall, you entered at the back door of the bookmobile, browsed your way down a narrow corridor surrounded by floor-to-ceiling books, and emerged, with your selections duly stamped, by the front door.
Seems almost Dickensian now, traipsing to a book wagon at a crossroads to pick up your weekly supply of words. Today the country is festooned with public libraries that border on the palatial. Heck, you don’t even have to put your shoes on – you can stay home and order books on the Internet; even download entire texts to your e-book or IPad.
I’m not the only one who’s noticed. Two independent bookstores in my town have closed this past year.
Libraries are adjusting to this new reality. Recently in the Canadian magazine The Walrus, Michael Harris wrote of his visit to the brand new City Centre Library in Surrey, BC.
From what he saw, it’s surprising the word ‘library’ made it into the official name of the building. Inside, Harris found a café, a fully-staffed recreation centre, lots of ‘interactive’ sculpture and furniture – and oh, yeah – books too.
A ‘librarian’ explained to Harris that “Our jobs are becoming more about helping newcomers with their language skills, or helping people access government services….we’re kind of social workers, actually”.
Harris interviewed the architect of the new, multi-million-dollar City Centre Library and he notes that in their conversation about the architect’s motivation and vision for the structure, the word ‘books’ was not mentioned once.
It’s the way of the world. The opening chapter of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities consists of one magnificent sentence of 120 words. We live in the time of Twitter, a communication device that allows only 140 characters.
But Dickens didn't have to contend with Hollywood, a 300-channel TV universe, smart phones and youtube,
Did you know that when Dickens was writing Great Expectations (in long hand, with a quill pen on parchment) he did it in instalments which would be duly dispatched on board trans-Atlantic ships from England to his fans in North America? Those fans would line the shore as the ship docked in New York, shouting up to those aboard such questions as “What happened to Little Nell? Does she die?”
I miss Dickens. I miss my Bookmobile too.