The Smell of Knowledge

I found myself in the library. Some twenty years after i was here last. Things have changed. I grew up with this library: adventure books with tigers and sharks, books about boats and adventure, maps and atlases, novels and dictionaries. Books to read in bed, on holiday, on long summer holidays or through the winter nights. You collected your stash, made your way to the front, where the librarian would carefully take the small card out of the front and place it in a wooden tray, slotted into a little cardboard envelope with your name on it, and stamp the book with the date of return, and the promise of a fine for late delivery.

The Smell of Knowledge

When last i was in this library, not only did i not have an iPhone, but nobody had any kind of mobile phone.Indeed, it would have been around that time that i remember being in the car with a friend whose dad was so successful that he had a phone IN THE CAR. I called my parents on it once. It was so exciting that i remember it still.

Today, the desk has gone. The cards have gone. Indeed, it seems as though the librarians have gone, replaced in their stead by a tall monolith, reminiscent of 2001, a space odyssey, more than Maureen, wielding the stamp of destiny.

Upstairs: the reference library.

If the galleries downstairs were the preserve of teenage thrillers and disposable fiction, the hallowed space upstairs was reserved for only the most serious literary investigation: encyclopaedias (remember them kids? Just Google it…), giant atlases and reams of microfiche (really tiny photos of… ok, just imagine the internet if it was printed out really really small).

It was the last desperate hope of the school project and the place to hide from figures of authority. It was the cathedral of books.

Books at Blickling Hall

Today, however, it’s the preserve of annoying teenagers with white Apple buds in their ears doing homework and two rather bored looking librarians. Barely an outdated tome in sight.

A lot has changed in the library, but one thing remains: the smell.

As i walked in the door, it hit me and took me back in a moment: the smell of books, more specifically the smell of THESE books.

I’ve since spent a lot of time in a great many libraries: from military history to research, university to cathedral, but none smelt like this one. Books, it turns out, must truly be alive.

Knowledge in books

A sign above a Brighton bookshop

Even today, even in the age of distributed knowledge, where technology connects us to co-created and crowd sourced meaning, there is something wonderful about a library. Something archaic and yet comforting.

Some libraries are throwing out books, installing 3D printers, creating play spaces and innovation labs, which is all great, but forever we must find space in our lives for cathedrals of knowledge and the reassuring smell of literature, sleeping peacefully on the shelf.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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