WANDERING through the rows of bookshelves in the almost windowless space of my local library as a young girl, I had to find my inspiration between the covers of the books rather than the building itself, which, having been built in 1956, was somewhat uninspiring.
On reflection, was it perhaps a deliberate ploy at the time to create a stark contrast to the adventure and learning that was housed within its walls? I doubt it. That’s my vivid imagination talking. The building served its purpose, though, and although I never spent longer than I needed to in there, I happily worked my way through the plastic-covered hardback Agatha Christie novels and then I grew up and moved away.
Those books and that building, no matter its drab interior and uninviting entrance, opened my eyes to a world far beyond my own. Each book a mind-expanding private party for one.
I have spent more time in libraries since then, including grand libraries such as the British Library and Cambridge University Library, buildings so vast, serious and full of books, journals and newspapers as to be overwhelming. These are what is known as legal deposit libraries (there are just six of this kind of library in the UK and Ireland), which means they each receive around 100,000 new titles every year as copies of all newly-published works must be sent to them. They are fascinating yet intimidating places for focused research and having a plan rather than browsing without intent. Other university libraries I spent time in were so full of activity, I found it hard to focus, so geared are they towards getting work done at a rapid pace. Some local libraries I have visited, like the one I grew up with, have lacked a sense of special purpose, being thrown together rather than carefully conceived – although they do, importantly, all have books in them.
My New Year’s resolution, yes, it is that time again, is to read and write more and with this in mind, I popped into the Guille-Alles Library in Town just before Christmas.
On entering, I was initially shocked (this was, embarrassingly, my first visit) by the vast space inside. It appears so small from street level and I had to readjust my expectations immediately. The library manages to combine warmth and approachability with grandeur and prestige. I was already impressed and I had not even made it upstairs.
Having applied for membership at the front desk and while awaiting my card, I meandered upstairs and followed the fantastically informative exhibition ‘Boundless Curiosity’ inside.
The exhibition recounts in great and interesting detail (my attention span is not the greatest and it kept me engaged) the story of how the library came to be and is a story of kindness and creativity as well as loyalty to Guernsey. The 1800s were a time of such spectacular development and growth in the world that I am surprised Guille and Alles had time to consider collecting books for their island home, but I am so pleased they did. The effort and cost involved in transporting themselves and their books from New York and elsewhere would have been immense.
To gift Guernsey not only a useful and functional library but one so large and with such a beautiful design in such a prime location was beyond generous. A clear reflection of the impact reading had on the donors and how important they felt it was for others to share these experiences. We all have different experiences of books growing up and are exposed to varying amounts of information at home but never all that a library can offer. This library was created for the benefit of our community and you can feel it.
I was delighted to find light-filled rooms with students beavering away industriously in cosy nooks, other areas where children selected their favourite Christmas stories, and shelves upon shelves of carefully-curated books for the season and covering many other themes. I honestly cannot wait to get back there.
After my visit I stepped back from the entrance outside and took time to soak up the beauty of the building and reflect on just how successful Thomas Guille and Frederick Alles had been in realising their vision. Wow.
It’s 2023 (gulp) and it would be easy to view libraries as an indulgence or even a boring irrelevance in the Google age where information can be obtained quickly while walking the dog or having dinner with friends. Where most of the information we absorb is filtered for us and delivered into the palm of our hands. Where books are accessibly priced for most and many prefer to read on a Kindle or iPad. But that particular kind of quiet you can only find in a library – the almost-silent shuffling, turning of pages, the isolated cough, the muffled conversation – is therapeutic in this world of constant noise and hustle and bustle. The gentle and non-intrusive sense of community is also very much welcome after our often fractured and interrupted communal experiences of the last few years.
The library is the magical ‘silent disco’ of the literary world, although in this case, rather than everybody sharing the same music playlist and dancing together while wearing headphones so no one else can hear, in a library, with a book, this is your experience alone. A private moment in a shared space with no one to influence your involvement in the page you are reading or your interpretation of what you have read. Dancing is optional.
A good library can give you space and time to reflect, research and inform yourself, so important in this period of rapid change, debate and ongoing challenges. It can also fuel your imagination and give you a place to concentrate, free from distractions elsewhere.
Libraries are a physical representation of the knowledge we accumulate in our lifetimes and how diverse it is. It is rare that we get to visit one designed to be exactly that and yet on an accessible scale and here one is, on our doorstep. Most of us would not manage to read even an entire section of the Guille-Alles in our lifetimes and imagine the information we will never access at all. Each department, whether it be crafting, classic literature, economics or modern history has its devotees and a larger group who give it a swerve on their way elsewhere.
Most importantly, libraries such as this one are open to all and ours is free to use. This puts so much knowledge, fun, entertainment and adventure at all of our fingertips and I for one am delighted that it’s there.
Guille-Alles even gives us free access to all kinds of material online. Drawing us into its warm (and very long) arms for a big group hug, wherever we are. I’ve talked before about Guerns underselling themselves, but the way in which this library undersells itself is almost criminal.
I would have been over the moon to grow up with this as my local library and was inspired enough by the current exhibition to remind you to see it. If nothing else, the enormous, beautiful and very old bird book The Birds Of America is worth a trip in and of itself. What a spectacular piece of work.
It is customary at this time of year to reflect on what happened last year and look forward to the next. Visiting this library was a highlight of 2022 for me and in a world of very unpredictable outcomes, here’s my solid prediction for 2023. If you visit Guille-Alles this year, even if you don’t pick up a book, you won’t regret it.