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William Baeck: Writing & Photography


The Maida Vale Library:

An Interlude

God bless Ben Franklin. In 1731, he and his friends, called the Junto, formed the first public subscription library, called The Library Company of Philadelphia. Members could purchase shares in the company, which in turn gave them the right to use the library and download—sorry—borrow books. This was the first public lending library in the U.S. and it is still around today.

Being an intensely practical sort of genius, Franklin spent his free time from then on inventing everything else anyone needed to use a library: his almanac a year later and autobiography (1791) to stock it with, the long arm (1786) for reaching any copies that were stacked on high shelves (“because old men find it inconvenient to mount a ladder or steps”), bifocals (1760s) enabling these aged patrons to read into their dotage; he discovered cooling by evaporation (1758) to cool borrowers on hot days, and invented the Franklin stove (1742) to warm them on cold days, the lightning rod (1750) to prevent libraries from catching fire during thunderstorms, and the fire department (1736) in case his stove or lightning rod failed to perform up to expectations, as well as fire insurance (1757) if the fire department didn’t arrive in time. He even invented the flexible urinary catheter (1752), presumably for long study sessions and because he hadn’t invented the public toilet.

What I’m trying to say here is that a decade before the American Revolution, Ben had gotten the whole library thing pretty much sewn up, packaged, and sold to the North American reading public as a going concern. But even though he spent 16 years living in London before he sailed back home to help invent a new nation—or perhaps because of it, the Brits just never seemed to have warmed to Franklin’s concept of a proper public library.

In London, from what I can tell, they know how to write books better than just about anywhere else, but don’t know what to do with those books once they’ve written them. A few very lucky books, hardily swimming upstream to make their way to the vast open sea of readership, make it into the British public library system. There they are housed in what are often very elegant buildings featuring carefully undertrained staff who await—though rarely wait upon—an underutilizing public.

The city of Westminster in London has twelve branches of public libraries. Like the twelve tribes of Israel, that equates to about one branch per half-million followers. One of those branches, the Maida Vale Library, was just two short blocks from our front door on Sutherland Avenue.

Being in London, which was for me the center of the printed world, I had expected that its libraries would mirror the wealth of literature there, dazzling yard globes reflecting the garden of English prose. What I found instead in Maida Vale was an amiable 1900’s brick-and-columned exterior housing a slightly shabby branch library. Worse yet, unheedful that a library is at its heart a house of ideas, the librarians there seemed to have little idea of how to run one.

The first time I realized this was on a wet London evening when I entered with a book I’d just finished, a fat, black doorstop called Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: A Novel. There was no drop box for returning books. Not outside, not inside. Instead, patrons waited in the long, slow checkout line, removing their coats as they overheated while they waited, a line that changed by so gradual a process it seemed to moult rather than move, a monstrous snake shedding its Burberry skin as it slithered its way toward the checkout desk. Once at the front of the line, patrons would gaze down at the bundle swaddled in their overcoat and either check it out or return it. In the latter case, they’d announce, “I’m returning this.” The checkout librarian would then relieve them of their book, sigh a slightly disappointed, “All right,” and place it gently next to her on the floor, as if each return represented a failed relationship, the end of an affair between reader and book.

When it was my turn, I asked Maida Vale’s checkout librarian, an émigré with tea-colored hair and a soft Slavic voice, “Why don’t you have a ‘Book Returns’ box by the front door? That way people could drop them off without waiting in line or interrupting you from checking books out.”

“We don’t have that,” she responded. That was all. She needed no reason why there should not be a return box. There was no return box. There never had been a return box. There never could be a return box. There was no thinking about, let alone outside of, the box.

In place of the box was waiting in line, the most recurrent shared experience in London. Everyone in London eats at least three times a day, uses the bathroom twice that, and waits in line twice that. Waiting, in the British mind, is a kind of morality play in which the pilgrimage from the back of the line to the front of the line is a linear expression of destiny, with desire at the back and satisfaction at the front. You don’t argue with destiny and you certainly don’t swap it for a box called “Book Returns.” Destiny for Londoners is something you abide patiently, overheating in your coat as you wait your turn at the checkout desk.

That was when I realized what was wrong with me. I am an American, and we are efficiency experts. We know, innately, with Franklin’s blood produced in our American marrow and pulsing through our American brains with every heart beat, how to invent a better way to do things. Right here, right now. For Americans, invention isn’t simply a challenge, it’s our way of calling out a problem to a fight.

And so my suggestion of a return box would only have been an improvement in an American, better-time-management-equals-more-profit-to-spend-on-fast-food sort of way. As I looked at the librarian, a European well on her way to becoming Anglicized, her brown eyes seemed to hold the brief, sympathetic question, “What’s your hurry? What do you have better waiting for you than what you have standing right here in this line of sympathetic folk, in this library, in this warm Edwardian building that is kinder and more humane than the black wet crush of the streets outside?”

Perhaps she wasn’t disappointed with me after all, but only urging me to take my ease among Keats and Rushdie for a while, and when I had made my choice, to rejoin the great snake of line-waiters, the procession of pilgrims with their books huddled to their chest, waiting to borrow or return the gift of a writer’s thoughts. Meanwhile, it was only the waiting that mattered, it was only the slow journey, it was only a very English sort of life.

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