Ali Smith on public libraries: The author recalls new worlds opened by borrowing books

Smith was supposed to be writing about the Brighton Festival but instead had a flashback memory of the first time she entered a public library in Inverness

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The Independent Culture

Simon, my editor, and I had been meeting to talk about a collection of short stories I want to do, called Public Library and Other Stories. We set off on a short walk across central London to his office to photocopy some stories I'd brought with me. Just off Covent Garden we saw a building with the word LIBRARY above its doors.

It didn't look like a library. It looked like a fancy shop.

What do you think it is? Simon said.

Let's see, I said.

We crossed the road and went in.

Inside everything was painted black. There was a little vestibule and in it a woman was standing behind a high reception desk. She smiled a hello. Further in, straight ahead of us, I could just glimpse some people sitting at a table and we could hear from behind a thin partition wall the sounds of people drinking and talking.

Hello, we said. Is this a library?

The woman lost her smile.

No, she said.

A man came through from behind the partition. Hello, he said. Can I help at all?

We saw the word library, Simon said. Was this a library once? I said. She's a writer, Simon said by way of explaining. He's an editor, I said.

We're a private members club, the man said. We also have a select number of hotel rooms. I picked up a laminated leaflet from a pile on the desk about some kind of food promotion or taster deal. Simon picked up a card.

Have you actually got actual books? I said.

We do do some books as a feature. Please help yourself to a card, the man said a bit pointedly since we already had.

(Later, when I got home, I unfolded the advert I'd taken, which was for a company working with Library making meals which allowed diners to relive your favourite musicals (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory | Phantom of the Opera | Les Misérables | Matilda). I typed in the Library website address off the advert. When it came up, I noticed for the first time that a central part of the textual design of the use of the word Library was the thin line drawn through the middle of it: Library.

This what Library listed next to the photographs of its five luxurious, individually designed, air-conditioned rooms with many modern amenities and comfortable beds: • Terrace Bar • 24 Hour Concierge • Ground floor lounge with stage and bar • Massage and Beauty treatment room • Kitchen with Chef's table (April 2015) • Private Dining and boardroom with conferencing •Double mezzanine with bridge • Smoking Terrace • Access to rare Library books).

Simon pocketed the card. I folded the advert about the food promotion into my inside pocket.

Thanks very much, we said.

Then we left. We crossed the road and stopped on the pavement opposite, where we'd first seen the word above the door. We looked back at it. Simon shrugged.

Library, he said.

Now we know, I said.

"I call it an arsenal, for books are weapons, whether for war or for self-defence," Edward Bulwer-Lytton said in 1852 at the opening of Manchester's Free Public Library, " …what minds may be destined to grow up and flourish under the shade of this tree of knowledge … you of the present generation have nobly done your duty and may calmly leave the result to time, sure that you have placed, beside the sorrows, the cares, and passions of this common sense life, the still monitors that instruct our youth, that direct our manhood, and comfort our old age."

That was then. This is now : a couple of months ago I happened to be at a books event where an important man made a speech about how, now that so many public libraries were closing, maybe coffee shops were the replacements for libraries, since people often tended to read in coffee shops. A low growl went through the room under the high champagne fizz: it was the growl of protection, the growl of writers and readers.

I'm supposed to be writing this column about something else: I'm doing some guest curating for the Brighton Festival this year. It's England's biggest cross-arts festival, it starts on Saturday 2 May and it lasts for three weeks. Three weeks of glorious talks and shows and spectacle and drama and dance and music. But that I've ended up writing about libraries is not quite so offbeam, because when I sat down with the brilliant programming teams last autumn to help put together a wishlist for the festival – a real gift of a job – I had a distinct flashback memory of my first time, as a small child, entering the public library in Inverness, where I grew up. That all this was possible! That these long shelves went through time, and all over the world, maybe even beyond the world.

Our festival theme is the crossing of, the melting away of, the divisions between the arts, and if I have to point anyone towards just one event at this year's Festival, it's Mabou Mines, the avant-garde New York theatre company, which is bringing Lucia's Chapters of Going Forth by Day, about Lucia Joyce, James Joyce's dancer daughter, who grew up in Paris and had much to do with her father's work, especially his final masterwork, Finnegans Wake. What a strange tough life she had – a sufferer of severe mental disorder, she spent much of her later decades in an asylum, and this production is unmissable, I think, not just because the great Maria Tucci is taking the central role, but because a couple of years back I saw Mabou Mines's version of Ibsen's A Doll's House at that other great annual UK festival in Edinburgh, and it was so inventive, so wild and brave and original, that if I'd had the money (I didn't) I'd have crossed the world just to see it again and again, wherever it was playing.

What's this got to do with those original division-melting places otherwise known as public libraries? Well, nothing, other their being the reason and the place (since I didn't have the money) I first ever read anything by Ibsen, I first dared take the Wake off the shelf, I first ever found and opened – ah, but here the list of titles and writers teems with more life and possibility than any festival ever. (Though Brighton comes pretty close.)

Ali Smith's latest book, 'How To Be Both', is shortlisted for the Bailey's Women's Prize For Fiction. She is guest director of the Brighton Festival.

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