Do you smell that?

Michael Johansen
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It’s the scent of knowledge

The odour is unique: musty, but not unpleasant; distinctive, but not strong. It can be smelled in only one kind of place. To know it is to be among the privileged many. To know it for what it is, is to bear the mark of a lover of reading.

The odour comes from books, but not from just any books — not from new books and not from books for sale. There does have to be lots of books together: books of all different sizes, shapes and colours; books on all topics, fiction and non-fiction, new and old, popular and ignored, treasured and tattered, good and bad — all stacked together on high, crowded shelves, always moved and handled, taken out and returned, read and re-read and then read all over again.

In short, there’s nothing like the smell of a public lending library.

Ancient institution

Libraries are quite ancient, but the earliest ones were much different from those we know today. Four thousand years ago, there were no words on paper, no pages bound into books on shelves. There were only dry commercial records pressed into clay tablets and stored for the future in equally dry basements. Only the businessmen involved and a few modern archeologists were ever interested in reading them.

The Greeks of classical times were among the first to collect papyrus scrolls into private home libraries, but they would only loan them out to very close friends and even then they would ask for them back before they were finished reading them.

The Romans, who borrowed freely and unapologetically from their Greek neighbours (and conquered subjects), quickly adopted the practice of amassing private collections of written scrolls.

On shelves

Unfortunately, although Romans seemed more free and easy with their belongings than were the ancient Greeks, they still didn’t like to see their books getting out of their sight.

Rome founded many institutions, but not the public library. In fact, that big step didn’t even take place in Europe. It was in North Africa, more than a thousand years ago, where they were being set up and sponsored by mosques of the new Muslim religion. Public libraries quickly spread in all directions with the expansion of Islam — even into Asia and Europe. Most of those Islamic libraries disappeared in the violent centuries that followed, but at least one still exists in the West African town of Chinguetti, and it is still used today.

It took another 500 years for public lending libraries to appear in the English-speaking world, but once they caught on they took off like rockets.

Manchester, England, lays claim to having the oldest still open (Chetham’s Library was founded in 1653), but historic records show that the town of Bristol made arrangements to set one up more than 150 years earlier.

Canadian start

Canada didn’t wait too long to join the movement. The first in this country was established in Quebec City in 1779. The original collection still exists, but it was long ago moved to another location.

Newfoundland and Labrador’s public libraries aren’t that old, but they pre-date Confederation with Canada. Many of them owe their existence to a government act of 1935, which is why, with help from local writers whose books fill their shelves, the province’s 96 official public libraries are marking their 75th anniversary this year.

It’s a tradition and an achievement worth celebrating; a public circulating library cannot be founded for reasons of profit or power, but only to aid in the free spread of knowledge (and the pleasure of reading) to all.

That’s the cardinal rule of a public library: all books and all people are welcome.

In short, this is a good year for everybody, young and old, rich or poor, to visit their nearest public library. The books and their many gifts are waiting.

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.

Organizations: West African

Geographic location: Europe, Newfoundland and Labrador, Rome North Africa Asia England Chetham Bristol Quebec City Canada

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Recent comments

  • ed power
    October 31, 2010 - 13:34

    Michael has captured the excitement and expectation I felt when I was 10 years old and walked up to the counter at the new Arts and Cultre Centre Library with my first library card in one hand, and Jules Vernes "Journey to the Centre of the Earth" in the other. This was no puny school library with Scholastic Readers or Golden Books, this was the Big Leagues! I've visited libraries in a number of countries and still get that same feeling. I bought an old Roman coin at the museum gift shop in Palmyra, Syria, not because it had any monetary value but just because each time I touch it I think about all the times it has changed hands, how many people have held it, passed it on to their kids; how far it has travelled, who was the last person to hold it before the earthquake destroyed the city. Old books, old coins, same mysteries. Thanks again for a great column.